The Unbearable Whiteness of Elizabeth Warren

I almost feel sad for Senator Warren. One day, a little girl looked in the mirror, saw pale skin, brown hair, and blue eyes looking back at her, and thought, “No. This can’t be right. This isn’t me.”

So she found a new identity, based on a family legend–a legend shared by a suspicious number of white people–that one of her ancestors was an American Indian.

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Elizabeth Warren changed her race at Penn: Source

This new identity conveyed certain advantages: Harvard Law claimed her as a Native American to boost claims of racial diversity among the faculty:

A majority [83%] of Harvard Law School students are unhappy with the level of representation of women and minorities on the Law School faculty, according to a recent survey. …

Law students said they want to learn from a variety of perspectives and approaches to the law. “A black male from a lower socioeconomic background will approach the study of constitutional law in a different way from a white upper-class male,” Reyes said. …

Of 71 current Law School professors and assistant professors, 11 are women, five are black, one is Native American and one is Hispanic, said Mike Chmura, spokesperson for the Law School.

Although the conventional wisdom among students and faculty is that the Law School faculty includes no minority women, Chmura said Professor of Law Elizabeth Warren is Native American.

In response to criticism of the current administration, Chmura pointed to “good progress in recent years.”

As did Penn:

The University of Pennsylvania chose not to tout in the press their newly minted Native American professor. But her minority status was duly noted: The university’s Minority Equity Report, published in April 2005, shows that Warren won a teaching award in 1994. Her name is in bold and italicized to indicate she was a minority. …

The law school was happy to have her count as a diversity statistic, however, and for at least three of the years she taught there — 1991, 1992, and 1994 — an internal publication drawing on statistics from the university’s federal affirmative action report listed one Native American female professor in the university’s law school.

Warren’s Native American identity may have played no role in her hiring (the committees involved appear not to have known or cared about her identity,) but it seems to have been important to Warren herself. As her relatives aged and died, and she moved away from her childhood home in Oklahoma and then Texas, she was faced with that persistent question: Who am I?

The truth, a white woman from a working class family in Oklahoma, apparently wasn’t enough for Elizabeth. (Oklahoma doesn’t carry many status points over in East Coast academic institutions.)

Each of us is the sum of many things, including the stories our families tell us and genetic contributions from all of our ancestors–not just the interesting ones (within a limit–after enough generations, each individual contribution has become so small that it may not be passed on in reproduction.)

I have also done the 23 and Me thing, and found that I hail from something like 20 different ethnic groups–including, like Warren, a little smidge of Native American. But none of those groups make up the majority of my DNA. All of them are me; none of them are me. I just am.

Warren’s announcement of her DNA findings vindicated her claim to a Native American ancestor and simultaneously unveiled the absurdity of her claim to be a Native American. What should have been a set of family tales told to friends and passed on to children and grandchildren about a distant ancestor became a matter of national debate that the Cherokee Nation itself felt compelled to weigh in on:

Using a DNA test to lay claim to any connection to the Cherokee Nation or any tribal nation, even vaguely, is inappropriate and wrong. It makes a mockery out of DNA tests and its legitimate uses while also dishonoring legitimate tribal governments and their citizens, whose ancestors are well documented and whose heritage is proven. Senator Warren is undermining tribal interests with her continued claims of tribal heritage.

Like them or not, the Cherokee have rules about who is and isn’t a Cherokee, because being Cherokee conveys certain benefits–for example, the tribe builds houses for members and helps them look for jobs. This is why conflicts arise over matters like whether the Cherokee Freedmen are official members. When membership in a group conveys benefits, the borders of that group will be policed–and claims like Warren’s, no matter how innocently intended, will be perceived as an attempt at stealing something not meant for her.

Note: I am not saying this kind of group border policing is legitimate. Many “official” Cherokee have about as much actual Cherokee blood in them as Elizabeth Warren, but they have a documented ancestor on the Dawes Rolls, so they qualify and she doesn’t. Border policing is just what happens when there are benefits associated with being part of a group.

I don’t have an issue with Warren’s own self-identity. After all, if race is a social construct,* then she’s doing it exactly right. She’s allowed to have an emotional connection to her own ancestors, whether that connection is documented via the Dawes Rolls or not. All of us here in America should have equal access to Harvard’s benefits, not just the ones who play up a story about their ancestors.

The sad thing, though, is that despite being one of the most powerful and respected women people in America, she still felt the need to be more than she is, to latch onto an identity she doesn’t truly possess.

You know, Elizabeth… it’s fine to just be a white person from Oklahoma. It’s fine to be you.

 

*Note: This blog regards “species” and nouns generally as social constructs, because language is inherently social. That does not erase biology.