I once overheard someone proudly calling herself a “halfbreed.” It caught me off guard. I lost my footing for a split of a second. It fogged my brain and made me dizzy for an instant. I tried to convince myself that I must have misunderstood. But I hadn’t. Because she went on to explain that she was half Native and half something else. She explained that she identified with both cultures, and this, according to her, justified her pride in using this term. Half… that so painfully reminds me of a glass half full. Perhaps this woman thought her glass was half full, as opposed to half empty. But it’s still only half. It’s half of something. Half of nothing. Nothing you can actually use. My heart pounds at this thought. How can you identify with something and still feel it half way?
Half of my genetic makeup comes from my Native American mother, and the other half from my Swiss father, but I feel FULLY Mi’kmaq, and I feel FULLY Swiss, there’s no half anything. When I’m on the Reserve, I’m home. I feel safe. I feel comfortable. When I’m in Switzerland, I’m home. I feel safe. I feel comfortable. Even if people see my headscarf and try to push me to the sidelines and deny my identity, I push back and reclaim it. It’s mine. I belong just as much as they do. I’m Mi’kmaq and no amount of covering will ever change that. I’m Swiss, and no amount of signatures on petitions or votes against my religious garb will deny this. I’m 100% Native, 100% Swiss, and 100% Muslim. These percentages overlap and make a part of my identity, which is also composed of other elements. I’m a mother. I’m a wife. I’m a sister. I’m a daughter. When I’m with my kids, I’m 100% their mom. When I’m with my husband I’m 100% his wife. When I’m with my siblings, I’m 100% their sister. When with my mom, 100% her daughter. And when I’m with all of them, I’m all of that together. We are all more than one thing. So why should ethnicity be any different?
If I considered myself to be half, that would preclude fullness, completion. It would mean that I could not be fully anything. That’s a lie. As far as I’m concerned my Mi’kmaqness is complete. My Swissness is complete. My Muslimness is complete. I don’t identify with any one of them more or less than the other, and they all intermingle within my thoughts, my memories, every fibre of my being. They are complete portions of my complete being. Just like some coats are thicker than others, some walls have more layers than others, my identity is multifaceted, not fragmented, and it makes a complete whole, each one in and of itself.
This woman’s pride in declaring her fragmented identity surprised me. It hurt me, because I think it comes from a place of pain. Perhaps in the pain she may have felt not feeling accepted in either community unless she fully identified and chose one over the other, perhaps having to negate the other in order to do this, even if temporarily. Perhaps her pride in speaking that horrid word out-loud was her attempt at claiming her right to be both, without having to negate either. Perhaps she found it impossible to reconcile the two simultaneously, almost as though they were meant to cancel each other out. Her physical presence denied this conclusion, and her best response to this conundrum was by meeting the problem halfway and claiming the meeting line as her sole buffer zone, a veiled attempt at breaking down a wall with her mere existence. That sounded like a fragile, if brave, attempt at a heroic rescuing of a shattered identity. An identity so scarred that it could only find solace within conflict, contradiction, and at the borderline with nonsense.
My reluctance at accepting this as an explanation is found in her use of the word “breed.” Breed. … Breed. Let that sink in. This is a very sensitive, intuitive, eloquent person, claiming a word that is used for cattle and pets. Yes. That’s right. Let that sink in some more. Does it hurt yet? Breed. Is you heart aching yet? Did it take your breath away yet? Now take a deep breath.
How dehumanized does one have to feel in order to claim a term that is meant to classify and codify animals to make their use and distribution easier? I recognize that there’s an element of aggression here. A rebellious attempt at putting up a shield that screams in bold letter: “I’m exactly what you don’t want me to be, deal with it!” I can see that. It’s an act of resistance, preceded by possibly years of having to defend herself against racist attacks. Constantly having to scrape and crawl her way back up the cliff after having been shoved or quietly slipped off the sidelines of acceptability. With no nails left, with scrapes, bruises, and scars everywhere, she feels that this little dirty word will shield her. But does it?
I presume it might be some of the dilemmas that the African American community face when using the “N” word. It’s loaded, loaded with death and suffering, centuries of injustice and dehumanization. But when an African American uses it, it’s reclaiming something and turning it into something familiar, something safe. I still don’t like it. I still wish people didn’t feel so profoundly hurt that they would feel the need to use it as a weapon. Because words are weapons, no matter who brandishes them, they still are weapons, and they have the potential to hurt. Their mere existence in common parlance is a testimonial to the brutality of human greed and selfishness, recontextualizing it may give it a more positive spin, and if you’ve got nothing but scar-tissue, I guess any weapon might help you feel more secure, but it’s also a reminder, a constant reminder that you were once considered less. The fact that you feel the need to continue brandishing it, is evidence that the violence is ongoing, and you still don’t feel safe to let it go.
This woman’s proud display of her painful shield reminded me of the systemic racism, the centuries of discrimination, the injustice that is still today being perpetrated against my people. Her choice of words reminds me that we’re still very far away from resolving these issues, still many years away from reconciliation, still generations away from fully healing. I recognize her right to choose whatever she feels most represents her experience, and it saddens me that it is only reminiscent of a strong pride of ancestry, only attempting to right a wrong, without feeling secure enough to claim it for herself, fully, unapologetically, 100% both ways.