In the bathroom of a Brooklyn, N.Y., bar over the weekend, a black woman stopped me and said, "Oh my, I love your hair! What are you mixed with?" It's not the first time I've been asked that, but I took a pause before answering and eventually said to her, "Not mixed, just black."
Growing up under the "We have Indian in our family" tagline, juxtaposed with recently getting my ancestry-DNA results back, has changed how I think about and will forever respond to that question.
"Mixed with something" used to be my default explanation for light skin, high cheekbones or a small nose—but unexpected DNA results have revealed a tough truth of anti-black explanations for our genes, and the effects of passing on my family's oral history.
OK, so I know that I'm not unique in being told that there were Native American ancestors in my family's lineage. An easier narrative to swallow than masters raping slaves, this default has been adopted by many black Americans to create an origin (and maybe escape some of the hardships associated with blackness). However, my family boasted on really being Native American—Pequot tribe, to be specific, growing up on reservations in the Northeast.
We have pictures of my paternal grandmother surrounded by Native American men wearing long, slick, braided hair. When I started college, we even worked to get documentation to prove my lineage and boost those available Native grants. There was no doubt in our minds that we were at least a quarter Native American from my father's side.
After hearing the hype of DNA tests revealing all of these unknown parts of people's histories, I was very interested to see what components of my heritage were left undiscovered. I expected primarily African; second-largest would be Native American; and I figured I would see some European because, you know, colonization.
Ninety-nine dollars and six weeks later, I clicked on the email link containing my results—hoping to be shocked, but expecting to see what I had always been told. As I scrolled past the first listed region, Africa, it confirmed that I was 73 percent. I was surprised at how relieved I was to see such a large percentage. Although unrealistic, it made me feel that my ancestors had somehow kept it strong enough to maintain three-quarters of us—that the colonization only managed to make its way in a little less. It also made me feel that I had a closer handle on my blackness; a confirmation that this big hair and melanin hashtags used weren't frauds.
The second-highest percentage on the list was European, coming in at 25 percent. Simple math will let you know that this doesn't leave much (read: any) room for all the Native American heritage that I was expecting. In fact, East and West Asian were the remaining two very small trace regions—meaning that Native American did not show up at all in my DNA. Not even a less-than-1-percent trace.
After I went through the known details of my paternal grandmother's life, it became pretty evident that there was some instance of passing in our history. At a young age, she was connected to a reservation and married a Native American man in her life before having my dad. She was very fair-skinned, so even with all the issues present for Native Americans, it would have been easier for her to exist as an insider than to deal with the anti-black sentiment found in pretty much every community at the time. Or perhaps the passing began way before her, and she just continued to follow the knowledge that she was given. Since neither her nor any of her siblings are still living, it is a question that can only be answered through speculation and the confirmation of this test.
Until college, I clung to the stock “We are part Native American” response. I felt that it made me different, and I enjoyed the thought that I could be set apart from all the negative assumptions about blackness—that my hair was different, my skin was different, and my features gave a hint of something other than black. And subconsciously, that gave me a head start, at least aesthetically. I could be one step closer to the only mass standard of beauty presented to me.
I wouldn't say that my childhood was full of anti-black rhetoric, but I do have memories of hearing compliments about my complexion or my “grade” of hair. It's something I know many black children have heard, and taken as a confirmation that lighter skin and looser hair are positives; that being asked, "What are you mixed with?" was a good thing. Hearing that question again as an adult, especially now—when I know the legacy of squeezing into spaces in order to exist that has come out in my history—has really shifted the way I view beauty and blackness.
I spent years holding on to an excuse to reduce the physical representation of blackness in which I didn't see beauty. I didn't hear dark skin, wide noses and thick, kinky hair being complimented. From the discussions heard around me, in mostly all spaces growing up, I wanted the opposite of those things; the positive traits were the ones that made people question your heritage.
But what is being complimented is from Africa, is from a historical mixture unique to black Americans—and being “just black” is my new response. I now know that my grandmother, and others before her, shrank themselves a lot for me to finally arrive here.
Shayna Watson is a freelance style and beauty writer who can be heard saying “Natural hair is a lifestyle” at least once a day. A Pittsburgh native, she currently lives in a shoe-box apartment in Brooklyn, N.Y.—which is fitting, since she really loves shoes. You can check out her personal style musings on A Nu Creature and follow her on Instagram.