Race, Recognition, and Exotica

This is not me. (It is, however, a Caddo headpiece.)

The central idea behind my examination of the word exotic was hardly difficult to pinpoint: Calling a woman exotic is calling her the Other. And putting women into that category—particularly when there’s eau de hypersexualization wafting about with the method—isn’t something nice people do, agreed? Agreed.

So here’s my dirty little secret: Whenever exotic been applied to me, I’ve...sort of liked it. For me, a white woman who has a not-terribly-distant-but-not-terribly-visible non-European background—American Indian, specifically Caddo and Cherokee—being set apart with exotic can feel like a acknowledgement of my heritage. My ethnicity doesn’t jump out at you, and because of my skin color most everyone would call me white, including myself. But it’s evident enough—my cheekbones, my hair, my yellow-tinged skin—that every so often an “exotic” floats my way.

I really don’t want to undermine the reasons that exotic can be insidious, divisive, and even hurtful; I want to see the microaggressions of exotic disappear far more than I ever want it actually applied to me. But the fact is, whenever it happens I smile, if only to myself. I’m sheepish about this reaction, but in some ways it’s actually in line with my thoughts on the Othering of exotic: It’s a way of identifying its subject as different. Brown women don’t have an option in this, and that’s exactly why it’s troublesome. I have the privilege—the white privilege—of being able to revel in the handful of occasions exotic is tossed my way, for the very reason that women who hear it far more frequently may be fed up with it: It calls out my heritage. In my case, it’s a piece of my heritage that often gets swept under the rug; my pale skin means that while I’m occasionally asked what I “am,” it's not immediately evident that my family tree has branches anywhere but Europe. When the topic comes up, there’s often a sort of post-hoc qualification: “I knew you were something,” or “So that’s it!”

In fact, one of the few times I’ve had confirmation someone has seen my ancestry without mentioning it was when I got a makeover from Eden DiBianco, who, when I mentioned it, just nodded and said she’d known at a glance. Now, as a makeup artist she’s an expert in faces so this isn’t too surprising, but I don’t think it’s a coincidence that she’s got experience with this herself—her Puerto Rican heritage is often overlooked because of her skin tone. But our similar experiences led her to the opposite conclusion about exotic: “It’s such a cop-out word. People are so disappointed to find out I’m Puerto Rican because I’m not ‘exotic’-looking enough for them to be able to spot me coming. Apologies for just looking like an ethnic white girl, but sheesh, should I have salsa-ed in with a fruit basket on my head? I hate that word. What am I, a bird?”

So I’m certainly not trying to make some sort of case for exotic; for every not-entirely-white woman like me who finds it a fleeting portal to a whitewashed lineage, there are probably dozens who pick up on its microaggressions and swath of sexualization and would prefer not to hear it at all. What I am saying, though, is that my covert eagerness to hear the word reflects both the shame and the pride I have about my ancestry: pride in being a tiny part of a culture that’s small but vibrant, and shame in feeling that whatever my tribal enrollment papers might say, I’m not “really” Indian.

Being any race is tricky, being Indian particularly so. Are you Indian because of your bloodline? Your culture? Visibility? Self-identification? Tribal enrollment? Skin color? Community? I’m one-quarter ethnically Indian, never lived on a reservation, have few Indian friends, usually check “white” on forms but may sometimes check “American Indian” for the hell of it, and can count on two hands the number of people who have asked me flat-out if I’m Native American. Short of going to powwows, owning a collection of Native treasures both handed down and purchased, and having tribal Caddo enrollment, I grew up about as non-Indian as Indians get.

But hey, I went to preschool—preschool!—on the reservation. The fact I feel compelled to share this illuminates the ways I try to “prove” my ethnicity. I want to distance myself from the “pretendians” with the “Cherokee princess” seven generations back (when will those types learn that Cherokees didn’t have princesses?), whose own lost ethnic identity leads them to cling to some sort of one-drop rule—while not being nearly as eager to claim African American blood, incidentally—for there's a part of me that's afraid my own one-quarter rule isn't much different. (Meanwhile, it’s not like I’m making a big effort to learn about my British heritage—which, while more of a hodgepodge than my Caddo heritage, makes up a far larger piece of my genetic pie than my American Indian blood. Being Indian is more “interesting,” it seems, even to me.) So I’ll tote out my “real” claims to my heritage: the preschool! the tribal enrollment! hey, my great-grandparents met at Carlisle Indian School! my father worked for Indian Health Service for 30 years! I write for an Indian magazine! one-quarter quantum blood! except not really because I’m only one-eighth Caddo and one-eighth Eastern Band of Cherokee except maybe not even that because who really knows who my biological great-great-grandfather was? hey, wanna see my shawl?

Underlying the balancing act of recognizing my heritage without staking a claim that simply isn’t mine is the fact that like indigenous people worldwide, American Indians have a long history of oppression. Meanwhile, I’ve never, not once, faced oppression based on my race (unless you count the occasional conversation with Sweat Lodge Dude who wants to quiz me about my spiritual beliefs). It’s hard for me as a mostly-white woman to write about my heritage because I’ve benefited from white privilege my entire life and don’t want to discount the role of oppression in Indian life, but I also don’t want to frame race solely as a story of oppression or need; fact is, plenty of “real” Indians (whatever that is, I suppose I’m thinking of someone more connected with the community than I am) live lives similar to mine. So you could argue that by being vocal about my heritage but not, like, doing rain dances, I’m demonstrating that oppression isn’t the entirety of the American Indian experience. But I never want to forget that in this country today, it's my British lineage, not my Indian blood, that allows me to walk through the world without bearing the burden of an increased risk of rape, suicide, maternal mortality, diabetes, domestic violence, or poverty. I don’t have to think about treaty and land rights, the legacy of compulsory sterilization, or the tribal or urban Indian health care system. I do think about these things, but it’s a conscious learning exercise when I do, not something thrust upon me without me having any say in the matter.

But what this also means is that in many ways I’m framing race as something others see me as, not as something I experience in my own personal manner. And even in that way, I’m not “Indian enough”: I know shamefully little about Caddo or Cherokee history (though I’m learning), and I’ve never spent significant time in Caddo lands. Whatever Indianness I feel beyond the mere fact of my blood is something I’ve largely conjured on my own, either through research or rumination.

In a way, though, that’s just the point: Thinking about and exploring my heritage is how I experience being Indian. It is an internal experience for me. And so, yes, whenever that experience is externalized—whenever I am called exotic, which, I should make clear, happens only rarely—it’s a brief moment of recognition. And even though I’m usually only called exotic by men, and usually when the context makes me think I’m being sexualized just the teensiest bit, there’s a part of me that takes pride in it; a part of me that usually lays silent is being seen.

The word can feel like a gift, even if it’s not the gift its giver intended. It can feel like a caress from my great-grandmother or a whisper from my great-grandfather, a founding member of the National Congress of American Indians whose internalized oppression bitterly shines through on the pages of his “humor” book, “Heap Big Laugh.” It can feel like a kiss from my grandfather, whose relationship with his ethnicity is a mystery to me but which I suspect is best expressed by the contents of a glass cage that stayed in his home for years: His father’s regalia stays in a frozen display, the intricate work of beads, feathers, and porcupine quills safely separated from the rest of his life.

That regalia is now in my parents’ home, where it is a point of familial pride and is surrounded by Indian art, including gifts my father was given during his long career with the Indian Health Service: sand paintings, beadwork, quilts. Hell, there’s a pipe, though not a peace pipe. I look at his regalia every time I visit, peering through the glass that still keeps it contained. Honoring those who came before us is a key part of traditional Native culture, and as I look at what my great-grandfather wore, I’ve wondered if he’d think I was a “bad Indian” for knowing so little about Caddo life—or whether he’d consider me Indian at all.

There is a postscript here that makes me wonder. I recently learned that my grandfather’s attempt to donate his father’s regalia to the Caddo Heritage Museum was thwarted: My great-grandfather, a freemason, had Masonic designs woven into the pattern. The regalia, from the museum’s point of view, was next to worthless. All this time, I'd been projecting a sort of ethnic purity onto my grandfather out of a need to heighten my own legitimacy, while in his day, he was shaping what it meant to be Native through his own lens. He was less interested in preserving an idea of the past than in bringing his life—not his “way of life,” but his life—into the present, reinterpreting pride both personal and collective and emerging with a Masonic breastplate made of porcupine quills. Heap big laugh indeed.