About Us: White identity politics — they’re not just for men

Candid conversations about identity in 21st-century America
The Washington Post

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Candid conversations about identity in 21st-century America
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When the federal government erases your identity

Do white people in America face discrimination?

Patriotism is not a requirement to be a good American”


What makes someone Native American?

Lisa Rab
contributing writer

In March 2012, Heather McMillan Nakai wrote a letter to the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs asking the agency to verify that she was Indian. She was seeking a job at the Indian Health Service and wanted to apply with “Indian preference.” Nakai knew this might be difficult: As far as she was aware, no one from her North Carolina tribe — the Lumbee — had ever been granted such preference.

Her birth certificate says she’s Indian, as did her first driver’s license. Both of her parents were required to attend segregated tribal schools in the 1950s and ’60s.

Yet in the eyes of the BIA, the Lumbee have never been Indian enough. Responding to Nakai the following month, tribal government specialist Chandra Joseph informed her that the Lumbee were not a federally recognized tribe and therefore couldn’t receive any federal benefits, including “Indian preference.” Invoking a 1956 law concerning the status of the Lumbee, Joseph wrote: “The Lumbee Act precludes the Bureau from extending any benefits to the Indians of Robeson and adjoining counties,” where Nakai is from. Joseph enclosed a pamphlet titled “Guide to Tracing Indian Ancestry.”

What makes someone Native American? Is it a matter of race, or culture, or some combination of both? The Lumbee don’t fit neatly into any racial categories, but they have long been living as Indians, cultivating unique traditions and community.


Heather McMillan Nakai (Travis Dove for The Washington Post Magazine)

For Lumbees as a group, their long struggle to win recognition has been complicated by their history of interracial marriage — even though interracial marriage was common among southeastern tribes prior to the Civil War. Many powerful western tribes have “a perception that the Lumbee are really a mixed-race, mainly African group,” said Mark Miller, a history professor at Southern Utah University who has written extensively about tribal identity. That “original sin,” he said, is a major cause of the Lumbees’ political problems.

In the Jim Crow South, white ancestry was acceptable for indigenous people, but black blood was not.

When the United States was dividing up reservations and providing land “allotments” to Indians, a government commission told the Mississippi Choctaw that “where any person held a strain of Negro blood, the servile blood contaminated and polluted the Indian blood.” Many Native Americans internalized these racial politics and adopted them as a means of survival. After North Carolina established a separate school system for Indians in Robeson County in the late 1880s, some Lumbees fought to exclude a child whose mother was Indian and whose father was black.

In their segregated corner of North Carolina, Lumbees enjoyed more power and privileges than their black neighbors, but this was not the case for Native Americans in every state. In Virginia in the 1920s, Indians were required to classify themselves as “colored,” whereas Oklahoma considered Indians to be white — prompting Creek Indians to reject tribal members with black ancestry.


Reggie Brewer (Travis Dove for The Washington Post Magazine)

By the early 1930s, the Lumbee had spent several decades trying to persuade Congress to recognize them as Indians, and now sought to be recognized under the provisions of the Indian Reorganization Act. In 1936, representatives of the federal Office of Indian Affairs traveled to Robeson County to determine the purity of the tribe’s “Indian blood.” Harvard-trained anthropologist Carl Seltzer and his colleagues conducted tests on 209 people. They measured skulls, opened people’s mouths and examined the size of their teeth. Seltzer noted whether each person’s hair was “straight,” “curly,” “frizzy” or “fine.” He scratched women and children on their breastbone to see if he left a red mark. (In his view, such redness indicated “mixed blood.”)

In the end, Seltzer concluded that only 22 of the 209 people he tested in Robeson possessed one-half or more “Indian blood” and thus qualified for some federal benefits. (In some cases, Seltzer decided that one sibling had the required “blood quantum” and the other sibling did not.) Once the federal government offered some individual benefits to the “Original 22,” they broke off from the Lumbee to form their own political organization. Their descendants have their own complicated history of pursuing benefits and recognition.


Nola Graham and Bryce Locklear are cousins. (Travis Dove for The Washington Post Magazine)

Some Lumbees have red hair and freckles, others have tight blond curls, and others have sleek, dark hair and mocha skin. No one is kicked out of the tribe because of their skin tone — and that concept is hard for the BIA to accept, according to Mary Ann Jacobs, chair of the Department of American Indian Studies at UNC-Pembroke.

“They don’t like the fact that we refuse to put people out who look too white or look too black. If they’re our people, we keep them,” she said.

Jacobs laughed, as if the idea of doing anything else were absurd.

“We refuse to give them back. Why should we separate out based on this thing, this race thing?” she continued. “If we have grown them and they speak Lumbee the way we speak Lumbee, and they’ve gone to Lumbee schools and Lumbee churches and we’ve fed them and nourished them, they’re Lumbee.”

This is an excerpt from a story in The Washington Post Magazine about the Lumbee tribe’s quest for recognition.

Keep reading this story

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A recent data analysis found that white women and white men share similar levels of support for beliefs tied to white supremacy, a result that surprised political science professor George Hawley.

“The public face of these type of movements are overwhelmingly men. And the online activists are overly men,” said George Hawley, a University of Alabama researcher who conducted the analysis. “I was not expecting these numbers.”

In the 2016 American National Election Survey conducted during the presidential campaign, respondents were asked how important race was to their identity, ranging on a five-point scale from “not at all important” to “extremely important.” They also were asked, “How important is it that whites work together to change laws that are unfair to whites?” and whether they feel whites in the United States are discriminated against.

“These show that their ideas are consistent with alt-right identity politics,” Hawley said. “That’s a step removed from the hardcore of the alt-right.”

In the survey, 5.99 percent of white women and 5.24 percent of white men gave high values to all three questions, which measured support for beliefs tied to white identity, solidarity and discrimination.

Respondents were not directly asked whether they are alt-right supporters, but they did have beliefs that align with those of alt-right and white supremacist movements.

— Rachel Hatzipanagos


Earlier this summer we asked our readers to tell us how they identify themselves. Meet Henry Sandigo of San Francisco.

“I am a first-generation American, born in San Francisco of immigrant parents. Mom’s from Mexico 1918 or ’24, depending on who tells the story. Dad’s from Nicaragua about the same period. Both ended up in San Francisco, met, married (around 1929-30) and began a family: eight boys, three girls.

Living in San Francisco taught me to be tolerant of others, be it cultural or race and life preferences. I am 78 years of age. I witnessed the Korean War and participated in the Vietnam War. I am a proud veteran but I tell my fellow veterans that patriotism is not a requirement to be a good American. Our government does not tell us the truth always, as we would like it to; hence the Vietnam War.

I am troubled by America today, the way we treat each other and how we treat other countries. Our “we are better than you” attitude toward our fellow man is a sad thing to witness. I believe this attitude stems from ignorance of our immediate surroundings and extends beyond our borders. While watching a clip from the Jimmy Kimmel show I was saddened that only 1 in 6 could name “a country” in any of the continents of our world. I deplore religion because I think it’s the root of most evil and ignorance in the world. “All men are created equal” is an empty phrase of our Constitution. Walk any street in just about any city, town or township in the United States and see how poor we can be.

I’ve visited many countries of the world and I know it’s better here than anywhere else. However, that is my perspective, because I am sure any one person in their country would feel the same about their country as I do mine. I read this somewhere and underscore its meaning: “What is most shocking to me is the number of citizens of this country who are bigots, misogynists and just spew hate. I knew there were a few, just not so many.”

I love where I live; I worked hard for the life I live now. I can do just about anything I want that is legal, read anything I want, watch a movie of any type, listen to a broadcast of any kind, march against my government without fearing a form of retribution.

Oh, one other thing: I really dislike our present president.”

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