I am a person used to hiding. An ostrich out of sand. That’s why I like pockets, next best thing to a hole to hide inside. Inner coat pockets, secretly sewn in pockets, those are the best. That’s where I hide my flask. Gotta keep it somewhere the neighbors can’t see. Don’t want everyone on the D train to know my secret, to know where I hide it– my flask of faces. It’s all about stealth, about fitting in, about slipping through the cracks of recognition. Who do I want to be now in the station? Who do I want to be at the next stop? The problem is I knock back so many hits, I forget sometimes myself what face I’m wearing. I’m riding mixedblood on the train and nobody, not even me, knows who I am.
Silently I will myself to shift, to become something people can understand, to feel I might actually belong here. If you look long enough the abyss at the bottom of a question mark might become the period of a definite statement. Or at least that is what I am hoping for. Except I am no master of illusions, more of a failing apprentice. No matter what face I might think I have put on, most are left guessing. What are you? Central Asian, Mexican, Ecuadorian, Peruvian, Pacific Islander, Vietnamese or just plain ole White.
No never, white. I can’t be white. Please, God, don’t let them think I’m white. How ironic for a mixed blood Navajo, an indigenous survivor, to be paranoid of playing the part of white invader. I see those other white folks on the platform staking their claim to young hipness further and further down the line. Am I like them? I glance over quick to the bearded man and his waif-like girlfriend. They seem nice and all but I look away fast lest anyone take my eye contact as some sort of secret agreement of understanding, part of the conspiracy of coolness. I am not like them. Please, God, don’t let anyone think I am like them.
Because I remember all too well that day, that horrible day, when the whole train, what seemed like the whole world turned to me and saw only whiteness. It was winter, my most pale season. I got on the 1 train at 116th St-Columbia University and stepped right into my own nightmare. A busker was sitting in the middle of the train, strumming a guitar and ad libbing little tunes at the expense of the strap-hangers around him. It was all jokes and merriment. Until, he turns to me and launches into a ditty entitled “White Lady.” I can’t recall most of the lyrics. Something about me wearing a scarf and going to college, which is all true. I couldn’t really hear anything except “white lady” over and over again as people nodded along, laughing to themselves and to each other with great elan. I laughed too. What else could I do? I didn’t want to be that white person, the stiff, upper crust Columbia student who couldn’t take a joke. So I blushed and I laughed and I looked around desperately searching for a hole to disappear into. Should I have told the musician I wasn’t white? Would he have believed me? If everyone thinks you’re a white lady, does that mean you are?
Don’t get me wrong. This is isn’t some, “Oh god, life is so hard when people think you’re white” story. Being read as white once in a while may be an existential crisis, but it is not a day-to-day struggle to overcome prejudice, dismissal and violence. That is the reality reserved for Native people who are read as Native. This is a story of much smaller problems. This is the story of never being seen as who you are…to the point that you disappear. There is a violence there, the forceful removal of an identity, but it is a violence much less severe than being dragged from you car and beaten by baseball bats because you are a Native woman in a reservation border town.
No, to be a light-skinned mixedblood is not usually physically painful, but it is to feel everyday that you are disappearing into an gaping emptiness in the center of your being. And even though that emptiness may sometimes be replaced by the blankness of a white identity, it hardly ever sticks. To be granted that white privilege, to pass through the world unquestioned and secure is passing only in the transitory sense. For it is a conditional privilege and conditional privilege is never the same as privilege unqualified. Yet, the thing is you could exhaust yourself, and many do, chasing that conditional privilege trying to make it real.
I call it The Last Temptation to be White. That temptation hung in front of me most of my life. I didn’t want to have to explain my eyes or my superb summer tan. I didn’t want to feel exotic or sexualized. I wanted to be left alone. I wanted that carefree look of arrogant ignorance. I wanted that to be snow blind from the sun reflecting off my glistening, unmarked skin. The thing is I might pull it off in the dead of winter if you’re looking to be fooled. But the rest of the time my whiteness fails. I may have the privilege of racial ambiguity and relatively light skin, but it’s not too long before the impurities come to the surface.
Why it happened just last month, when once again and as always riding on the D train, I had the poor fortune of sitting beside a group of four from New Jersey. They were a gregarious group, first chatting up a intrepid IKEA shopper and then in their masochistic need for small talk, they turned to me.
“Excuse me, excuse me,” the pretty one asked, “What NATIONALITY are you?”
I wasn’t in the moods for games. I didn’t feel like taking out my American passport and saying, “Does this answer your question?” because it wouldn’t have. Like any mugging on the subway, I looked down and gave her what she asked for.
“Erm, um, Navajoirish,” I stung together my words trying to make the awkward clash of civilizations sound as quotidian as “German” or “Taiwanese-American”.
“What?!” the pretty one screeched nearly falling out of her seat with bulging eyes of amazement.
“NAVAJO-IRISH,” I enunciated every letter so as not have to repeat this trial a second longer.
“Oh ma god, that is soooooo cool!”
“Shut up, you don’t even know what that is,” the beefy one protested.
“Uh yeah I do. It’s Native American. You know I love Native Americans.”
I’m unsure what her opinions on the Irish were but it was good to know she loved part of me for who I was.
Then it was time for all four of them to inform me what they had previously been guessing my nationality was. This is my favorite part. It reveals the question of my daily torment, the burdensome mystery of what others think of you.
“Yeah, I thought you were Spanish or something.”
“Mmhm, you definitely have that Spanish look, like Puerto Rican maybe.”
“But you can see it, the Navajo. It’s in your eyes,” one of them spoke outlining in the air that ineffable quality of Indian, apparently lying somewhere around my pupils.
“Mmm, definitely,” the chorus rang nodding and staring at me, along with every other stranger on the train.
The beefy one chimed in again with a surprisingly specific guess, “I would say you look like Peruvian or maybe, like, from Northern Chile.”
I felt like I was a Cash Cab-inspired show called What’s My Nationality?, in which people start with $1,000 and lose 100 every time they incorrectly guess my nationality. I would really like to make that show, but on the subway and somehow I get to keep all the money.
Odd thing is, there had been many times I wished someone would ask. Many times I wish I had an excuse to could come right out and lay out my whole genealogy on the lap of someone I am delusional enough to believe is as obsessed with my identity as I am. But, such behavior would have me promptly labeled as unstable and possibly in need of medication. All I can say is, thank God for the internet.