As part of personal project, and one my bishop is encouraging all the clergy in our area to undergo, this is the first in a series of posts where I examine my own white privilege and begin dismantling the white supremacy that is part of who I am.
Hearing the news about Elizabeth Warren’s DNA test proving her minute percentage of Native American heritage, I had two internal reactions. First: how ridiculous that this is how a Democratic leader is choosing to use her platform when midterm elections are just weeks away. Second: I remember a time in my life when proving something like this felt really important to me.
My father was an orphan by the time he and my mom had children, so I never knew my grandparents on that side. My mother’s family, on the other hand, lived next door and down the road, and are extremely close. And while my mother’s family had genealogical documents and photos of our ancestors going all the way back to the Mayflower, all we had on my dad’s side were stories. His father died when he was child, and his mother, step-father and sister were killed in a flood that also destroyed most of the evidence for whether these stories were true.
One of the stories, which is common among people with deep roots in Appalachia, is that we had a Cherokee ancestor on my paternal grandmother’s side. We didn’t know exactly how far back, but from the time I was a child, I remember thinking that I was part Cherokee, and holding that as a mysterious and sacred part of my identity. It wasn’t until I met a Vance Blackfox, an actual member of the Cherokee nation, that I even wondered whether this story was true. I met Vance when I was 16, at a Lutheran Youth Organization gathering, and when he told me that he was Cherokee, I told him I was too, a little bit. When he replied, with a laugh, “Everybody thinks they’re a little bit Cherokee”, I was taken aback. Vance was the first person of color I became true friends with, and learned from him how many questions I’d never thought to ask.
Years later, I did the genealogical research to construct my dad’s family tree, going back through old census records and marriage records to find our more about our family story. There was no evidence anywhere of a Native American ancestor. Still, I knew that there were lots of reasons that women a hundred or more years ago might call themselves white for official purposes, when the truth was more complicated. I still held out hope for Native heritage.
But unlike Elizabeth Warren’s test, my dad’s DNA test came back conclusively caucasian. The only surprise for him was that he’s part Finnish. The story we’d grown up hearing wasn’t true: I am not Cherokee, not even a little bit.
And by the time we knew that conclusively, I’d already realized that part of my hope for Native blood was rooted in white supremacy, which takes culture from wherever it sees fit, so that white people like me can continue to feel special. I naively thought that if I had even a tiny fraction of Cherokee in me, that I would magically have some understanding of a culture with which I had no actual contact. I thought that if I shared blood with an oppressed population, I would automatically be less likely to be an oppressor myself. That is ingrained white privilege at work in me.
As I learn more about how white supremacy functions in our culture and inside me, I’ve also started to wonder where this story originated in my family. Is it something we told ourselves after our ancestors fought for the South in the Civil War, as a way of saying we can’t possibly be the kind of people that enslaved people of African descent since we have the blood of an oppressed minority in us too? Is it something that came out of the fantasy of young children playing Cowboys and Indians in the woods, wanting to see ourselves as resourceful people connected to nature, and co-opting the images of Native American people to fit our desired self-image?
I won’t ever know the answer to these questions, of course. And really, the answers don’t matter as much as the questions that draw me deeper into dismantling my own assumptions and privilege. Even though I never heard a racial slur from a member of my family, or witnessed any of the people close to me acting out of blatant racism, I’m increasingly aware of how my whiteness has protected me from the hard questions about my own privilege and power. I never had to wonder about my part in racism because I was surrounded by people who looked and thought mostly like me.
Through widening my experience with other cultures, especially through friendships with people who experience racism every day, I have discovered what Debbie Irving says in her book Waking Up White is true. “Racism hold us all captive in ways white people rarely imagine.”