When I Was a Minority White Kid
Growing up on the Navajo Indian Reservation helped me understand issues of race better than all the textbooks ever written.
When you believe deep in your bones that you’re a minority, that you don’t have enough of anything, that you are so far behind you’ll never catch up, that you are not wanted—that belief does things to you that many people will never understand.
My dad told my siblings and me that we were Cherokee, but we’re white. And while being white might have been an advantage anywhere else, it was a huge disadvantage on the Indian reservation. Even though I insisted that I was Cherokee, the Navajo kids I went to school with knew better, and they hated Anglos. I didn’t understand and hated them back. Every day was like living in a war zone.
The Navajo kids were used to Anglos arriving on the reservation for two years or less and living in a separate government compound. The white parents were doctors and nurses who drove their kids to school and picked them up. None of the white kids ever had to ride the bus or walk through the hogans and rusted-out trailers that served as housing. And they generally stayed away from the Navajos kids unless they were in large groups and supervised by teachers.
The white families went to nearby Gallup, Albuquerque, and Phoenix, where they dined in nice restaurants, saw new movies, and bought fashionable clothing and anything else they desired. They didn’t live on the reservation as much as they had a prolonged visit, and couldn’t wait to go back to “civilization.”
My situation was far more like what the Navajo children experienced. We lived in similar squalor in a place called Mud Flats. Packs of feral, diseased dogs ran wild. Most of the men were unemployed and frequently drunk; the families barely had enough food to survive. For the Navajo kids, the hot meal at lunch was likely the only meal they would have all day.
Never for a moment would I claim minority status, but I felt it. The bullying, the disrespect, the constant struggle to get back and forth to school without getting beaten up, the sad, lonely life inside the flimsy wood box that we lived in—it all felt like prison. Any step out of the front door invited fights I could never win.
But something happened that opened my eyes and heart forever. I learned that when the parents of my classmates were young, they had been forced into boarding schools, their hair sheared as if they were sheep and their mouths washed out with lye soap for speaking their language or practicing their religion. The cruel Franciscan nuns lectured the students every day about their simplistic, pagan beliefs and told them that “the only way to save the man is to kill the Indian.” No wonder my classmates hated us—they had good reason.
Once the Navajo kids realized that my family was going to stay on the reservation, things changed. I got to know them and they got to know me. They chose to accept me despite my whiteness. We had lots in common. We loved baseball, basketball, candy, and stupid kid jokes. We were poor and faced hardship. They treated me like family after that, which is something I never felt as deeply again.
When we finally left the reservation and moved to Washington, DC, I saw discrimination against African Americans for the first time. I saw squalor and poverty not unlike many places on the Navajo Indian Reservation. The hopelessness and sorrow in the eyes of the black people on the street reminded me of many of the faces on the reservation. Until then, my world had been divided into only Indian or Anglo. I hadn’t been taught to hate African Americans, and I was both horrified and ashamed by what I witnessed.
Decades later, I am still friends with my Navajo classmates, at least the ones who are still alive. I learned that skin color doesn’t matter, that cultural differences don’t have to be scary, that you don’t have to have a shared experience to be the best of friends, and that acceptance is the purest form of love.
So my advice to America is to listen to the Black Lives Matter stories without judgment and, by all means, to stop wearing rose-colored glasses.
Black lives have been difficult in ways whites can’t imagine. We can all get along, but not until we listen and understand and then accept without qualification. It is way past time to do this. It will benefit everyone.