Am I White?

The Answer is Complicated

“Mommy he’s not white.”

It was a simple enough statement, spoken innocently by the nine year old daughter of a good friend — a woman of Haitian descent — that I had met for the first time as I joined them for a fun excursion of bowling and video games at a local bowling alley. We played a game on the lanes and I encouraged and coached her daughter on how to best guide the bowling ball to knock down the pins, but her words stuck with me, just as they continue to stick with me today upon writing this article. They reminded me that I don’t “look” like most White people.

To say that race is a complicated thing is an understatement of colossal proportion. While it is at one point a social construct, science and social understandings have established that there are, indeed, different ethnicities. People do look different from one another, and, regretfully, opinions and beliefs are formed based on those appearances.

For most of my life I’ve had people — the bold, curious, and socially maladroit — approach me, total strangers mind you , to ask the simple but dreadfully loaded question, “What are you?”

To some I am as White as the most pale skinned Caucasian, but to others I am decidedly something else. And yet while growing up in predominantly Black neighborhoods and attending predominantly Black schools, I was called all manner of ethnic slurs relegated towards Caucasians. I’ve been called a “honky,” a “cracker, and yes, a “white boy.” I’ve even been insulted, spit on, and even assaulted — simply for being the lightest skinned person in an otherwise dark skinned crowd.

Image 1) The author as a young man.

So why the confusion? The problem is that I don’t “look” like your stereotypical White person. I have dark features — with slightly olive skin, black hair, and dark brown eyes. Despite the bullying and colorism I experienced from my Black peers, I’ve never felt at ease around White people — and by that I mean those with light skin, fair hair, and blue or green eyes. They don’t “look” like me, and I’m all too aware that I don’t “look” like them. The words of my friend’s daughter, and the queries from strangers and associates, continue to reinforce the otherness I sometimes feel.

I recall once, when I was a teenager, a man stopped me on the street to ask the question that was fast becoming something I had grown to expect. “What are you?” he asked, staring at me as if I were a problem to be sorted out. “Are you Middle Eastern or something? Libyan?”

Once, while at a resort in Costa Rica of all places with my girlfriend at the time, the chef, a man of Latin American background, asked me, again, “What are you?” He ventured a guess, “Italian?”

I get Italian a lot. A woman I dated once, a transplant from New York City, asked me point blank upon meeting me if I was “Italiano.” Sometimes I get asked if I’m Jewish. Other times people ask if I’m part Hispanic or Middle Eastern. Once I was asked if I was “Black Irish” — a term used to denote those people from Ireland with typically black hair and dark features. The last thing anyone ever seems to guess is that I’m part Native American.

“No, I’m part Native American,” I answered the chef, hoping that this would assuage his curiosity and get him to drop his investigation. A broad, reassuring smile broke out across his face.

“My friend…” he said, his voice dripping with warmth and affection. In his eyes I had suddenly become one of the many great non-White peoples of the world. I was a member.

The problem with being Native American is that people inevitably want to know “how much.” Half? Quarter? An eighth? The truth is that I don’t know and I never will know. Most non-native people don’t realize that in order to be counted as Native American you have to prove your ancestry. Am I a card carrying Native American? No, and I never will be.

When I was a young boy I was told by my family that I had “a lot of Indian blood” and that my ancestors were Cherokee. Most federally recognized tribes in the United States require two things to validate proof of one’s native identity: you have to have a blood quantum of at least 1/16th native, and you have to provide documentation proving your relationship to a person with native blood.

Image 2) The author’s grandparents.

Unfortunately, “looking” native isn’t enough, and genetic phenotypes — the physically expressed appearances of our genes — means that some people can have blonde hair and blue eyes but still be as much as 50% native. The documentation is the most difficult (and ridiculous) part.

What other ethnicity or race requires “proof” of documentation? Does anyone have to prove that they are Black, White, Asian, or Hispanic?

The Indian Removal Act of 1830 authorized the President of the United States to negotiate treaties with the Native American tribes of the Southeastern states to remove them from their ancestral lands to be relocated to a federal territory west of the Mississippi River in exchange for money and land on what would become “Indian Territory.” Some tribes saw the writing on the wall and negotiated treaties, selling their land to White settlers and getting what they could before being sent packing to the west, but in effect it was gunboat diplomacy — negotiations were made under the threat of force and military intervention.

Image 3) A map of the forced relocation and routes that the various tribes of the Southeastern United States took to reach “Indian Territory.”

Other tribes, such as the Cherokee, attempted to stay on their lands and brought lawsuits against the state government of Georgia that went all the way to the Supreme Court — and won. However, the days were numbered for the Cherokee. White settlers in Georgia, then the largest state in the United States, wanted Cherokee land and despite the ruling from the Supreme Court that established that the Cherokee people were a sovereign nation and not subject to the state laws of Georgia which sought their expulsion, President Andrew Jackson refused to uphold the ruling of the Supreme Court and directed the forced relocation of the Cherokee to lands west of the Mississippi River.

Image 4) Elizabeth Brown Stephens (no relation) would survive the Trail of Tears, but does she “look” like a Native American? Or an elderly White woman? Or something else?

The United States Army would be used to round up the Cherokee, and they were sent packing, kicked off their lands, along with the Choctaw, Muscogee, Chickasaw, and Seminole tribes.

46,000 Native Americans would be forcibly relocated between 1830 to 1850. Many would make the over 1,000 mile trek by foot, with no possessions beyond the clothes on their back. Thousands died from exposure, disease, and starvation. No assistance was given to the various American Indian tribes during these forced relocations to the west. At times many were kept prisoner in internment camps where disease ran rampant. Due to outbreaks of disease, their route across the land was often lengthened, as towns and cities along the way did not want sick American Indians anywhere near their citizens. It was in effect a death march, and everyone knew it. One soldier, a volunteer from Georgia who would later fight in the Civil War would recount:

I fought through the civil war and have seen men shot to pieces and slaughtered by thousands, but the Cherokee removal was the cruelest work I ever knew.

After the Cherokee and other tribes arrived on Indian Territory to the West, what few survivors remained would register their names on a federal government roll as proof of citizenship in order to gain a parcel of land and a portion of the money that had been received by the tribe in compensation for their annexed lands in the Southeast. These federal rolls have such names as the Baker Rolls, Dawes Roll, Guion Miller Roll etc. and are today the sole documents that one can refer to for tribal citizenship.

In other words, you have to prove that your ancestors survived a death march from Georgia to Oklahoma and later gave their names to the same federal government that had refused to respect their sovereignty and forcibly relocated them — committing an act of near genocide in the process.

It’s no surprise that many Cherokee and other members of the various tribes did not want to leave their homes and travel thousands of miles to a strange place they had never before visited. Rather than register themselves for forced relocation to the west, many Native Americans avoided the federal authorities by living as private citizens on private property. Some hid out in the hills and mountains of the Southeastern United States. Others had intermarried with White settlers, or had been allowed to live on the private property of benevolent White settlers in the surrounding area.

On July 24th, 1840, a local newspaper in North Carolina, where my family is originally from, would run an article about the few remaining Cherokee in the area. The paper, the Highland Messenger, would state that:

between nine hundred and a thousand of these deluded beings … are still hovering about the homes of their fathers, in the counties of Macon and Cherokee” and “that they are a great annoyance to the citizens” who wanted to buy land there believing the Cherokee were gone; the newspaper reported that President Martin Van Buren said “they … are, in his opinion, free to go or stay.’

Image 5) Signs such as this were wide spread at one point throughout much of the United States, and people willfully discriminated against those who “looked” native.

With the passage of time and the transformations in social structure that came with intermarriage and the change from communal living to private land and property ownership (not to mention the expulsion of the majority of their tribal relatives) the only thing that remained to identify these people as being part native were their features — and that was something easily managed, as my mother could attest. Her naturally black hair was often bleached when she was a young child. She once confessed to me that being called an “Indian” was an insult. Families kept their ancestry secret, or even anglicized their names.

Image 6) The author’s great-grandfather.

Take my grandmother’s maiden name for instance. She was an Arrowood, but for all her life — and the lives of her parents — it was pronounced as “Arwood.” I only discovered this spelling of her name after she died, when I attended her funeral as a teenager. And yet, in old photos of my great-grandfather he is seen resembling someone who is neither wholly Caucasian, nor wholly Native, with dark hair, prominent cheekbones, square features, and almond shaped eyes.

Today few people ask me the troubling question, “What are you” thought it does come up from time to time. The words of my friend’s daughter, “Mommy he’s not white,” reminding me of times past where my race and ethnic background were a topic of curiosity and of pain. As I said, while attending predominantly Black schools and living in predominantly Black neighborhoods I was literally spit on, assaulted, and called a “cracker,” “honky,” and “white boy,” but I recall once — while dating a well off White girl in my teens — I was asked about my background.

After telling her that I was part Cherokee, she would later confess to me that her friends had given me a nickname that reminds me still of the degradations of racism and colorism I suffered. They called me “Cherokee boy.”

Images Cited

Image 1) By author.

Image 2) By author, family photo.

Image 3) By User:Nikater — Own work by Nikater, submitted to the public domain. Background map courtesy of Demis, www.demis.nl and Wilcomb E. Washburn (Hrsg.) Handbook of North American Indians. Vol. 4: History of Indian-White Relations. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington D.C. 1988. ISBN 0–16004–583–5, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2681249

Image 4) By Lmaotru — Grandmother's photo album, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11090746

Image 5) By Marion Post Wolcott — via Library of Congress website [1] ;, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1437779

Image 6) By author, family photo.

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Lyndon Moore

Lyndon Moore

is a military veteran, nurse, martial artist, writer, and world traveler. He has been published in the O-Dark-Thirty Review, a literary journal for veterans.