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.