Wopajo

by Guest Contributor Brandann R. Hill-Mann ( OuyangDan)


I grew up a happy, well loved child. I spent my summers resisting shoes and with water-logged skin, insisting I wasn’t cold, even when my lips were purple. My world was a moose’s walk from Canada where I straddled two worlds, never knowing it because I was blissfully unaware until I was much older that I was any different than the other people around me.

One world was that of my Mother’s family. Just off of a Reservation, humid and sweltering in the summer and man-high piles of snow and ice in the winter. We built houses with doors on the second floor, and two mailboxes to make sure you could reach one in the winter. A Northern Michigan Tribe with roots shared in Southern Canada’s First Nations, we were just emerging from that place where it was embarrassing to be ‘injun’. A Native fishing family, we were not exactly well off, but we had floors in our houses and indoor plumbing in an area where owning your own septic system was a sign of great privilege. My grandparents were well respected in our community for being fair and honest, if my Grandfather had a bit of a reputation for a temper if you were trying to be unfair to someone less fortunate than he was.

My mom met my dad when they were very young, and the stories varied depending on who did the telling – and I can’t ask him anymore since he’s been passed away ten years, but I know that my mom was about ten or so. She was about thirteen when they snuck smokes together, and I don’t know how old they were when they realized that they were dating. I do know that they spent about a year apart after my mom graduated high school, and when she showed up with me in her arms, my dad didn’t flinch, and adopted me straight away. Biological or adopted, I was fathered by a white man of European descent.

My Dad’s family was another world. His parents were first generation immigrants — depending on who did the defining — with my grandfather an unexpected surprise to his parents who had just immigrated from Italy, and my grandmother of Dutch parentage. My dad grew up in a privileged white world to a smart businessman of a father who ran a fair business in beer distribution. Every one owed my grandfather,or Papa Joe, a favor at one point or another, even if he had a bit of a temper if you were trying to be unfair. This family loved and doted on me, and I never knew that I was not of their blood until I was a much older child in need of a full medical history. My grandfather even created a unique nickname for me: wopajo.

You won’t find a proper definition if you look it up. It might actually stump the Google Gods. I didn’t even know that it was a racial epithet until I had the luck to say it in front of a nice Jersey Girl, to which she responded “Wha-wha-wha?”. I had never even heard anyone refer to people of Italian ancestry as “wops” so I was surprised, apologizing profusely. To me it was a term of affection, as every one I had known growing up had laughed whenever someone used it in reference to me. I had never heard it any other way, and wow, was I embarrassed. I know that no one ever meant me any malice, but to form a child’s memories around a racial slur…I look back now and wonder just how accepted I was among the adopted half of my family (yeah, that, too). But isn’t it cute now, an “Italian Indian” (get it? wop-ajo)?

But it sums up my life perfectly: Too white to be Native and too Native to be white. And that is only the surface of my racial conundrum. Always on the edge of two identities and never quite belonging to either. I don’t look like anyone else in my family; I am lighter and my hair brown, not the silky black that you see in some popular movies, and is sometimes a little curly, and my eyes are partially green. I don’t look like my own family, and when I tell someone that I am in fact not White, I get the sympathetic “oh, yes, I see it now, you do have remarkably high cheek bones!” stamp of approval.

Feminist circles were difficult to figure out for me when I began navigating conversations on race, because race didn’t make sense to me for the longest time, and this was the first place that I was even allowed to have race discussions, but they were always about someone else’s race. I didn’t fit into racial discussions because I wasn’t really White. I knew that, and yet, I had heard my whole life that I had to accept that I was. I wasn’t Black, and Blackness was the crux of racial discussion in the feminist blogosphere (there are very good reasons for this, don’t misunderstand me), or so it seemed to me. Discussion on race on most big feminist blogs seem to be a binary; Black or White and little else. About the only thing I was picking up was that mainstream feminism was focused on talking about race, but not really to anyone for whom it was actually about, and certainly not anyone outside that binary.

So, where did a body like mine fit? I wasn’t Black or White. Did I even exist? Or was I supposed to sit down and shut up and just nod when people told me I was White? Didn’t I get to decide how I identified? Except that growing up near a Reservation you learn early on that the White community doesn’t really want you either, so where do you go? From what I understand, people of mixed race heritage who present as Black and are not of White ancestry have this same conundrum. I could be wrong, though, because that is not my experience on which to speak.

It only got worse the more I delved in. I quickly became frustrated in discussions that were meant to privilege bodies that were neither White nor Black. The discussion always seemed to be railroaded back to one or the other, leading me to conclude that if you weren’t one or the other, or at least passing for one or looking like the other, then you had best pass in your Person of Color Status Card, because your voice was not welcomed. If you identify as Non-White, everyone assumes you must be Black. Even Brown is a start, such as South Asian or Latin@… but you had best be prepared to assert your Brownness at every opportunity lest anyone forget that you are that Strange Other. The part of me that is Native begins to disappear as I try to engage. I find no comfort in non-U.S.ian communities, such as trying to find camaraderie with Indigenous people from Down Under, and instead find that my allies are further alienated by assumptions that they must be not only Black or White, but from the U.S. as well. Yes, even in numbers we find that the world must be centered on the U.S. and its center of the Universe complex.

My own blog isn’t safe, either, as anyone who reads my words feel free to tell me that I am expecting too much of others, that I must just accept that the perceptions of the world are the truth. That I am 90% European and that I must get over it. I say that I have a right to grasp ahold of my heritage and cling tightly. I am not ready to tell my family that we are all doing it wrong. (Well, maybe about the nickname…)

The world isn’t full of dichotomies and binaries, no matter how much we want to shove everything into an either/or container. Girl/boy, male/female, Black/White, gay/straight… life just doesn’t fit that easily into checked boxes. People are designed on a spectrum, literally and figuratively, with variances and individualities. The color of my skin or eyes doesn’t give away my racial identity, at least not in a stereotypical way. A photograph of me isn’t telling, and I would argue that this is true of many people, bi-racial, mixed-race and otherwise. My hair and features, unusual for even a Northern tribe, lighter than most commonly iconic tribes, other me from almost every one I know. I don’t know where I fit. I don’t know how to talk about race, because I have never been allowed to fit into one.

(Image Credit: Suave)