Reconciling White Identity with Indigenous Roots.
Original Painting Spirit by Ashley Heidebrecht
Author’s Note: The following narrative is mine and mine alone. This narrative is not centered around the impact of white supremacy on People of Color, it is centered around my own experience and identity as a white person.
In the activist community, there is a saying that is often used: It is not your intent that matters, it’s the impact. That statement is weighing on me heavily. I know what my intent is, but ultimately, I can only guess at what the impact will be. I have watched time and time again as white people claim Indigenous heritage and the backlash that follows. Most often that backlash is deserved as it appears this heritage is presented as a way of distancing themselves from the crimes of their European ancestors, or as “something cool”, failing to understand the real implications of laying claim to a heritage that was erased and abused. How dare they stake their claim, so easily, so flippantly, so conveniently.
And so, I am nervous in sharing this of being perceived as doing the thing that so many have done, the thing, which whether intended or not, serves to further erase the centuries of struggle to rediscover and preserve cultures that were systematically stomped out. I am nervous that what I am writing, the process of reconciling who I am with how the world sees me, will be a betrayal to the communities with whom I have allied myself with. That fear is rooted in my own guilt and fragility, and has caused me to sit on this writing for a very long time. But I have now come to believe that this writing, this conversation about identity, white identity, is a crucial part in the fight to end racism and moving others to become anti-racist.
As I have facilitated the Anti-Racism Training for the Diversity and Resiliency Institute of El Paso over the last couple of months, it has become clear to me that a very sizeable barrier to white people understanding racism, their role in it, understanding privilege, and being able to talk about race and engage in anti-racist action, is the fact that they don’t know who they are. They don’t have to. White people, in being white, don’t have a unique cultural or ethnic identity, because we don’t have to. There is no need for it. We are white. We are the norm. We are who this Country was built for. And how can you understand and talk about something that you don’t know? Holding onto culture was not viewed as necessary to maintain a sense of personhood and wholeness, and in fact letting go of ethnicity came with an abundance of privilege. What we consider “American culture” is really synonymous with being white.
With the creation of the term “White” in order to secure a majority and concentrate power and wealth, the privilege and sense of entitlement began, but so did the death of ethnic culture among white people.1 The European Immigrants that had once been viewed as “dirty”; the Irish, Italians, Catholics, etc., were now adopted into the privileged racial class of “White”.1 This was done to protect and maintain the system of white supremacy that was carefully designed and put into place.1 The system which designated Black and African American people as ⅗ of a person. The system which sought to wipe out Indigenous people from this land. The system which exploits Migrants for their labor. The system which used Chinese Immigrants to build the railroad and then took away their citizenship. The system which labeled Japanese Americans as threats and locked them in “camps”, much like we see happening now with people seeking asylum. The effort to preserve the myth of white supremacy and maintain a white majority did that, and I have benefited directly from it, and if you are white or look white, you have benefited from it too.
In facilitating Anti-Racism Training, I have seen this unknowing of self white people experience manifest in big ways, from a complete lack of knowledge of history, lack of understanding of personal beliefs, and outright emotional breakdown when presented with the opportunity to examine themselves. And so, I am going to share a little bit about myself and my own identity, and one of the ways that the myth of white supremacy which has benefited me my entire life with a package of unearned privileges, has also harmed me. If you are reading this and you are white, I hope you will use this as an opportunity to think about your own identity, and begin the process of reconciling the responsibility you have as a white person in how you wield that identity.
The myth of white supremacy, the belief that those with white skin are superior to others, that they are the Creator’s chosen people, has robbed me. It has robbed me in a way very different than it has robbed People of Color though, and that needs to be acknowledged in a big way. White supremacy has robbed me by giving me privilege, and this is the way that white supremacy is killing my Spirit, and probably killing yours too.
I know, poor me, right?
White supremacy and privilege give me the security of knowing that because of my skin color, it is for the most part automatically accepted that wherever I am, I belong there. The color of my skin will never be the cause of hardship in my life. Because of the implicit bias that comes with our history of systemic racism, I am automatically more likely to be viewed as intelligent, as honest, as capable, all because of the color of my skin. This gives me a tremendous advantage in life over People of Color. White supremacy and privilege have advised me not to think about who I am and where I come from in any meaningful way. I am white. What’s there to think about? When white people do engage in research about their family genealogy and ancestry, it is often viewed as a fun activity to find “diversity” in their background, not as a necessity to determine what land their ancestors were stolen or erased from. But this unearned system of privilege has a history, and that history has the impact of a damaged Spirit.
Imagine having something stolen from you that you never knew you had. And so you go through life feeling a deep sense that something is missing. That you are not whole. That is the unintended consequence, the unthought of impact of white supremacy on white people, on me personally. Let me be very clear though, that sense of loss and having something stolen was very much an intended consequence for People of Color. The goal was erasure of identity and pride and wholeness. But this was never an intended consequence for white people. However, in the consolidation of social power and effort to maintain a majority and economic power, that is exactly what happened. This same system which has destroyed and murdered so many in an effort to elevate those with my skin color and preserve an abusive system of power is killing my Spirit. But the privileges that come with my skin color make that death tolerable.
Because of the lie of white supremacy and the fact that it is the very foundation of our society, for a white person to embrace any aspect of their cultural makeup or heritage that is outside of “American white” to me, means one of two things: they are attempting to paint themselves in a better light by distancing themselves from the crimes of colonization and imperialism (“See, I’m not all white, so I’m one of the good ones!”), or that they must go through the pain of embracing the reality of the way that heritage was obtained, and it involved theft and violence somewhere along the way. My process is the latter. European imperialism, theft of land, theft of whatever aspects of that culture were considered convenient, exploiting the culture altogether as some sort of attraction for other Europeans, theft of life. Our white ancestors were thieves, and so is the privilege we inherited. My skin color and the immense privilege that comes with it is only part of my identity, but it is of course the most easily identifiable part, and it is the part that most directly impacts my experience in the world outside of presenting as a woman.
My family’s history though doesn’t only begin in whiteness, in what was once Prussia. It also begins here, in the forests of what we now know as Virginia, North Carolina, Arkansas, and Missouri. But, because white supremacy and the violence used to carry out that ideology elevated my Anglo European ancestors and sought to wipe out my Indigenous ones, in society’s eyes, my white skin is what matters, and I benefit directly from that flawed belief.
I was robbed by the theft committed by my Anglo European ancestors and the privilege which came from it. I cannot live in my full identity. I must be white. If I fully embrace anything else, it will most likely have the appearance of cultural appropriation. And it would be. I wasn’t raised in the specific culture of the people we are descended from, though I was raised to value and respect it, and because of my skin color, I have not had to personally experience any discrimination that other people descended from the Saponi Nation have likely faced.
But my white skin is the product of theft, surrender and assimilation. Name changes, hiding, pretending to be white, adopting Christianity, this is part of my family’s history, and it is also why for the longest time we didn’t know who we were on my Mom’s side of the family. The burying of language, traditions and beliefs were a means of survival of the body, but the result was the killing of the Spirit. By assimilating, the children were able to escape the “Indian Boarding Schools” and being ripped from their family, but the Anglo European mission of Indigenous cultural erasure was still achieved in some ways. The Saponi language is dead. What survives is the some of the Tutelo language, which is of the Tutelo people whom the Saponi were essentially forced to merge with under pressure of Anglo colonizers and the Iroquois Confederacy.2 There is still so much about our family that we don’t know, and I feel robbed of the opportunity to truly know myself. So much of it was made a “secret”. Even in my search for information about the Saponi, Mahenips Band, I find that much of the information available comes from white people. White Supremacy has robbed me of this part of my history, and now, in present-day it robs me of the opportunity to embrace it, because my white skin automatically means that at least in part, that history is stolen and not really mine. My dual identity means that the Anglo history of me caused the death of the Indigenous history of me.
The reality is that because of my role in the community, because of the work I do, I don’t really talk about this aspect of my identity. Optics matter, and I won’t lie, I am concerned about the way this writing may be perceived, the impact it may have. Impact matters. There are several reasons for this worry, the first being the obvious one, that I am white. But, there’s more. The Saponi Nation itself is complicated, and the Mahenips Band is not Federally recognized, though they are recognized by the State of Missouri. This brings a layer of complexity as there is real conflict in the Indigenous community regarding Federally recognized and unrecognized Tribes, and there is also the issue of surrender and assimilation. Like some other groups, the Mahenips Band were viewed by some as traitors for the road they took for survival.
I have been harmed by white supremacy, again, in a very different way than people of color. I haven’t been actively victimized because of the color of my skin, but the efforts to erase others to preserve this lie of white supremacy caused part of my history to be erased. I am working to help my Spirit find again what was stolen. I engage in this learning and in this process in private. It is very personal and important to me. I am cautious in how I discuss this aspect of my identity because I do not want to be perceived as trying to “stake my claim”. My Anglo European ancestors already did that. Maybe not directly, maybe they didn’t directly steal land or life, but they thrived because that was done, just the same as I have thrived because that was done, just the same as you have thrived if you are white.
I’ll leave you with this. The myth of white supremacy provides societal comforts and affords privilege to those of us with white skin, but it harms our collective human existence. The result is that we have a society of broken and lost people, scratching and clawing to find some semblance of identity, and in the process continuing to hurt others. This is deep, and it is often unconscious. The lie of white supremacy does not serve our Spirit or humanity. It instead only causes destruction. Not only in the centuries of abuse and murder, and generational trauma of People of Color which continues today, but in the less obvious ways; in entitlement, in privilege. Entitlement and privilege cause an unhealthy mind and an abusive view of the world. But, they also allow you to see such obvious benefits in this system that they mask the emptiness that comes with them, and makes the slow death of a Spirit that comes from a stolen history and simultaneous benefit from that very theft, feel worth it to preserve that system.
And so, my fellow white people, know that if you choose to wield Indigenous heritage or any other ethnic heritage, holding it out to the world as if to say “See! Look what I have!”, it is not a weapon for your protection against ownership of white supremacy and systemic and institutional racism. It does not absolve you of recognizing and owning the privilege you have. It is not a prop for you to hold up. If you choose to show that heritage to the world, you must show it honestly, and with the utmost respect, acknowledging the source of that heritage, and understanding that the privilege you hold doesn’t mean you get to loudly stake your claim, in fact it means the opposite. Diving into and understanding your identity is not a simple task. It can be painful. It can be confusing, but it is necessary. In order to understand where we fit in this system built on the myth of white supremacy and how to dismantle it, we have to understand ourselves. We have to know who we are, the bias we hold, and how it shapes our perception, and we must engage in that process with reverence and humility.
1. The Origins of Everything: Race
2. The Siouan Project: Seasons I and II- Archaeology