Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Elizabeth Warren: I believe you

I've been following the Elizabeth Warren brouhaha and now that I've finally collected my thoughts, it's time to blog about it.

Long controversy short: Warren is a biracial and phenotypically White woman who is running for the Senate. She is also a tenured Harvard Law professor who became famous in recent years for her role as a kickass consumer rights advocate with the Obama Administration. In the 90s, she once elected to self-identify as an American Indian while applying for a faculty job at HLS. Based upon her family oral history while growing up in Oklahoma, she self-identifies as 1/32nd Cherokee Indian, which incidentally happens to be the same blood quantum as that of Bill John Baker, the current head of the Cherokee Nation.

Now that she's in Politics, the Identity Police are gunning for her because she apparently looks too White to be a "real" Indian. Folks in respectable publications are saying she has "claimed in error to be a member of a minority group." People are accusing Warren of having benefited from being a minority on paper without having to suffer any of the burdens in her real life - an argument I understand but absolutely do not agree with.

Here are my thoughts: Elizabeth, I believe you.

1. This debate would be non-existent if Warren did not look White, but instead "looked Indian" or at least "looked like a minority" (apart from having high cheekbones) according to our larger society (i.e. more like the Cleveland Indians' racist mascot?)

2. I see nothing wrong with Elizabeth Warren saying she's an American Indian. Or not. Or with her choice to self-identify differently in different contexts. One need not be an enrolled member of a federally-recognized tribe, nor meet the supposed "Indian" looks criteria of Central Casting to be able to legitimately identify as a "real" American Indian. There are plenty of "real" Indians who have been kicked out of their tribes, not to mention the sad history of forced assimilations. And yes, folks can pass for White and still be Indians. Period. End of story.

3. It may be there are folks out there who "check the box" for whom active racial discrimination is not their lived reality. This does not mean that affirmative action serves no purpose, or is not working, it merely means it is imperfect tool. But so far no one has a better, more cost-effective tool for dismantling White supremacy (short of ending Legacy preferences in higher ed admissions, but I digress).

4. We all get to choose how we racially self-identify. If we throw Warren under the bus, we'll have to ask ourselves: Are we prepared to start telling people when they may or may not identify as a member of a racial group? Do we really want to go back to the One Drop Rule?

5. The suggestion that Warren was either lying or unethical when she self-identified as American Indian because she supposedly has not suffered the prejudice common to the group suggests an exercise in Identity Policing I am not at all comfortable with.

6. What's next - make everyone submit to genealogical DNA testing a la Henry Louis Gates's delightful TV program? My own test results would be a mix of Caucasian, Asian, and American Indian. I look like a less attractive Mariah Carey - Whites generally think I'm Caucasian, sometimes Asians see me as Asian. My kids can claim membership in all those racial groups plus Latino. I don't want anyone but them choosing how they themselves get to self-identify.

That's all.

Your thoughts?


Anandi Raman Creath said...

Um, YES to everything you said.

When I was young and stupid I made some comment about how a classmate didn't "seem to be Latino" because she was blonde and didn't have an identifiably Latino name and that was the beginning of my education :D

I think we absolutely need to leave it to people to self-identify and this becomes even more critical as more and more multi-racial people are born in the US.

Cloud said...

I have somehow missed this, probably because I live under a rock.

However, this sort of thing drives me nuts. The woman is obviously brilliant. Affirmative Action or no, she clearly deserves all that she has achieved- and incidentally, I have never personally run across any supposed "affirmative action beneficiary" who does not. It is not a quota system, folks! People still have to be qualified! Ugh.

It all leaves me thinking that we need an "unrepentant asshole" box on the census form.

And AMEN to ending the legacy admissions preferences.

feMOMhist said...

I also somehow missed all of this (sabbatical book ostrich) but as soon as I started reading I immediately thought of Gates' show, which I like, but have some pretty severe issues with when it comes to "I am" based on DNA. The whole science tells me my identity grates on my humanist sentiments. P.S. do you not love the over-romanticization of Native American-ness on this show. EVERYONE wants to be an INDIAN, blacks, whites, asians, whomever, all think it would ROCK

hush said...

@Anandi - Thanks for the shout out on your blog - I'll be by in a bit.

@Cloud - Yes, Warren is brilliant, and I'm convinced she did not benefit from race-based AA at HLS - of course, I don't care either way, but since that's the essence of the invective directed at Warren, let's explore it. The men at HLS who were responsible for Warren's hiring and tenure say her race was not a factor, they weren't aware of her biraciality. In fact, HLS as an institution has not always been consistent in how they've "claimed" Warren (not they they need to be). HLS didn't claim Warren as its first woman of color appointed to a tenured professorship even though she was hired 2 years before Lani Guinier was hired in '98. It's complicated.

@feMOMhist - Yes, I agree. I think this phenomenon may be part and parcel of the "Noble Savage" stereotype.

Anandi Raman Creath said...

Maybe I am cynical about implementation of Affirmative Action, but I think when people check a box for x underrepresented minority/gender/whatnot, it actually lets the institution off the hook more than benefiting the person doing the box-checking.

Many interview slates have to include a minority candidate so it's actually more convenient for the institution or company if someone has checked this box so they can fulfill their policy and feel good about it.

I actually don't think it does the box-checker any good, but maybe I'm just cynical :)

hush said...

@Anandi - I'm deeply cynical as well, while I remain an ardent supporter of race-based AA pre-Grutter v. Bollinger.

My reading of Grutter is that the Supreme Court majority fundamentally shifted the very meaning of AA away from what it meant 20+ years ago, when it used to be centered around the critical role education plays in advancing marginalized communities. The post-Grutter meaning of AA is now rooted in market-based corporate considerations which benefit big corporations that (to quote the opinion of the majority) "have made clear that the skills needed in today’s increasingly global marketplace can only be developed through exposure to widely diverse people, cultures, ideas and viewpoints.” (See also Nia Box's "The New Affirmative Action" at

Still, I do think in general that certain "box-checkers" are getting something out of the current arrangement, too, so long as they are 1) Legacies, 2) Recruited Athletes, 3) In-State Residents, 4) Tru$tee/Development Ca$e$, and 5) Non-Asians (See "Some Asians' college strategy: Don't check 'Asian'" at

mom2boy said...

I guess I'll take the minority position. If you come from a background that provides you with white privilege and you can walk the streets of America and be afforded an assumption of being white thereby having the perks of white privilege day in and out without feeling like you are hiding your true self, then I see no reason to claim on a statistical form something else. At least Mr. Bill John Baker is living the life of a Cherokee national. Being 1/32 Cherokee had about as much impact on Elizabeth Warren's life as having a gay second uncle or a cousin with a learning disability. I object to claiming right to a minority status by way of distant family relation when it has had no practical effect on the person's life who is claiming it. How does it help the kids living on the reservation that lumped in with their 5% rate of college attendance is Elizabeth Warren adding Harvard grad to their numbers? I see no logic in that at all.
The point of those forms is tracking and assistance, no? By checking the box, she skews the numbers and takes away opportunity from someone that does live in a world with active racial discrimination. She isn't passing for white. She's white. She didn't come from a home where another language was the predominant language. Precisely because we don't go around giving people DNA tests, the way to determine racial minority status is the way the world sees a person and treats that person (I'm including families because I think growing up a "passable" sibling or child of an identifiable minority group gives the same or similar disadvantages).
Yes, she has a right to self-identify. I just personally think she shouldn't have considering the point at when and where she did.

hush said...

@mom2boy - I'm glad someone has taken this position here. My DH agrees with you, as do most folks on the Left who are seeing a big ethical issue with Warren's choice - seeing it as opportunistic, as having "taken the spot" of some "real" minority (though as I said earlier, that argument in Warren's case is total bunk as there is not one shred of evidence that her biraciality was a material factor at HLS) - and in the public debate your view seems fairly reflective of the majority liberal opinion.

In 2012, a great many American Indians don't live on reservations nor in Indian Country, and typically don't speak tribal languages, in fact re-learning tribal languages is a major reclamatory project for some tribes. American Indians are very likely to live somewhere like NYC or SF, due to the migration patterns when, back in the day, their great/grandparents and parents were given a bus ticket and access to either an auto repair or cosmetology training program in a big city.

You said "the way to determine racial minority status is the way the world sees a person and treats that person (I'm including families because I think growing up a "passable" sibling or child of an identifiable minority group gives the same or similar disadvantages)." I'm troubled by this definition because it paints too broad a brush stroke on the nuances of racial identity development, not to mention it overlooks the harm of invisibility (interracial adoptees, also folks who "look ethnic" but don't know their heritage), and of course folks who have had their cultures stolen from them.

Slim said...

When I heard that she self-identified as Cherokee, my thoughts went to Sarah Vowell, who to my eyes does not look particularly Native American but has mentioned her heritage in her books.
Sarah Vowell also says that being part Cherokee is incredibly common in Oklahoma, and it makes me wonder if Elizabeth Warren had a similar experience -- it doesn't make you something rare and special, exactly, just different in one way, and that makes you feel a connection to others like you even if your experience isn't what other people think "being part Native American" or "being Jewish" or whatever would be like.

hush said...

@Slim - Thanks for commenting. I think you are totally spot on about the impact of having grown up somewhere closer to Indian Country, such as the state of OK.