by Crystal Dawn Draffen
I always knew that the reason my father came to get me from my mother was because she had a child after he left her and that child’s father was black. My grandmother who raised me would tell me there was no way she was going to leave her granddaughter to grow up in a house with a black boy. It didn’t matter to my grandmother that her son, my father, had left my mother before my birth. It didn’t matter that for two years my mother did not see my father or me. It didn’t matter that he had never seen me once before the day he came to get me.
Growing up I would ask where my grandparents were from. I was not allowed to speak of my real mother. I was told they were English, French and Irish, a regular Heinz 57 variety would be the joke. Once at a family reunion I overheard an elderly aunt ask, “Is that the whore’s child?” I was about four, before I started school, I guess.
What a strange word I thought. I glanced up to her and all the ladies standing near her. They were looking at me. Yes, someone said.
Discovering that I was different somehow from people I felt part of, my family as I knew it, had a profound effect on every aspect of my young life. My interest about who I was grew overnight. I must have questioned my grandmother to death until she finally told me about my mother and my brothers, one older brother and one younger brother. My younger brother was black. She never said anything about my mother being Native American. I recall her telling me that she thought my mother was pretty. I held that close to my heart.
Almost 60 now I think about how naïve I was to think I had a grasp of race relations at any time in my life. I am still trying to get a handle on it. I think of my younger brother and how we felt in NYC when we were the only two people on a subway with 10 of NYC finest on the other side of the car. Did I feel safe? No, I felt afraid and so did Chan. He whispered to me to get off at the next stop and we did. A young black man and a white woman laughing too loud, running and having fun at 5 a.m., rushing to get me to the train station so I could return to work in Albany. I thought about how it was so different for him. He wrote it about in his journals. Identifying with his Native American culture and honoring both that and his African roots was something he strived for. He was a beloved son of both and he struggled to bring his identity to all the artistic work he did. In the way that I “passed” as white, he “passed” as black, and both of us struggled to be recognized by our Native American kin. Yet here we were, all of our mother’s children, different yet the same.
I have felt fear because of hatred towards race. In the 80’s I camped out on the capital lawn in Albany and helped build a shanty town to pressure SUNY’s divestment in all companies with interests in South Africa. I helped organize an Anti-Apartheid March on Washington, DC in November of 1984. I felt that I had a grasp of race relations in America. Over the years, however, I realize that I am still sorting it all out. As much as I thought I understood what it means to be black in America, I have never been black in America. There is a degree of separation that cannot be bridged. I will never be black. People do not see me and see a Native American. They see white. I have witnessed many people make disparaging remarks about Native Americans, blacks, other nationalities and they thought it would not be judged by me because I look white and to them I am white.
I went through my entire college career checking off Native American on my forms and they always came back listing me as White/Caucasian. When I left college a student doing a survey sent it to me asking me what my Native American experience was like at school. Being cynical and a bit angry at the world, I took a sharpie and in big letters scrawled WHITE on the survey and sent it back. It is much larger an issue than what can be shared in survey.
The blanket of racism is so thick and it wants to generalize.
The reality is that we are connected on other levels. Our color, our culture, our country might vary, however all of who we are is really the same. We all want happiness. We all want our children to be safe, to provide food and shelter for our loved ones. We all want what is best for our family. We all have struggles, work hard, play hard and we all love. Love, love, love and that’s the real juice that makes us all go around.
When I tell my grandchildren that we are Native American and show them documents from the past they have this fascination in their eyes. As a child I would look at UNICEF posters and see images of children from all over the world holding hands and smiling. I admired the differences in the world. There are so many things to learn. Wouldn’t it be awesome if we all respected the differences in each other, if we found out that cooperation and respect would change the world to a better place for everyone, what would happen then? Why is the blanket of racism spread over entire countries, entire peoples, or entire cultures? Where did we learn that? What good has it done?
I am a MIX. I have Euro blood and Native blood. I am not alone. There are many more of us. Let’s make a quilt of love and spread it over the world. Let’s join hands, realize our similarities, admire our differences and beginning there, we can make our world a better place.
Crystal is a contributor to THE MIX and is writing her memoir.