I am extremely self-conscious about my appearance. This has its roots in many things, not the least of which is my anxiety which sometimes overwhelms to the point of my being incapable of attending to my physical appearance for days at a time, which only makes things worse in a lovely cycle of self-destruction. I am self-conscious because I weigh more than I want to. I certainly weigh a lot more than I did in my early twenties. My family always referred to me as the skinny one in light-hearted teasing, and while I know that for some people that can feel hurtful, I was always proud that I was a little more fit and shapely. I’m not really anymore. I do try (I run three times a week if I can help it, though sometimes I fall down on it). I’m also self-conscious because what I have considered my most attractive physical trait for my whole life is my long, black hair, braided or flowing. But I am getting older and my hairline is receding and I’m not sure if it’s as beautiful as it used to be. I’ve never been afraid of going gray. I invited that. But losing my hair hurts. I’m self-conscious because when you look at my face you can see it. I am getting older. I am approaching thirty five and that’s halfway to forty and I can’t really claim youth anymore at forty. I have been trying hard in my thirties, but there is only so much I can do.
This might make me vain and seem quite superficial, but none of these changing traits make me feel the same way my skin colour does.
I am a light-skinned Indian. This is because my father is white and I adopted a lot more of his skin-colour than my mother’s. In just about every other way, I am nearly the spitting image of my mother (shifted slightly for masculine features), but my skin is not the colour of hers. It might be a shade or two darker than your average white person, but I would be a liar if I said I was brown-skinned. I have lost a lot of colour since moving to the land-of-no-sun, but I would still be lying to you if I claimed the skin-colour of my mother at any age. I have never been as dark as she is.
And I’m self-conscious about that.
Here’s something I want to share with you that is very important for me to be clear about. I have white privilege. It is not because I am white, but rather because of my light skin. In many circles I can pass as white. I have noticed that this is most commonly true in circles which are primarily white and do not have much social interaction with Indians. The more white my community, the more privilege I receive for my light skin. Of course, it goes without question that my long hair is frowned upon when it is loose, slightly less when it is in a ponytail, and my privilege is nearly completely erased when I dare to braid up (this is when I tend to receive the most direct ridicule and race-baiting when I am in predominantly white circles).
I also want to be clear that my self-consciousness has nothing to do with my sometimes ill-earned white privilege. I am not ashamed, and neither should anyone else be ashamed, of the privilege that they are granted for their appearance. We might be ashamed at our society for affording it, and more importantly we should be angry and stand up and shout out against that system, but being ashamed of white privilege is a waste of everyone’s time. When you have that white privilege, you need to use it. You need to take the moments (or all the time, if you are actually white), when people shift their perception of you because of the colour of your skin and use it to tear down the system. I know that I am treated differently than my dark-skinned cousins. I know that I am treated vastly differently than my Indian/Black cousins. So I speak. I have a platform of privilege and I use it to speak as much as I can to a predominantly white audience because I know that I have an advantage.
The reason that I am self-conscious of my skin colour is because of the damage that has been done to Indian people by whites (I’m thinking in particular of Jamake Highwater, but he is by no means the only fauxndian or plastic shaman on the list, I’ve just been talking about Chakotay being problematic a lot lately) who have claimed to be Native American for some kind of social or economic gain (which is really ironic). I’m also self-conscious because as much as I discuss injustice with all of you, and sometimes use my own experiences with racism and injustice to make it clear that it is real and alive, I do not want to mislead anyone about who I am.
I am a half-breed, or mixed indigenous. My mother is Chiricahua Apache on her mother’s side and Cora Indian on her father’s side (this is my grandfather who grew up in a cave, whom I have told stories about previously). Many members of that part of my family choose to only claim Mexican heritage because the shame and stigma associated with being Indian (or mestizo) is so much stronger in Mexico than it is in the States (and I am not saying that it is sunshine and rainbows up here, we know that it is not). On my father’s side I am some mix of Scottish and English, I believe. The stories have always been confused, but my grandmother held to her Scottish heritage more than anything else. I’m also distantly related to John McCain on that side of my family which I am not saying with even an inch of pride.
I want you to know that I have a lot more privilege than most Indians do. I want you to know that I have it a lot better than most Indians do. But I am still Indian. I don’t want you to confuse me with someone who I am not. I am mixed-race indigenous, and I fight because I love my family. I fight because I love Indian country. I fight because I love Coras and Apaches. I fight because I am Cora and Apache. I fight for Indians because I am Indian.