Wednesday, June 03, 2015

Diversity Matters: Being Mixed Race as a Teenager

I recently wrote a post, Diversity Matters: Being Mixed Race and it felt like the Internet exploded in its support of me and my story and my call for more diversity in literature. I'd always planned on writing a series of blog posts about my experiences but, to be honest, I felt nervous following up that original blog post.  Here is my attempt.

If you've read that first post, you'll know that I'm mixed race (my dad is white, my mother is Native American) and that my childhood was filled with quite a bit of racism and racist experiences that left me feeling confused and alienated and feeling mostly that I hated myself and my Native American side that made me different from everyone else.

In high school, things felt different.

I don't know if these changes happened because my schoolmates and I were all older or if it was because my family had moved to a new neighbourhood. Either way, it felt in high school like I had something to prove.  Or live up to and that I failed miserably at both.

I remember quite clearly being in class and the teacher and one of the school council delegates was talking about diversity. Someone had informed the students that they needed more people of colour on the school council for things 'to be fair' A black girl was singled out and even though I didn't do anything further about school council, I still felt under pressure. That I held some responsibility that I hadn't before.

Another time in class, a teacher brought up another student and said that this student was 'the most out and proud person' he knew about her Native American heritage and as he was saying this, he looked pointedly at me. It felt like I was being judged for the amount (or lack thereof) of pride that I had in my own heritage. Both of these experiences made me feel like I needed to be 'more' Native for other people. Like someone else needed me to fill in a role that I didn't feel comfortable filling.

I joined the Native American Student Union in my high school.  There were about 8 or 10 of us. I should have felt like I belonged but I didn't.  Nobody else was mixed like I was. Nobody else was from the Tlingit tribe. There were girls (and they were all girls) there who had feathers in their hair and spoke enthusiastically about local events and powwows and other activities she was part of. I felt like I wasn't Native 'enough' in their presence as I didn't have the same experiences, take part in the same activities or come from a shared background. I wanted to belong and I didn't.  I took part in some of their fundraising ventures but quickly stopped attending meetings. Being Native American wasn't enough to bond us together.

I don't have clear memories of my high school classes but the feeling I get when I try to remember is that there were definitely more people of colour in my high school than there were in the elementary schools that I attended (as witnessed by 10 members of the Native American Student Union!). In my year, I had a Mexican friend, an Iranian friend, a Filipino friend. It just felt like things were more commonplace than they were in my different schools and that race became less of an issue.

But it wasn't like it wasn't an issue at all either. Movies like Dances With Wolves or The Last of the Mohicans in the 90s made an impact on my high school. There was talk of not angering me so that it would prevent me from 'scalping' anyone. I was asked where I kept my tomahawk. I was asked what my Indian name was constantly. (Some people made up offensive names up for me when I responded that I didn't have one.) One of the terms I couldn't escape during this period of time was 'Indian giver' about the apparent untrustworthiness of American Indians. I was mistaken for Eskimo. I was told quite often to 'go back to the reservation where I belonged' (Nobody stuck around for me to tell them that the Tlingit people had never lived on reservations)

Other people just called me more Mexican-based racist terms. Because no where could I escape that.

I write these things and share my experiences because I want things to be different. No doubt they already are but more can always be done. I don't want to see the same stereotypes played out for other young people of colour. Other mixed race children growing up.

I want more diversity in literature so that people everywhere know that one story about Native Americans isn't the same story for all of us. I want better representation to spread better knowledge and understanding of our individual and collective experiences and to banish some of these stereotypes.

I think by having more stories about a wide array of different cultures and experiences will mean that not only will young readers see a better reflection of themselves but it will also go some way in educating others about they different experiences of other people.


  1. Poignant post Michelle, and really sorry you got bullied for being Native American - the irony is I ALWAYS wanted be a Native American, as long as I can remember. Coolest thing ever - be proud! :)

    1. Thanks Lu! It took awhile (a very long while!) but I am definitely proud of where I came from :)

  2. Amazing post, Michelle. And I always wished I was from somewhere more interesting than Ipswich.

  3. Michelle--here's an extensive list of books by/about Native people.


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