Random Observations

My Identity: How Being Denied Part of Me, Shaped Me

I love meeting new people and the sometimes random conversations that come from those meetings. Of course, I’m not lucky enough to have interesting conversations with everyone I meet but more often than not, we find a variety of topics to discuss. Recently, I met a couple of people on different occasions and for different reasons but both ended meetings up, not only with engaging discussions, but also touching on the same topic. Okay, it’s not like the conversations were cookie cutter but we did end up talking about race, and it’s not the first time I’ve had this talk or faced those questions.

You see, I write about a culture that’s not mine (not here but on ATK Magazine) and after some people find out that I’m not white but mixed race, it’s not unusual for them to posit that I write about (and feel connected to) Korean culture because I don’t have a connection to my own culture. For ages I would automatically deny that supposition because I have a strong cultural identity as a Canadian.

But recently I started wondering if perhaps part of the reason I’ve felt to attuned to, and comfortable with, Korean culture was because of how easily and strongly my interest in Korea and Korean culture was encouraged by just about everyone I met in Korea and many of the Koreans I’ve met back home in Toronto. That this time my interest was encouraged and that encouragement was an unconscious balm to the bitterness I have hidden deep inside. And they may be right… I’d just never thought of it that way.

In fact, I would have said I wasn’t bitter.

But I am. It didn’t take much soul searching – and only a couple of random comments, the most recent being “Would you ever try again?” – to realize I was bitter. Damn, was that an unpleasant thought.

Okay, perhaps I’ve gotten ahead of myself. Let me backtrack a bit to explain. Remember I said I was mixed race? It’s something I’ve always been open about and have always identified as; despite the fact that most people think I’m white and that I was told in university I was Native. Personally I think the last was simply one of those ‘if you have any other race than white in you, claim that’ thoughts. I’m not Native (my grandma was) nor white (no matter how many people think I am) but a mix of the two. And I’m happy with that. It’s how I see myself (and it’s the truth).

Sure, it’s mildly annoying that people assume I’m white but I know I’ve benefited from ‘white privilege’ because of it. Plus, I really can’t do much about how people perceive me. But that’s not what this post is about. Although it might make an interesting article – that white privilege doesn’t only benefit white people but also some mixed race people who appear white. But I digress.

What does bother me – and what caused my deeply buried bitterness – is that I was rebuffed repeatedly when I tried to learn about my Native heritage. I wasn’t trying to claim I was Native, I just wanted to learn about my grandma’s heritage.

You see, as a history buff and someone who’s proud of ALL of my heritage, I wanted to learn more about the cultures my family came from: English, Scottish, Irish, German, French and Ojibway. I spent my teens and twenties exploring different aspects of my heritage – including living in a couple of the countries my family came from. It was easy to explore the ‘white’ part, the European part.

My explorations took me on travels, I learned traditional dances, read history books and even memorized and recited “Ode to the Haggis” by Robert Burns at a Burns Supper in Scotland. Sure, some of it was perhaps a little superficial but it was just for fun, just a way for me to learn more about my heritage. I was learning it for myself, as a way to connect with my ancestors and to discover who I was – it was my journey, my quest.

But when I tried to explore and learn more about my Ojibway heritage, I was told ‘no’. Not just ‘sorry’ but ‘NO! This isn’t for you. You’re not allowed to learn this.” I’m not kidding. When I tried to take a traditional dance class at a reserve close to my hometown, a dance I thought was beautiful the first time I saw it, I was told it was only for ‘status’ Natives and I wasn’t one. I had collected all the items I needed to make the dress that went along with the dance but it didn’t matter.

It shouldn’t have mattered if I was Native or not, a culture is kept alive by sharing it but in this instance, I was… at least in part. At least as much as some of the others who could take the class and I could prove it. But it didn’t matter, all that matter was I didn’t have the ‘status’ card from the government.

You see, my grandmother lost her ‘status’ when she married my grandfather so my father and his siblings were born ‘white’. I won’t go into all the explanations about the government policy (it was overturned in the 1980s) because I think it’s ultimately immaterial to my bitterness. Okay, it’s not entirely but mostly it is. But basically it was an old government policy to try to assimilate the Native peoples of Canada into the white society through marriage, because when they married a ‘white’ person, they became ‘white’. Stupid because you can’t change your race but…

But I’ve gotten off-track, I found it very interesting that such a random comment – “Would you ever try again?” – from a stranger led to such soul searching but it did. And I realized that while yes, I’m still a bit bitter over being rejected by a part of my heritage, it left open a window for something else. It made me more open to learning about other cultures and perhaps, it encouraged me to be more accepting because I wasn’t. It may seem like a small thing – and the story I told wasn’t the only instance – but being denied a part of myself, had more of an effect than I thought.

Thankfully, while I never did have an identity crisis, all the fun things I learned about my heritage, the travels and adventures I did during my journey, and being embraced by a culture that isn’t mine, healed the wound that rejection left. Although I still wish I could have learned the jingle dance.

To add some more fuel to the fire, I read and listen to a lot of other discussions on race and identity and find it interesting how people identify themselves… especially when they are mixed race. Is it how you appear or how you’re raised that is the deciding factor? For those of us whose appearance is ambiguous or leans more towards the majority, I suspect how we are raised plays a big part. My dad has a poker buddy who’s also similarly mixed race but identifies as Native (if his stories and Twitter feed are any indication). My very active curiosity would love to know why. Plus, I know others who identify as white because they pass as such.

In fact, I’d love to have this conversation with any mixed race person – about how YOU identify yourself, not how society does. So give me a shout or leave a comment!

Thanks for listening to my ramblings…

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