Thursday, April 12, 2012

Race, Recognition, and Exotica

This is not me. (It is, however, a Caddo headpiece.)

The central idea behind my examination of the word exotic was hardly difficult to pinpoint: Calling a woman exotic is calling her the Other. And putting women into that category—particularly when there’s eau de hypersexualization wafting about with the method—isn’t something nice people do, agreed? Agreed.

So here’s my dirty little secret: Whenever exotic been applied to me, I’ve...sort of liked it. For me, a white woman who has a not-terribly-distant-but-not-terribly-visible non-European background—American Indian, specifically Caddo and Cherokee—being set apart with exotic can feel like a acknowledgement of my heritage. My ethnicity doesn’t jump out at you, and because of my skin color most everyone would call me white, including myself. But it’s evident enough—my cheekbones, my hair, my yellow-tinged skin—that every so often an “exotic” floats my way.

I really don’t want to undermine the reasons that exotic can be insidious, divisive, and even hurtful; I want to see the microaggressions of exotic disappear far more than I ever want it actually applied to me. But the fact is, whenever it happens I smile, if only to myself. I’m sheepish about this reaction, but in some ways it’s actually in line with my thoughts on the Othering of exotic: It’s a way of identifying its subject as different. Brown women don’t have an option in this, and that’s exactly why it’s troublesome. I have the privilege—the white privilege—of being able to revel in the handful of occasions exotic is tossed my way, for the very reason that women who hear it far more frequently may be fed up with it: It calls out my heritage. In my case, it’s a piece of my heritage that often gets swept under the rug; my pale skin means that while I’m occasionally asked what I “am,” it's not immediately evident that my family tree has branches anywhere but Europe. When the topic comes up, there’s often a sort of post-hoc qualification: “I knew you were something,” or “So that’s it!”

In fact, one of the few times I’ve had confirmation someone has seen my ancestry without mentioning it was when I got a makeover from Eden DiBianco, who, when I mentioned it, just nodded and said she’d known at a glance. Now, as a makeup artist she’s an expert in faces so this isn’t too surprising, but I don’t think it’s a coincidence that she’s got experience with this herself—her Puerto Rican heritage is often overlooked because of her skin tone. But our similar experiences led her to the opposite conclusion about exotic: “It’s such a cop-out word. People are so disappointed to find out I’m Puerto Rican because I’m not ‘exotic’-looking enough for them to be able to spot me coming. Apologies for just looking like an ethnic white girl, but sheesh, should I have salsa-ed in with a fruit basket on my head? I hate that word. What am I, a bird?”

So I’m certainly not trying to make some sort of case for exotic; for every not-entirely-white woman like me who finds it a fleeting portal to a whitewashed lineage, there are probably dozens who pick up on its microaggressions and swath of sexualization and would prefer not to hear it at all. What I am saying, though, is that my covert eagerness to hear the word reflects both the shame and the pride I have about my ancestry: pride in being a tiny part of a culture that’s small but vibrant, and shame in feeling that whatever my tribal enrollment papers might say, I’m not “really” Indian.

Being any race is tricky, being Indian particularly so. Are you Indian because of your bloodline? Your culture? Visibility? Self-identification? Tribal enrollment? Skin color? Community? I’m one-quarter ethnically Indian, never lived on a reservation, have few Indian friends, usually check “white” on forms but may sometimes check “American Indian” for the hell of it, and can count on two hands the number of people who have asked me flat-out if I’m Native American. Short of going to powwows, owning a collection of Native treasures both handed down and purchased, and having tribal Caddo enrollment, I grew up about as non-Indian as Indians get.

But hey, I went to preschool—preschool!—on the reservation. The fact I feel compelled to share this illuminates the ways I try to “prove” my ethnicity. I want to distance myself from the “pretendians” with the “Cherokee princess” seven generations back (when will those types learn that Cherokees didn’t have princesses?), whose own lost ethnic identity leads them to cling to some sort of one-drop rule—while not being nearly as eager to claim African American blood, incidentally—for there's a part of me that's afraid my own one-quarter rule isn't much different. (Meanwhile, it’s not like I’m making a big effort to learn about my British heritage—which, while more of a hodgepodge than my Caddo heritage, makes up a far larger piece of my genetic pie than my American Indian blood. Being Indian is more “interesting,” it seems, even to me.) So I’ll tote out my “real” claims to my heritage: the preschool! the tribal enrollment! hey, my great-grandparents met at Carlisle Indian School! my father worked for Indian Health Service for 30 years! I write for an Indian magazine! one-quarter quantum blood! except not really because I’m only one-eighth Caddo and one-eighth Eastern Band of Cherokee except maybe not even that because who really knows who my biological great-great-grandfather was? hey, wanna see my shawl?

Underlying the balancing act of recognizing my heritage without staking a claim that simply isn’t mine is the fact that like indigenous people worldwide, American Indians have a long history of oppression. Meanwhile, I’ve never, not once, faced oppression based on my race (unless you count the occasional conversation with Sweat Lodge Dude who wants to quiz me about my spiritual beliefs). It’s hard for me as a mostly-white woman to write about my heritage because I’ve benefited from white privilege my entire life and don’t want to discount the role of oppression in Indian life, but I also don’t want to frame race solely as a story of oppression or need; fact is, plenty of “real” Indians (whatever that is, I suppose I’m thinking of someone more connected with the community than I am) live lives similar to mine. So you could argue that by being vocal about my heritage but not, like, doing rain dances, I’m demonstrating that oppression isn’t the entirety of the American Indian experience. But I never want to forget that in this country today, it's my British lineage, not my Indian blood, that allows me to walk through the world without bearing the burden of an increased risk of rape, suicide, maternal mortality, diabetes, domestic violence, or poverty. I don’t have to think about treaty and land rights, the legacy of compulsory sterilization, or the tribal or urban Indian health care system. I do think about these things, but it’s a conscious learning exercise when I do, not something thrust upon me without me having any say in the matter.

But what this also means is that in many ways I’m framing race as something others see me as, not as something I experience in my own personal manner. And even in that way, I’m not “Indian enough”: I know shamefully little about Caddo or Cherokee history (though I’m learning), and I’ve never spent significant time in Caddo lands. Whatever Indianness I feel beyond the mere fact of my blood is something I’ve largely conjured on my own, either through research or rumination.

In a way, though, that’s just the point: Thinking about and exploring my heritage is how I experience being Indian. It is an internal experience for me. And so, yes, whenever that experience is externalized—whenever I am called exotic, which, I should make clear, happens only rarely—it’s a brief moment of recognition. And even though I’m usually only called exotic by men, and usually when the context makes me think I’m being sexualized just the teensiest bit, there’s a part of me that takes pride in it; a part of me that usually lays silent is being seen.

The word can feel like a gift, even if it’s not the gift its giver intended. It can feel like a caress from my great-grandmother or a whisper from my great-grandfather, a founding member of the National Congress of American Indians whose internalized oppression bitterly shines through on the pages of his “humor” book, “Heap Big Laugh.” It can feel like a kiss from my grandfather, whose relationship with his ethnicity is a mystery to me but which I suspect is best expressed by the contents of a glass cage that stayed in his home for years: His father’s regalia stays in a frozen display, the intricate work of beads, feathers, and porcupine quills safely separated from the rest of his life.

That regalia is now in my parents’ home, where it is a point of familial pride and is surrounded by Indian art, including gifts my father was given during his long career with the Indian Health Service: sand paintings, beadwork, quilts. Hell, there’s a pipe, though not a peace pipe. I look at his regalia every time I visit, peering through the glass that still keeps it contained. Honoring those who came before us is a key part of traditional Native culture, and as I look at what my great-grandfather wore, I’ve wondered if he’d think I was a “bad Indian” for knowing so little about Caddo life—or whether he’d consider me Indian at all.

There is a postscript here that makes me wonder. I recently learned that my grandfather’s attempt to donate his father’s regalia to the Caddo Heritage Museum was thwarted: My great-grandfather, a freemason, had Masonic designs woven into the pattern. The regalia, from the museum’s point of view, was next to worthless. All this time, I'd been projecting a sort of ethnic purity onto my grandfather out of a need to heighten my own legitimacy, while in his day, he was shaping what it meant to be Native through his own lens. He was less interested in preserving an idea of the past than in bringing his life—not his “way of life,” but his life—into the present, reinterpreting pride both personal and collective and emerging with a Masonic breastplate made of porcupine quills. Heap big laugh indeed.


  1. No comments on your last post yet... could it be that we're ALL afraid of saying the wrong thing? I sure am.

    Great storytelling, though. That Masonic plot twist is fantastic.

    Two of my siblings identify very strongly as Irish; they're no more Irish than me, but they have red hair and like being associated with another culture.

    1. Heh, I wonder! Race is really tricky to talk about--I don't want to be an ignorant white girl, but I don't want to just stay silent because of that fear, but I don't want to ask people of color to educate me. I feel like there are so many ways to get it wrong--but staying silent out of fear seems like the worst way.

      There's a definite appeal to being associated with another culture, and it's interesting to see how people with the same genetic makeup handle it. I went to my cousin's wedding and was surprised to see that he was wearing a kilt. I said to my aunt (my cousin's father is my father's brother, so I'm not biologically related to her), "I didn't know you had a Scottish background." And she said, "I don't--you do!" I have never identified as Scottish, though I know that it's a part of my family tree.

    2. "I feel like there are so many ways to get it wrong--but staying silent out of fear seems like the worst way."

      Autumn, I'm always amazed at how gracefully you handle criticism. I always shy away from tough topics, because I'm afraid I'd say the wrong thing and be emotionally destroyed by angry comments--- someone told me off royally once for being flippant about accidental head-shaving when so many people are devastated by losing their hair to chemo. I was a wreck all day long.

      My brother got married in a kilt! We are slightly Scottish, but I never think about it--- but then, I'm not a redhead.

    3. Heh, when I reread the string here I realized it could've been read as me saying that YOU were doing the "worst" thing on this front--I don't think you took it that way and I'm glad for it. Mentioning just in case!

      And thank you for saying that I handle criticism gracefully. That's something I've been repeatedly told I don't do well in real life (and those critics are correct), but somehow when it comes to my thinking or writing I'm made of steelier stuff. Sometimes a critique will hit a nerve but that's usually just a signal that that person is tapping into something I secretly believe to be true. When it comes to people like whoever would think you were being insensitive to people who are undergoing chemotherapy--well, on the rare occasion I get an out-of-left-field comment like that I try to remember that it's about *them*, not me. And it really and truly isn't. It can be a fine line there--I mean, I've been accused of sticking really strictly to a gender binary, and that really is about me, not about them, and it's "one to grow on" and I am educating myself. But with something like that, it's like, what can you do? There will always be something someone can complain about.

      (I once wrote about the place of "hello" in street harassment--there's a greeting and then there's "helllooooo"--and was accused of not being sensitive to non-neurotypical people who might not be able to distinguish between the two. Oh fine, I'll just sit on my floor and try to breathe as quietly as I can, you know?)

  2. "best expressed by the contents of a glass cage that stayed in his home for years"

    This reminds me of my mother's Korean doll in a glass case before she finally even dispensed with that growing up. I believe culture agree ethnicity and culture go beyond "fram(ing) race solely as a story of oppression or need." Oppression also silently affect generations, oppression is contextual, the white/other dichotomy represents a disservice to the nuances of the dynamic experience of a living diverse diaspora. This includes what the frozen 'authentic' representations museums. Others may disagree with me, and that is their right, it's called diversity and dialogue not about a correct answer. I too grow jealous of the romanticizations I cannot be included, but the mere fact that you are writing it proves that insidious affects of oppression (in which ALL peoples and individuals including the ones disadvantaged in any culture and era) both propogate and face.

    1. Kara, I'm glad to read this--like I was saying to Rebekah, it feels like there are so many ways to get it "wrong," but the fact is that oppression is nuanced, which means that there are also so many opportunities to explore that texture in a sincere way, and make it a living conversation instead of putting it behind glass.

  3. This actually struck a chord for me, as well as the last piece on the meaning of “exotic”.

    In terms of applying it to someone due to visibly non-white ancestry, that always seemed kind of nutty to me. This is 2012. I believe there are more African Americans in the USA (40.7 million) than there are people in Canada (34,762,000) where I am. Doesn’t “exotic” mean rare & unusual? Same goes for other racial groups. Are we really surprised to see any racial group in North America anymore, to the point of considering them rare? It’s pretty much become a code word in the media for “non-white beauty”, specifying the non-white part.

    I am, by the modern usage of the word, not exotic. I am 5’10”, dark blonde, and extremely pale white. Grey-green eyes. Attractive enough, medium build. The Great Northern European Mutt; Irish, Scottish, German & some Danish. White. Very white.

    But I’ve never really fit in. Too tall. Too pale. Too odd. I dressed funny. I have social skills, I play well enough with others, but I just don’t seem to want the same things, and am terrible at faking it. I have felt different since I started grade school, and I’m 37 now.

    So when I get called “exotic”, it feels like a positive acknowledgement of my Otherness, someone finding it appealing as opposed to off-putting. (I get called “odd” & “weird” when they’re disturbed. I’m reclaiming them as compliments.) I’ve gotten it from people of different racial groups from mine as well, so the race element may still be there in some cases. But it always felt like a compliment to me.

    Thanks, interesting topic!

    1. So interesting! Because you're exactly right: "Exotic" means rare and unusual, which brown people certainly aren't in my city (New York). So it's interesting to hear that you have had that label applied to you in its earlier sense of meaning "unusual"--that it can indeed be decontextualized from race. I found a few instances of that in my research (the one who stands out to me is Julie Taymor, who was described as "exotic" by New York magazine--she's white and not unusual-looking to my eyes, but meeting her may well be a different story, and certainly her aesthetic is unusual).

  4. really well written, great exploration of the complexities of racial identity.

  5. it's really nice to read this. I'm actually attempting to establish my own tribal ancestry now - because it's obvious that there is *something,* as you say, in the family blood, but the reports/accounts differ. I always wanted to know.

    Though I have no connection with whatever tribe is in my familial history, I've lived my life with some of the genetic markers - the most difficult one is my diet. I have to stick to a rather non-European diet, limiting my intake of eggs, dairy, domestic meats, and fats in general. A Cherokee man who worked at my high school once overheard me telling a friend the list of things I needed to avoid. He came over, sat down, and said, "You're Cherokee, aren't you?" And all I could say is, "I don't know. I'm *something* but I don't know what." He just nodded. "You're probably Cherokee. We all go through this." And he proceeded to tell me what I should be doing to manage my diet better - switch ot skim milk, no more eggs, stick to game meats, etc.

    So, every day of my life I am living with this inheritance (and it'd really awkward to travel or to even be invited to other people's houses for dinner) but I don't even know what it is. My eyes are double-lidded on the inner corners. I never knew this until it became fashionable to dab bright eyeliners on the inner corners of one's eyes. Then I realized, "wait, I can't see the inner corners of my eyes because of these weird flaps of skin." I have shovel teeth. I learned about shovel teeth last year, at age 30. I have heard totally crazy theories about my "misshapen front teeth" all my life. In my 20s, a dentist was convinced that my tongue must be wearing away my teeth from the inside and insisted I train myself to hold my tongue at the roof of my mouth at all times. I mean, this is crazy stuff.

    So, I envy you the knowledge of your family. And I sympathize with the dilemma. Though I, too, was raised white - and my skin is pale (unless I get into the sun; I easily tan a deep copper colour) - I find I continue to think of the geneological research as my search for "people like me." Yet I don't feel I have any right to that phrase. If I ever find it, I don't honestly know what I'll do. For now, it's still just a big question mark - and a lot of frustration (and wondering, what else have my doctors been misdiagnosing all my life?)

    1. Fleur, I wish you the best of luck in tracing your ancestry. I really did have it easy because of my great-grandfather's prominence--even a generation before that, I know nothing about.

      Figuring this stuff out is a process, and the way I see it, this is a good example of the journey being more important than the destination--it's going through the exploration of race, lineage, and identity that will help any of us figure out how it all fits together, or how it doesn't.

  6. You might enjoy Paige Raibmon's "Authentic Indians." Yes, it is a history of the experiences of indigenous peoples on the Pacific Northwest Coast in the 19th century (she's a historian--as am I) but it has a lot of excellent stuff to say about the creation of "authentic" ethnic groups and who determines the markers of that authenticity--and how certain groups (Native Americans in particular) are forced to prove how "Indian" they are through a variety of outward signs and markers.

    I am part Native Hawaiian, part Czech, and part English. It's interesting to see how my cultural/racial/ethnic identity becomes the property of others by virtue of it's ambiguity. When I am not being fetishized by people interested in my Hawaiian identity I am often being criticized for not looking ethnic enough--it just depends. In the past I've enjoyed the "exotic" label because it reaffirmed my outward connections to a heritage I identify with, but on the other hand I've come to realize that exotic is also just another word for "I can't classify you." I was going to say "especially since I moved to the South" but a recent story from my cousin disproves that.

    My cousin is both Hawaiian and white (the "both" is something I took from another blog--using it instead of "half" because it implies a sense of belonging, not partial participation.)

    Jack in the Box employee-"are you Samoan?"
    Me-"Actually Im Hawaiian"
    JitB employee-"Whats the difference? isnt that the same thing?"
    Me-"No, we are Polynesian, very similar but still different."
    JitB employee- "Why are you so white?"

    Ethnic enough to warrant a comment, but not ethnic enough to claim membership--at least as determined by this random non-Member of said ethnic community.

    My last comment--have you seen Hapa Voice? It's one of my favorite places to see/read about people dealing with the perils of blended ethnic identities.

    1. Wow--thank you for pointing me toward these excellent resources! Hapa Voice is fantastic (I hadn't known of it before), and I'm looking forward to "Authentic Indians." I feel like for people who look white (and, in my case, usually identify as white), race is so easily considered as an outer thing, as a binary, but the exploration of the between-spaces and the way that race can be both intensely personal and intensely contextual is fascinating. I'm struck by the stories on Hapa Voice in which people say they didn't think about their ancestry until context moved them to, much like how you mention that moving to the South has had an impact on the ways people attempt to categorize you.

      In any case, thank you!

  7. Last thing--I promise.

    While I identify as both Hawaiian and white, and am often identified by others as a POC (or a POT--person of tint, which we decided might be more appropriate given my range of experiences of privilege and restrictions between both ends of the color spectrum) my husband identifies me as white, even when I do not identify myself as such. He went as far as to mark me as such on our census form in 2010. I was so angry. Not at the whiteness, but at his presumption to identify me as such without regard to my self-identification or preferences. We had a nice talk about the gendered implications, how his decision made me feel, etc--and (in his defense) he understood and I don't think it will happen again--but it kind of goes back to this idea that an ambiguous racial identity seems to give people open access to just project their racial and ethnic assumptions on to someone--that my identity is simply up for grabs to whomever claims it first.

    (This topic is near and dear to me, thanks for writing about it!)

  8. Race is a man made construct, really has no merit.
    So, be who you are, who you are today, as it will be different tomorrow and as you age and evolve.

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