A Voice From the <1 Percent

features-being-a-minority-by-sarah-chen
Photo by Sarah Chen

        Growing up in Brooklyn, I’ve been exposed to almost every culture. This city truly is the melting pot of the world—and yet, it’s still a struggle to connect with people who identify as Native American. Even in a city as diverse as New York, at every school I’ve attended, I’ve found myself to be the one Native kid. Stuyvesant is no exception. In an environment primarily driven by the college admissions process, my ethnicity is viewed as a weapon I use to get ahead. Casual racism is allowed to flow freely and goes largely unnoticed.

        It still amazes me how many times I’ve had the exact same conversation with different people. It begins with a question about why I have long hair and quickly diffuses into a barrage of questions regarding the legitimacy of my heritage.

        The classic, seemingly innocent question, “What part Indian are you?” always strikes a chord.  I am forced to curb the urge to channel my anger into sarcasm, responding that only one finger on each hand is Native. Instead, I explain how my grandfather was adopted off the Seneca reservation by a white family just performing their civic duty to save a savage heathen.

        At this point, the listener chooses to validate my heritage by assuring me that I am, in fact, Native American enough. However, this gracious concession is clearly disingenuous and often followed up by either a racist joke or a comment about going to Dartmouth. Personally, I prefer the racist jokes.

        While the conversation unfolds, I think about how much easier it would be to just say I’m from Park Slope and have the man bun be instantly justified without question. Yet, each time, I begrudge the frustrating and boring conversation in an attempt to prove that my people still have a place in today’s society.

        To deny my heritage would be equivalent to killing my already suffering culture. Even the most progressive people I know try to tell me that I am white and shouldn’t pretend to be something I’m not. This, to me, echoes centuries of systematic eradication of Natives and, in reality, is just a modern day reprise of “Kill the Indian, save the man.”

        My own experiences are unique, and I don’t pretend to speak for the entire diverse Native population. However, I feel it is tragic that, in today’s social climate, where political correctness is everything, Native Americans are so casually and regularly oppressed.

        It takes gross human rights violations before people care enough to toss out a #NoDAPL on social media. Natives are shamelessly used as mascots for professional sports teams that play on stereotypes of savagery and violence. Tribal patterns are used in fashion with no regard for their meaning or importance in Native culture. Celebrities dress up in headdresses with no understanding of the cultural appropriation they are condoning. The only other stereotypes are about unfortunate vices that have been imparted on the Native population and now plague reservations.

        Unfortunately, at Stuyvesant, we are barely taught anything about Native American culture or society beyond the Trail of Tears, and even that is glazed over along with everything before colonialism. The curriculum suggests that indigenous people are no longer around, and, when we represent a fraction of a percent of the student body, it’s easy to believe. I’ve read exactly one short story by a Native author during my four years at Stuyvesant. To my disappointment, it was about a drunk Indian. There’s much more to the story, but it still left a bitter taste in my mouth to read about an unfortunate stereotype without balance from any cultural positivity.

        All racism aside, the single most annoying thing that I deal with is the skepticism. Nobody has their ethnicity challenged like Native Americans. Nobody goes up to an Irish guy and demands to know his pedigree. Too many people believe that the only reason to call oneself Native is so that they get into college. The idea that there’s no other value to our culture is beyond offensive and undermines the generations of struggle to preserve it.

        I have always been extremely proud of my heritage, and I’ve worked hard to immerse myself in Native culture. Attending powwows and spending time on reservations has assured me that my pride is well-placed. In a world where corporations own the planet and misogynists are allowed to become political leaders, it’s easy to lose faith in society. It always grounds me to revisit Native American values, such as respect for women and our mother Earth, traits which are, unfortunately, at a deficit in the United States.

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