Beyond Pigmentocracy

How race, internalized oppression, and representation affect one mixed family

Amiran White

Our family is phenotypically diverse. Rachel is lighter-skinned, and Chance is dark. We both identify as Indigenous. Rachel is an enrolled citizen and Tribal Council member of the Chinook Indian Nation, a tribal community located at the mouth of the Columbia River that has been fighting a decades-long battle for federal acknowledgment. Chance, an enrolled citizen of the Oneida Tribe of Wisconsin, is Black and Indigenous from other regions of North America. Our children fall between us on the color spectrum. People often make assumptions about our family.

Rachel: When our eldest child was an infant, an elderly woman asked me, “Is your baby’s dad Asian or Mexican or something?” I replied, “We are Indigenous.” The lady looked at me, perplexed, but I didn’t allow her to ask me more questions. As Kanim grew older, he was frequently mistaken for an Asian girl.

By age three, Kanim had learned to correct individuals who made this mistake. He would say, “Actually, I am a boy, and I am not Asian.” These were the polite questions and comments. I’ve been asked by complete strangers if my sons have different dads. Chance has had the cops called on him for trying to put our tantrum-throwing toddler in his car seat, because someone thought Chance was trying to abduct him.

In 2004, sociologist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva used the term “pigmentocracy” to describe the race-based system of social stratification in the United States. He presents what he calls a “triracial order” that places “Whites” at the top of the social structure; “honorary Whites,” including light-skinned Latinos, certain Asian populations, and some “multiracials” in the middle; and “the collective Black” at the bottom. These categories are based mostly upon phenotypes, primarily skin color.

Our family has to live within this pigmentocracy daily. In urban settings, Chance is typically viewed as being part of “the collective Black.” He follows a certain set of rules to maintain his own physical safety, especially in the presence of authorities such as local police. Rachel, despite having tattoos that represent her Indigenous identity, passes as “White.”

The politics of skin color do not go away when our family enters an Indigenous community; instead, Bonilla-Silva’s triracial order gets turned upside down. Chance, who has brown skin and long hair, is typically perceived as Indigenous in any Indigenous community. Rachel’s Indigenous identity is often challenged, even though she is not only an enrolled member of the Chinook Indian Nation, but also serves on the tribal council as secretary and treasurer. She is responsible for conducting the Chinook Nation’s governmental business and is a keeper of traditional knowledge.

While in some settings the pigmentocracy provides Rachel with certain privileges, it also means she is oppressed by the very communities she most identifies with, socially, culturally, and professionally. This lateral, or internalized, oppression damages already deeply traumatized communities and individuals. Decolonization, the process of deconstructing systems of oppression caused by colonizing forces, cannot be realized without acknowledging internalized racism and lateral oppression.

A family portrait taken at a canoe gathering

Rachel: After I announced that I was expecting my first child, several individuals reached out to me with racially charged comments. The first inappropriate comment came from a childhood friend. She said, nonchalantly, “At least Chance’s Blackness and your Whiteness will cancel each other out, and your children will look Native.” This wasn’t the first time someone had said something like this to me. Several times in my life I have been asked, “Are you sure you want to date that person? Because what if you have children? You want Native children, right?” I am Native, so no matter who I have children with, my children will be Native.

The comment that was the hardest to receive was from my sister. She said, “Chance is part Black? Well, I’ll just have to ignore the fact that my nephew will be part nigger.” I couldn’t believe what she’d said. How could someone I was raised with be so hateful and racist? I told her she wouldn’t have to ignore anything, because my son wouldn’t know her. He doesn’t know her, and I don’t plan on him ever knowing her.

We cannot tolerate racist behavior. There cannot be a decolonized future if we do not bring attention to this behavior and shut it down. There cannot be a decolonized future while anti-Blackness exists in Indian Country. Racism is a product of colonization. Mixed families are our future.

Black and Indigenous children face enough hardship from the dominant community. They do not need to experience lateral violence in their home communities.

A photo of Rachel L. Cushman holding out her son, Kanim's, hair, showing it is as long as his arm

Rachel: “You don’t belong here!” was one of the first things my son was told when he started kindergarten. The phrase was coupled with a punch to the face. Kanim was five years old. He identified as a boy but had long hair that he wore in braids. He wore his hair like that to honor his heritage and to keep his connection with his ancestors.

When I asked Kanim how he wanted me to handle the incident, he replied, “I want you to teach him about my hair.” My five-year-old didn’t ask for retribution. By the time he was five, he had learned how to navigate racial slurs, microaggressions, and other oppressive acts. He had learned that the best way to undo ignorance was by educating.

Kanim’s experiences are strikingly analogous to the experiences of Indigenous and Black men in Oregon, both historically and in contemporary settings. When an Indigenous or Black person acts in a way that settler-colonial peoples consider to be “uncivilized” or “unsafe,” that person is often reprimanded or met with violence. In this instance, Kanim’s long hair goes against settler-colonial notions of masculinity. Among the Indigenous peoples of North America, long hair is often worn by both men and women. While most boys at Kanim’s school have short hair, when he returns to his tribe or other tribal communities, many of the men who are leaders have long hair.

The hostility Kanim faced was not an isolated incident; it was representative of a consistent problem throughout the state of Oregon. In a 2017 article in the Nation, journalist Rebecca Clarren writes that in Jefferson County School District 509J, which includes the Warm Springs Reservation, more than a third of the Native students in sixth through twelfth grades were suspended at least once during the 2015–16 school year—more than twice the rate of their White peers. Kanim is lucky that he did not retaliate physically when he was assaulted. Statistically speaking, he is more likely to be reprimanded for such actions.

Black and Indigenous people are overrepresented in Oregon’s prison systems and underrepresented in our postsecondary education institutions. Educational policy and practice mixed with a lack of representation or with misrepresentations of what it means to be Native or Black in this state has contributed greatly to this disparity. It wasn’t until 2017, when House Bill 2845 (Ethnic Studies) and Senate Bill 13 (Tribal History/Shared History) were enacted, that all public institutions were required to teach an accurate version of Oregon’s history. Prior to this legislation, many schools did not teach these subjects at all.

Representations of Indian Country in education and media are slowly shifting. We had very limited access to authentic representations of Indigenous people in mainstream media while growing up, but Kanim and our younger son, Isik, may have an abundance: Molly of Denali was an instant hit in our household when it was released in 2019, and TV Guide’s 2021 list of the “100 Best Shows on TV Right Now” includes Yellowstone, which features strong Native characters in a contemporary setting, and Rutherford Falls, a sitcom co-created by Navajo screenwriter Sierra Teller Ornelas, who also serves as an executive producer on the show.

Reservation Dogs, number forty on TV Guide’s list, was created by Taika Waititi (Maori) and Sterlin Harjo (Seminole) and features an all-Indigenous group of writers and actors. In its first season, the series highlighted many of the complexities of Indigenous identities, including Reservation versus urban life, death, substance abuse, “nontraditional family structures,” poverty, humor, and contemporary versus historical notions of warriorhood. The cast of Indigenous performers shows a wide spectrum of skin tones, deconstructing colonial notions of who is and who is not Native American.

While these movies and TV series are steps in the right direction, there is still a great need for more authentic representations of Indigenous peoples, representations that reflect the phenotypically diverse communities that make up Indian Country.

A photo of Chance White Eyes playing with his sonThere have also been changes in recent years to the representation of Indigenous peoples in Oregon’s educational curriculum. In 2017, the Oregon Legislature passed Senate Bill 13, which directs the Oregon Department of Education to create a curriculum for the K–12 system that more accurately represents Native peoples. This bill also provides professional development for educators and directs funds to each of the nine federally recognized tribes in Oregon so they can create their own individual place-based curriculum.

This too is a step in the right direction. Schools will now provide more abundant and more accurate representations and voices of the Indigenous peoples of Oregon. But the change is not without controversy: There are contested histories in Oregon, as some tribal communities disagree over certain specific historical events. And only federally recognized tribes are included, so Rachel, Kanim, and Isik’s tribe, the Chinook Indian Nation, is left out of this new curriculum. (The Chinook Indian Nation is not federally recognized because the system for acknowledgment is broken. All arguments made against the Chinook Indian Nation drip with White supremist culture and settler-colonial notions of Indigeneity.)

This issue isn’t isolated to Indigenous curricula. There is a need for improving all curricula having to do with the history and construction of race in this country and the disparities that result from them.

A photo of Rachel L. Cushman and her son, Kanim, talking in a kitchen

Rachel: In February 2020, Kanim said something that shocked me: “Look, Mama, there is a picture of a White hand and a Black hand.”

“I see. It has a quote from MLK. Are y’all learning about MLK this month?”

“Yeah, he wanted the two races to get along. He wanted Black kids and White kids to be able to play together.”

My gut reaction was to say, “You’ve been told there are two races? Who the heck is telling you that?” But I didn’t. I was mad, but not at Kanim. He looked like he had more to say, so I let him speak.

“Mama, I am brown and you are lighter. Are you White?”

I couldn’t believe that my son was asking if I was White. I have never identified as White. I acknowledge that as a White-passing person of color, I have privilege, but in my eyes the label “White” erases my experiences as an Indigenous person whose people are still fighting for justice. I’ve struggled in the settler-colonial world because of my identity and beliefs, and within Indigenous communities because of my tribal status and skin tone. As a mixed person, I’ve never felt fully accepted outside of my tribal community. Now my child was asking me a question that challenged my identity.

I got down on my knees and looked into Kanim’s eyes. “Kanim, there aren’t two races. You won’t understand this for a while, but race is a made-up thing. It is a social construction.” I saw I was starting to lose him, so I said, “I am Chinook, and I also have European ancestry. I don’t identify with my European ancestry. I identify as Indigenous. Your dad is Native, Black, and of European descent as well. He identifies as Indigenous too. We are both Indigenous, but mixed with other ancestry.”

I paused for a moment so he could respond.

“OK. But you are lighter,” he said.

“I am lighter, son. You and your brother don’t look exactly alike, right?” He nodded. “You have the same dad, right?” He nodded again. “But Isik is lighter than you, right?” I let him respond.

“Yes, we do look different. Why?” he asked.

I continued the conversation by telling him how genetic traits appear differently depending on what chromosomes are passed on from a person’s parents. I never dumb down conversations with my children. I want them to know the facts. If they have to deal with racism, they should be able to critically discuss it. Our conversation went on for a while.

We as a society need to have these difficult conversations. We must be able to discuss the social construction of race and how that social construction is deeply rooted in our society. We must acknowledge our history and dismantle institutional and social structures that perpetuate hate and oppression.

Oregon was founded on unfair treaty negotiations, and many Indigenous populations were forcefully removed from their territories. Most of those treaties have been broken in some capacity. Cities like Portland, The Dalles, and Eugene had exclusion and sundown laws. Black and Indigenous people were arrested for accessing these spaces. It was not until the 1960s that Black and Indigenous people could legally reside in the city of Eugene.

Oregonians are still living with the consequences of these historic injustices. Recent social movements, including Idle No More, #NoDAPL, Black Lives Matter, #MMIWG2S, and #Landback have reopened the discussion around issues of race and Indigeneity in contemporary society. Voices from historically disenfranchised communities are becoming louder and more assertive in media and educational settings, allowing for more diverse, accurate, and authentic representations of our various and mixed-race identities. What lies ahead for Oregon are more phenotypically diverse families that can articulate and represent their various ethnic, racial, and cultural backgrounds while also shifting to meet the challenges of an uncertain future.

Comments

4 comments have been posted.

Wow Rachel what an article. You said in an exceptional way what I have never been able to put into words. I’m so proud of you. You are on a roll, Keep going.

Roble Anderson | December 2021 |

Excellent!!!

Donna Martinez | December 2021 | Vancouver, Washington

This is beneficial for all readers! Since most of us born in the US have multi-racial backgrounds as a bi=product of colonization and enslavement. A very important read.

Liz Fouther-Branch | December 2021 |

Beautifully written - THANK YOU. In this time where science is under siege, getting Americans to learn enough to understand basic principles of inherited phenotype is a big and very necessary task!

Amy Felmley | December 2021 | 97321

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