Boxed In

Which race to check, which people to leave behind

We have become a nation of inquiry. Every time we turn around, we are being asked our opinion about breakfast cereal or the governor's race or the mood of the country. We send each other surveys to set meeting times and to extend birthday party invitations. But then those queries often turn toward us. The purveyors of all those forms say they want to “get to know us.” They say they want to know “who is in the room.” So we gamely comply. Of course, the forms include the basic fill-in-the-blanks—address and phone number, name and preferred salutation.

But there are also the true, honest-to-goodness forced-choice questions. The ones where we actually have to choose from among a finite set of options. I do pretty well with gender and marital status and age, though I know that is not true for everyone. I'm not even shy about answering questions about my family income. But we are also usually asked to check a box to identify ourselves by race or “ethnic origin.” And that's where my confidence starts to break down. That's where my hand wavers and my heart races a bit.

It shouldn't be that hard. The simple story is that I am a middle-aged white lady, and in most instances that's how I identify myself. But that is not the whole story. In fact, my grandfather and his family were Cherokees who stopped in Arkansas and then pulled up stakes and moved again when Oregon looked a little more promising than northern Arkansas through the smudge of the Dust Bowl. Eventually my grandfather met my German-Norwegian grandmother on Main Street in Springfield. She worked at the grocery store. He worked at the bakery. They married, he never returned to Arkansas, and he died in his fifties, when I was not quite three years old.

Now, forty-five years later, I still haven't sorted out how to capture that story within the confines of a single—or even a double—check mark. I tell it to my friends and loved ones in pretty much the way I relayed it here. But the forms aren't asking for a story; they're asking for an outright choice. And they're asking for a choice for mostly good reasons—to make sure that people of color are visible and accounted for in our institutions and our thinking, and to make sure we are cognizant of who's benefiting from society and who isn't.

Most of the time, I check “White, non-Hispanic.” But not always. On forms that seem somehow less official, I occasionally choose “Mixed Race” or both “White” and “Native American.” I am not sure why I waffle or why I sometimes choose one or the other. I suppose it is partially because identity is dynamic, but more than that, it is because I struggle over the right thing to do. I'm not used to that feeling. At this stage of life, I have a pretty good idea of what the right thing to do is in most circumstances. But this case is different. I really don't know what is right. Or to put it more accurately, I feel like both choices are wrong. I feel a sense of prickly discomfort and guilt either way. If I check “Mixed Race” or “Native American” in addition to “White,” I worry that I am being an appropriator or a poseur. As one friend put it, “everyone wants to be an Indian until they have to deal with the realities.” And I don't want to be that person—the one that appropriates but doesn't give back. The one that takes on the mantle of suffering without actually experiencing any of the suffering. The one that takes on legacies of power and pride that are not hers, legacies that she has not earned.

For me, like for many mixed race Americans, it is easy enough to “pass” as simply white, and the uncomplicated story often seems like the preferable one, the one less fraught with moral and political risk. After all, I've had all the privileges of being a white, educated, middle-class woman, and most of the time I think that's where I should stay. I think of Elizabeth Warren and Johnny Depp and others who have been publicly castigated for calling themselves Indian. I don't want to feel like that kind of pretender or subject myself to that type of ridicule, even if it's only in my own mind. On the other hand, if I just check “White” and call it good, I feel like a liar willing to leave a whole branch of my family behind for the sake of simplicity and safety. I feel like I am letting the assimilationists win.

Because the fact is, this is just how the founders and authors of the capital-A, capital-S “American Story” wanted it, and not just that nasty Andrew Jackson either. Thomas Jefferson, who both admired Native culture and set wheels in motion to obliterate it, wrote to the US Indian Agent Benjamin Hawkins:

In truth, the ultimate point of rest & happiness for them is to let our settlements and theirs meet and blend together, to intermix, and become one people. Incorporating themselves with us as citizens of the US, this is what the natural progress of things will of course bring on, and it will be better to promote than to retard it. Surely it will be better for them to be identified with us, and preserved in the occupation of their lands, than be exposed to the many casualties which may endanger them while a separate people. I have little doubt but that your reflections must have led you to view the various ways in which their history may terminate, and to see that this is the one most for their happiness.

Teddy Roosevelt summarized it this way:“But all of the Indians who had attained to an even low grade of industrial and social efficiency have remained in the land, and have for the most part simply been assimilated with the intruders, the assimilation marking on the whole a very considerable rise in their conditions.

And Henry Pratt, the founder of the notorious federal Indian boarding schools, put it even more bluntly when he advocated that the government “kill the Indian and save the man” and then proceeded to aggressively pursue what he called “assimilation through education.”

So here I am, living in the twenty-first-century West, in exactly the position that Jefferson and Jackson and Roosevelt and Pratt designed for me: assimilated and white and anchoring down their vision of civilization in the far corner of the American frontier. To continue calling myself white without footnote or protest makes me feel complicit in imperialism and like a pawn of their genocidal impulses.

I recognize that my version of this dilemma is a small one in a long line of uncomfortable—and often unjust—problems created by these check boxes. On the 1790 Census form, the only racial categories included were “Free White Males; Free White Females; All Other Free Persons; Slaves.” In 1910, they were “White; Black; Mulatto; Chinese; Japanese; Indian; Other.” The Census Bureau essentially created a new race in 1980 by separating out “Hispanics.” And Native Hawaiian wasn't included as an option on the Census form until 2000, which was also the first year that individuals were allowed to identify as belonging to more than one race. Since the time of the founding, Americans have struggled to find themselves in the categories they have been presented with. But in this particular iteration, it is not that the categories are not there for me; it's that I feel like a fraud no matter what I choose.

When it gets down to putting pen to paper and filling in the box with my own hand, questions of identity have other, less visible complexities. Yes, they present issues of race. And race and all that goes with it have deep political and social consequences. Race is the source of the gravest injustices Americans have perpetrated upon one another. So those questions are fraught from their inception.

But the questions also raise issues of family loyalty and gratitude and just plain good manners. In twenty-first-century America, we are rarely asked to think beyond the current moment and its short-term gains and losses. We are rarely asked to acknowledge our past or take account of our future. We are a nation that values the here and now, the hot story of the moment. So when we are asked to identify ourselves by racial and ethnic origin, it is one of the very few times when we are asked, “Who are your people? Where did they come from? Who do you bring with you?” In that context, when I check the box “White” and nothing else, I am bringing treasured people along with me—my German-Norwegian grandmother and my great-great-grandfather who was a “ship boy” between Germany and New York. I am bringing along sons and daughters of the American Revolution. And I am glad to have them there beside me.

But if I leave it at that, I abandon a whole bunch of other ancestors. I abandon my great-great-grandmother who lived on a dirt farm near the Arkansas-Missouri border, and my great-uncle, whom we remember because of the one photo we have of him with his rifle and his “pup dog,” as he wrote on the back. I deny my legendary great-grandfather who had a naughty streak and a taste for whiskey. And I leave behind my grandfather, who I remember for his sweet-smelling pipe and gravelly voice. When I think about all of them, it's not about passing or blood quantum or federal recognition. It is about my connection to real people. It is about being honest about who I love and honor. And to deny those dear ones to the likes of an Internet provider or census taker or employer feels disloyal and ungrateful. It's like bragging about the accomplishments of one of my children and pretending the other one doesn't exist. It makes me feel like I should be struck by lightning.

I also think that the urgency of the question of who comes along with me across generations and who is left behind is amplified by middle age and its nagging shadow of mortality. As I fill out some of the last school forms I will ever be faced with, I can't help but wonder what boxes my daughters and their children and the children after that will check. I wonder whether they will choose the simple boxes they inherited from their father, the ones that flow from England and Ireland and Germany. I wonder if I will get left behind because I make things too complicated or—worse—because I chose to make things simple.

All that said, though, I know this dilemma is a privilege: I live in a cloak of whiteness. Anytime I want, I can shelve my moral hand-wringing, check the “White” box, and never have to think or talk about race and its power dynamics and its ugly legacy unless I want to, and if I do, it can be on my own terms. This ability partially answers the question about what box I should check.

But it doesn't answer it entirely. There is a kind of polite, middle-class timidity in checking “White” in order not to offend, in trying to stay far from the line where anyone could possibly criticize me for being a poseur or an appropriator. There is privilege, yes, in taking the path of least resistance. But there is also cowardice and complicity. I want to come to this question with more fierceness, with more outrage and courage. I am reminded of and chastened by James Dickey's magnificent poem “For the Last Wolverine.” The entire poem embodies the snarl and wildness of an imagined wolverine before the species becomes entirely extinct. In Dickey's poem, the wolverine eats an “elk's horned heart” and mates with the last eagle in the branches of a tree. Here is where the poem ends:

Your unnoticed going will mean:
How much the timid poem needs

The mindless explosion of your rage,

The glutton's internal fire    the elk's
Heart in the belly, sprouting wings,

The pact of the “blind swallowing
Thing,” with himself, to eat
The world, and not to be driven off it
Until it is gone, even if it takes

Forever. I take you as you are
And make of you what I will,
Skunk-bear, carcajoy, bloodthirsty

         Lord, let me die    but not die

In the face of this invitation to “eat/ The world, and not to be driven off it,” I am ashamed of my own “timid poem,” of my own quiet dithering over which box to check on the survey about cereal preferences. Despite the best efforts of Andrew Jackson and his cronies past and present, Native cultures are alive and well in America. They have thrived in the face of tremendous adversity and violence.

But in my own lineage, the thread has grown thin. My grandparents are gone, and I fear their legacy is passing into milk-white obscurity. I am embarrassed by the placidity of my response. I certainly do not want to pretend that I carry the lived experience of Native peoples who are facing down fracking and depletion of fisheries and centuries of struggle to regain traditional lands. I can't speak to those injustices, but I do carry a different lived experience—one that is nameless and amorphous and without a box. If I were a braver woman and less timorous in the face of what my Cowlitz-French friend calls the “internalized fear of ridicule” or the “Johnny Depp syndrome,” I might approach those boxes more like the wolverine. I might spit on the form and scrawl across it: “I know you have to ask these questions. Go ahead. And what is my answer? You have turned me into a house cat with your Indian Removal Act and blood quantum measurements and deep concerns for my happiness that come tied up with a bow of obliteration. I am three generations removed from knowing what month the tart-sweet berries turn red or where best to hunt the fattest turkey. I am declawed and weak and trembling. So here's the answer: I cannot answer your questions. I have no idea what I am. Move along. Oh Lord, let me die. But not die out.”


America, Family, Identity, Justice, Oregon Humanities Magazine, Power, Race


3 comments have been posted.

I think you're simply confusing your racial heritage and your cultural heritage. Racially, you have European and Native roots. Culturally, and I can say this because I know you a bit, you are White. Unless you were to participate in the Native culture by attending your Tribe's activities and ceremonies, knowing at least some of your grandfather's language, and otherwise being a *member* of the social group, I don't see a quandary.

Kristy Athens | December 2014 | Enterprise, Oregon

This is not an insignificant issue --- moving forward in our world where we are becoming more diverse and more "mixed". Many people now and more in the future will know that they embody more than one race and will be faced squarely with the dilemma of how to honor all parts of themselves and their ancestors. And of course you write this with such style and skill. Bev Stein

Beverly Stein | December 2014 | Portland

Well done, Wendy, well done. The snarl of your conclusion is satisfying. Erik

Erik Westerholm | December 2014 | Brownsmead, OR

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