Checking the “White” Box and Denying My Other Amerikan Roots
Posted Mar 05 2010 12:34pm
I should be packing for my trip to Phoenix, but I’m sitting here writing instead. Michael at Contoveros reminded me of a subject close to my heart. That, and the fact we’ve been talking about genealogies on another list.
In America we are often asked to check a box indicating our national or cultural heritages. I am happy to check White, only because it’s the least complicated. My real heritage is about as mixed up as anyone’s, so I’m glad not to have to check several boxes.
My family is not new to Amerika. Turns out the rumors about the “Indian in the woodpile” on my dad’s side of the family were true. If there had ever been any doubt, all one needs to do is look at my oldest son. If you squint enough, you’ll see the high Native American cheek bones and notice a slight upward slant to his dark brown eyes, plus he tans like an ‘injun’. My daughter, on the other hand, is about as pale skinned as she can be, and yet she looked Indian when she was born. As a baby we could have cast her in a play as Sacajewea’s infant child. Those two were born with thick, straight black hair that lightened up slightly and began to wave just a little over time.
Our third child, a boy, was born with red hair that eventually turned blond. Scandinavian roots from his father.
I had never heard of Scandinavia until I moved here to the Seattle area as a little girl where there’s a large population of Norwegians and Swedes. On my first day of school in this strange land of blonds, I fit right in. The Indian look had been bred out a generation back– mostly. Like my son, I too was born with red hair that turned blond, but there’s not an ounce of Scandinavian in my blood, except for possibly some leftover Viking DNA from their raping and pillaging during the Middle-Ages.
That first day of school, I stiffened as a group of other little blond girls began picking their playmates by their Scandinavian roots.
“What’s Scandinavian?” I asked.
“Are you Swedish or Norwegian?” the ring leader demanded.
“I don’t know.”
“She has blond hair. Let her in,” one of them decided.
And that was my first exposure to personal racism, though it ended well for me. Like those before me, I had learned early to keep my Indian roots a secret. Some kind of unspoken rule only vaguely hinted at whenever the subject came up. We were for sure English, French, Scottish, Dutch, German and always Irish on St. Patrick’s Day but only possibly Indian “way back.” Never mind that the Northern European roots were as far back and hazy as the Indian roots. The “Indians in the woodpile” were not openly discussed in my father’s time, and he kept up that tradition.