I remember getting a Pap Smear a few years ago. For me the procedure itself, though necessary, is at times quite uncomfortable. A large, cold speculum is being placed inside the vagina, spreading the walls apart for examination. A cis-man was my doctor for the exam, which already made me a little uneasy. I hate to have to wonder how professional cis-males are while examining the “opposite sex”, and I believe that there are those who truly believe in the work they do and would never do anything to take advantage of or violate their patients. But you never know. This cis-male also happened to be white. He was not my first choice, but I didn’t have the luxury of waiting weeks for another doctor.
As he asked me to spread my legs apart, we delved into light chatter. He noticed that on the form I filled out asking for my ethnic background, I put Native American. You know how they make you check one box only? I almost always put Native, because I remember my mama telling me to since I was a child, “so that they know we’re still here”. So he asked what tribe I’m from. After telling him my southern California tribe, he told me, fingers deep into my vagina, “Funny, you don’t look Native American.” It’s hard to describe the exact feelings that this statement conjured up for me. Here I am, at one of my most vulnerable moments, spreading my legs open for a man I have never met in my entire life, sharing my ancestry with him. And he dares to tell me I don’t look like what I am.
I felt like I had to justify myself. As soon as he told me that I don’t fit his idea of what a Native person looks like, I quickly filled him in on the rest of my ancestry so that it made more sense to him that I look the way I do: “Oh, I’m also Mexican and Jewish on my mom’s side, Cuban and Irish on my Dad’s.” He nodded, and didn’t say much after that because the exam was pretty much over with. This is one of the instances of my mixed-ness that has always stuck with me, because it was latent with patriarchal undertones. Here was a white male, unaware of the social and racial boundaries he was crossing as he was physically engaged with some of the most private parts of my body, yet denouncing my ancestry with tremendous authority. It was a case of white, male privilege in that he had no idea how offensive his words were pertaining to my mixed ancestry, and because he had the audacity to tell me these things as he was nonchalantly exploring my vagina.
Since then, I’ve tried to have a different mind-set about my mixed ancestry. I realize I don’t (usually) look Native American/Indigenous to people at first, because I’m also so many other things. Truthfully, I don’t think I really look like any of my ethnicities; But I’m learning to accept my racial ambiguity. People have told me I look everything from filipino, part black, latinx, to a “straight up white girl”. Really, it just depends on who’s looking at me and what parts of society have influenced them. Even now, the statement from the white doctor doesn’t sting as much because I’ve decided his opinion does not define my existence as a mixed woman of color; On the contrary, my unique features do, as does the cultural knowledge that has been passed down to me from my respective predecessors. I know I can cook Cuban picadillo, which I learned from my Abuela to perfection, if need be; I know the auburn tint of my hair is from my Irish ancestry, and my coarse waves from my Jewish; I know my ability to weave plants into baskets comes from my Indigenous great Grandmothers, as well as my clay colored skin. And I know I’ll be damned if I give a white man the ability to contrive his ignorant statement about my phenotype into my ethnic self-concept.