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Playing Indian

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There is a very long history of whites passing as non-whites when it works for them. Rachel Dolezal is perhaps the most infamous example of this in recent years but there are many others. One question worth asking is how much of the rapid rise of the Native population is actually white people choosing to pass because it’s cool to claim that you have a Cherokee princess as an ancestor and then start identifying as Native based on what is spurious evidence at best. It’s….a lot. Circe Strum, a scholar on whites passing as Native, writes on this.

The Native American population in the U.S. grew by a staggering 86.5% between 2010 and 2020, according to the latest U.S. Census – a rate demographers say is impossible to achieve without immigration.

Birth rates among Native Americans don’t explain the massive rise in numbers. And there certainly is no evidence of an influx of Native American expatriates returning to the U.S.

Instead, individuals who previously identified as white are now claiming to be Native American.

This growing movement has been captured by terms like “pretendian” and “wannabe.”

Another way to describe this recent adoption of Native American identity is what I call “racial shifting.”

These people are fleeing not from political and social persecution, but from whiteness.

I spent 14 years researching the topic and interviewing dozens of race-shifters for my book “Becoming Indian.” I learned that while some of these people have strong evidence of Native American ancestry, others do not.

Yet nearly all of the 45 people who were interviewed or surveyed for the book believe they have Indigenous ancestry and that it means something powerful about who they are and how they should live their lives. Only a tiny – but troubling – number makes blatantly fraudulent claims to advance their own interests.

This is, of course, super racist. And yet, like a lot of white liberal racism, it comes out of a place that might not be seen as explicitly racist, in this case, devaluing whiteness because of the awfulness whiteness constitutes today.

Part of what accounts for these new sentiments are significant changes in the public’s discussion about race.

In the wake of 1960s civil rights activism and debates about multiculturalism, whiteness has taken on increasingly negative connotations.

In my interviews with race shifters, for example, they frequently associated their former whiteness with racial and cultural emptiness.

As one woman put it: “We had an emptiness inside of us, that we did not know who we were or what we were.” They also associated whiteness with social isolation, unearned privilege and guilt over colonialism and slavery.

Today there is growing insecurity about what it means to be white in America. We see this being expressed in public debates about white fragility, affirmative action and colorblind policies. Of course, there’s still much security in being white: White privilege is an ongoing reality of American life, and something most white people and white racial shifters take for granted.

This shift from white to Indigenous self-identification is, I believe, fundamentally about a desire to leave behind the negative connotations of whiteness and move toward the material and symbolic values that now attach to Native American identity.

Hoo boy white people…… And all of this just waters down the real Native sovereignty movement in America.

Racial shifting is a growing demographic trend that is creating confusion in the public sphere about who is Native American and who isn’t. But its threat is far greater than just social confusion.

Native Americans and their governments face thousands of race-shifters seeking to join their ranks. And as more and more people reject whiteness in favor of indigeneity, they do so at the expense of tribal sovereignty.

There’s nothing more white than choosing to pass as a non-white because it makes you look cool to do so while completely ignoring both the fact that you can’t escape having white privilege this way and that doing this is the ultimate exercise of white privilege.

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