I Am a Native American Woman With White Privilege

Guest Post by Misty Ellingburg

Note from the author: This blog uses the term “white privilege.” The correct term is “white-passing privilege.” Please note that white-passing privilege is what I am referring to in this blog. 

First off, I think it’s important to say that I do not, and have not ever primarily identified as white. On my mother’s side, I’m Native American, enrolled in ghostmy Tribe, and, to a large extent, raised in my culture.  I was born on the reservation and lived on or near reservations for much of my life.  Indigenous cultural signifiers are important to me – I love Coastal designs and canoes.  I love to eat Salmon, attend gatherings, and socialize at potlatches or powwows. However, due to genetics (while both my grandparents on my mother’s side are Indigenous, my grandmother is light-skinned, and my grandfather, of mixed ancestry) it so happens that I am light.  Like, really light.  Light as a ghost, let-me-put-my-arm-next-to-yours-and-compare-whiteness light.  Some people call me glow-worm because they think I’ll be florescent under blacklights.

There are a lot of ways in which it sucks to be a light or white-presenting Native American.  I’m often not recognizable, even to people of my own nationality.  Sometimes, I even have to perform to be seen by myself, as if by wearing turquoise and beadwork, I won’t get so lost in the Western world.  Of course, it’s so much deeper than that, but it can help to have outward reflections of an inner truth.  If I’m not performing for myself, it can feel as if I’m performing to others.  At times, (though very rarely) others with mixed-Native heritage have compared themselves to me, as if I were on the bottom of the scale for Native-presenting-ness. “Oh, I look mixed, but I look more Native than Mistylynn, right?”  This desperately begs the question, What does a Native person look like?  As I’ve posed it at other times on my blog, I’ll leave that question for others to chew on.  Suffice to say, the need to be visible, and to have a voice as an Indigenous woman, is important to me.  Native issues are my issues, are the issues of my people.  I identify as an American Indian woman.

And I have white privilege.

I’ve thought about this more and more in passing weeks. The shooting in Charleston, the death of Sandra Bland, the deaths of many, many more – all of these things have affected me on a deep level.  When Mike Brown was murdered, I was so outraged that I immediately became that awkward person, jutting into a conversation not my own, all well-meaning, bumbling passion that needed to learn its place.  My place, I now know, during this epidemic of police brutality, violence, and death, is as an ally. I can listen to what my Black friends share and say is their experience.  I can believe them because they tell me it’s true.  And I can choose to stand with them, encourage them, lift up and amplify their voices by listening, learning, and sharing what they tell me.

And part of what they’re telling me is that there are things I take for granted that I receive as a direct result of my skin color.  Because I am Indigenous and I do face a great deal of challenges specific to my nationality, I have often wrongly believed that I don’t have white privilege.  That isn’t true, because the larger world views me as a white woman.  When I’m out and about in the rural area I live in, white people assume I am their natural ethnic ally.  Police officers don’t stop me on erroneous, trumped up charges.  In fact, I could, hypothetically, see a police officer, and feel either more safe, or neutral.  I can look at a TV and see people who look like me.  In magazines, movies, and casting calls, white is considered normal or standard.  Avatar actress Zoe Saldana once said that she was turned down for a role because her skin was “too dark.” Said Zoe, “It’s only dark if you’re comparing it to something.”

But there’s more.  At airports, I am not searched randomly.  I can walk at stores without being followed around.  With a few exceptions, people don’t tell me I’m “articulate” or say, “You speak English so well!”  I can find makeup to match my skin tone. “Nude” colored products are the same shade I am.  I can attend a pool party and be reasonably sure a thirty-five year-old man won’t barrel-roll in and pin me to the ground, knee against my back, constricting my breathing. I’m not likely to be put in a choke-hold.  My last words will not be, “I can’t breathe.”

As painful and uncomfortable as it is for me to admit, my light skin benefits me at every conceivable social and political institution in the United States. It means everything from concealer, to skin-care products, to my very life.

But, you might think, Misty, you have had a lot of things go wrong due to your Indigenous ancestry.  You’ve experienced land-theft, you’ve seen poverty, heck, the house where your brother lives had a sign hung by white folks that said, “Future Indian Ghetto.”  The white folks who hung that sign saw you as an Indian.  Your Tribe sees you as Indian.  Even the Federal government recognizes it, and you’ve experienced persecution and racism firsthand, through the specific context of being a woman of color.  How can you, of all people, benefit from white privilege?

I had a hard time understanding it, too.  It all comes down to colorism: people of color with lighter skin are treated better in a white supremacist society, plain and simple.  None of my past experiences, none of the experiences of my ancestors, negate the fact that, by virtue of my skin color alone, I have access to better healthcare, better education, and higher-paying jobs.

I’m writing this because I want other light-skinned people to acknowledge their privilege and admit that it isn’t normal that, by virtue of having light skin alone, one is automatically safer, wealthier, and better off in a society with institutions made to give them the upper hand.  I want white people to admit to their own gross privilege, not because of shame, but because we should want equality.  We should not be okay with a white girl getting her traffic violations waved by acting innocent to a police officer, but Sandra Bland dying because she didn’t use a turn signal.  We can’t think Miley is cute for smoking weed, but Trayvon was a thug who got what he deserved.  We cannot continue to justify police brutality by using the politics of respectability as an excuse.  That’s saying, “You deserved to get catcalled because of your outfit.”  We all know the outfit has nothing to do with it.  But perhaps that is a clumsy metaphor as well.  It sucks to be catcalled, but it would suck even worse to die.

I am acknowledging that I have white privilege, and I am demanding that all equal rights “privileges” should apply to everyone, not just those with light skin.  I want everyone to be safe from police brutality.  I want the wage gap to close, not just for women, but for women of color.  I want an inner-city Black child to have the same access to safe, comprehensive education with qualified and passionate teachers, as his or her white peer.  And for god’s sake, I want Taylor Swift to shut up when Nicki Minaj is talking.

The first step is to acknowledge, to see oneself, to hold up a mirror and really, truly look, and not look away.

I’ll close with a story: When I got to Thailand, the first big poster I saw was an advertisment for a product called “Snail White.”  Snail White is a skin-lightening cream hyped to Asian women. Even here, it is considered better to be white, to be as white as you can possibly be.  To be a ghost.  To disappear entirely, a transluscent wunderkind, like Harry, Ron, and Hermione under a veritable Invisibility Cloak.


Writer, graduate student, artist teacher. I social justice blog and persist in being optimistic that the world will change. I post Facebook statuses about politics [because I am the worst kind of person]. Feminist, Liberal. Lover of books and babies. Jesus is my light and my salvation. Martin Freeman is my husband. Reservation born Indigenous not ur babe. I write grants and wear Disney shirts and pretend to be a scholar with my bug-eyes magnified in thick-framed glasses. I will outnerd you every day without even trying. You’re welcome.

instagram: mistyellingburg
twitter: pipedownmist
FB: /theyhaveacavetroll

Typewriter: Top Photo: Misty’s Facebook page

To stay connected, like my blog page on Facebook.

An amazing follow-up to this widely-read post: HERE

So where do I fit? I’m not straddling the fence between two worlds. I’m not on any fence. I’m being wrongly perceived as a white woman by mainstream society, having my real, true identity as an American Indian undermined and not acknowledged, and this comes both from white folks and from other Indians. Then, the white privileges I discussed in my previous article allow me to at least walk safely through society, but only up until the exact moment that my Native American nationhood is discovered by a racist. Then, the pendulum swings the other way.


2 thoughts on “I Am a Native American Woman With White Privilege

  1. michaelwatsonvt September 23, 2015 / 9:12 am

    Great post! I also pass freely through the world, although I am increasing seen as a Native elder in the larger community. This is mostly good, except when it isn’t. My parents taught me to pass invisibly through settler culture. That teaching brings both heartache and safety. Sigh.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Lara/Trace September 23, 2015 / 10:02 am

      It’s like hiding in plain sight – “safe and invisible” – I fear many Indians still do this


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