By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
US Senator Elizabeth Warren slammed US President Donald Trump for mocking her as “pocahontas” during a press conference honoring Navajo ‘code talkers.’ She said “it is deeply unfortunate that the president of the United States cannot even make it through a ceremony honoring these heroes without having to throw out a racial slur.”
But the real slur in this story has been Warren’s continuing mocking of Native Americans by claiming that “family stories” gave her the right to pass herself off as a “minority” two decades ago, and continue to pretend that white people like her are what is meant when American institutions tout themselves as being “diverse.” According to CNN “Harvard Law School in the 1990s touted Warren, then a professor in Cambridge, as being “Native American.” They singled her out, Warren later acknowledged, because she had listed herself as a minority in an Association of American Law Schools directory. Critics note that she had not done that in her student applications and during her time as a teacher at the University of Texas.”
Extraordinarily instead of admitting that privileged people like her was not what was intended when schools tout themselves as having “native Americans,” Warren has defended her cultural appropriation. She has said, “I am very proud of my heritage…These are my family stories. This is what my brothers and I were told by my mom and my dad, my mammaw and my pappaw. This is our lives. And I’m very proud of it.” The Boston Globe did a major piece looking at her claims in July 2012. “My (grandfather) – had high cheek bones like all of the Indians do,” claimed the Senator. ‘The Globe’ found that her supposed heritage hasn’t appeared among other family members. “Not only is her Aunt Bea listed as white, Warren herself was listed as the informant.” Nevertheless she sticks by her claims, “Growing up, my mother and my grandparents often talked about our family’s Native American heritage.”
Not what “diversity” was meant to mean
A few family members gossiping about a grandfather who was part Native-American may be interesting family tales, but why should someone put themselves down as a “minority” for a university to tout for “diversity” when they appear white and there is no evidence that they are a minority. Diversity should mean that something actually looks diverse. If a university looks entirely white and the white students all grew up in white homes never suffering discrimination or even feeling like minorities, then it is not “diverse.” CNN notes that Warren’s claims, “if true, would make her 1/32 Native American.” So if we have a class of 32 people and they are all 1/32 Native American, then one could say the class was entirely “native American,” but actually there is only 1 full native-American, right? That’s not what diversity was meant to mean.
The Harvard Crimson 1996 article that references Warren as an example of having a “Native American” on campus was actually written to highlight a lack of diversity. The claims about Warren in 1996 must be read fully to illustrate how destructive her actions were. “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.”
When white people take the place of minorities and pretend to be minorities
American society has sought to diversify many all-white environments over the last decades. However there is entrenched white privilege in many of these places. There are networks of wealth and nepotism that act to maintain institutions are primarily occupied by wealthier elites.
What happens when white people pass themselves off as “minorities” in order to fill the few spaces that a university is trying to open up to Native-Americans and others. Native-Americans already suffer greatly in the US as they have for hundreds of years. They are already a tiny minority. According to a Pew survey one in four Native Americans is living in poverty. They have higher drop out rates in high school than many other groups and in some reservations like Standing Rock their poverty rates are three times the national average. In terms of educational achievement only 17% of Native-Americans obtain a B.A. African-Americans do slightly better at 19% while whites are more than twice as likely to have the same degree. When we look at these statistics it is obvious that universities such as Harvard should be working to empower and advance those Native-Americans who are most deserving, not white people who vaguely remember “grandpa talking about a family tradition” or white people who are 1/32 Native-American.
Stealing the land and then stealing their race
America is a very racially sensitive society. It has a tendency to define as minorities people who are partly people of color. This leads to controversial discussions about racism. One woman writes: “However, I often ask myself if I would love my experience as much if I didn’t reap the benefits of being a light skinned black woman. Racism is layered with an abundance of one horrific detriment after another. At the core of it is the psychological deceit and manipulation that has been carried with us for hundreds of years. Like inception, the idea that black people are inferior to whites has been planted in our minds. That idea has manifested into a hierarchy of black people, with those who closest resemble white people at the top.” She describes this as “colorism” and notes “Studies found that employers prefer lighter skin tones to educational background and experience, thus making it easier for light skinned black people to land jobs.”
So let’s talk about the 1/32 Native-American who heard “family stories” and colorism. Did she have a “psychological deceit and manipulation” carried with her in which she felt inferior and was treated as inferior? Was that “planted in her mind”? That’s a question the person who is 96% white can answer.
An academic article on Native-Americans in the US also notes that there has been an increase of Native Americans in the US because more people seek to identify. “The political mobilization of Native Americans in the 1960s and 1970s, along with other ethnic pride movements, may have removed some of the stigma attached to a Native American racial identity. This would be especially true for persons of mixed ancestry, who formerly may have declined to disclose their Native American background for this reason. Conversely, however, individuals with only minimal Native American background may have identified themselves as Native American out of a desire to affirm a marginal ethnic identity and their ‘romanticized’ notion of being Native American (see, for example, Eschbach, 1995).”
However exotic it may seem for some white people to claim “Native American” ancestry in order to seem cool and “diverse,” the reality is that actual recognized tribes in the US have barriers to membership. “Contemporary American Indians typically must be enrolled members of one of the 317 federally recognized tribes to receive benefits from either the tribe or the federal government.” This is not a simple process and it is often measured in “degree of Indian Blood” or “blood quantum…Typically, blood quantum is established by tracing ancestry back through time to a relative or relatives on earlier tribal rolls or censuses that recorded the relative’s.” None of Warren’s ancestors were recorded anywhere as Native-American.
Many white Americans, and some African-Americans, have invented Native-American ancestry in an America that increasingly values being “diverse.” Cherokee claims are the most common. “Today, more Americans claim descent from at least one Cherokee ancestor than any other Native American group. Across the United States, Americans tell and retell stories of long-lost Cherokee ancestors,” notes Slate. There were 819,105 Americans claiming a Cherokee ancestor in 2010. The National Congress of American Indians also found that the increase of fake Cherokees was due to Americans seeking a romantic “native” attachment to the soil. Some of these family stories involved absolute fictions, relating to “Indian princess” descent notes Vine Deloria. Ironically the decision to becoming instant-natives was a way for white southerners to lay claim to the land. “By claiming a royal Cherokee ancestor, white Southerners were legitimating the antiquity of their native-born status as sons or daughters of the South,” notes the Slate piece.
Faking “minority” status is a form of white supremacism
The “instant-native” phenomenon is a way for white Americans who are ashamed of their status as non-native immigrants to become “exotic” minorities and feign an interesting heritage in a country that lumps them together as whites. In a bizarre irony white Europeans not only came to America and colonized and exterminated Native-Americans, but now they seek to pretend to be Native-Americans and benefit from their false claims of native heritage. It’s one thing to exterminate people and steal their land, but now the final straw is to steal their identity and seek to advance by pretending to be victims.
Some of this is sub-conscious white supremacy passing itself as “minorities.” Some people with white privilege want to escape allegations they have succeeded on the backs of others and they pretend to be minorities. They don’t suffer like minorities, they don’t come from the same lack of privilege, but they see it as a strategy to escape privilege. There are others who are more mercenary. They purposely fake being a “minority” to gain access to affirmative action. Then there is a third group that actually believes they have this fake heritage and refuse to step aside and let real minorities advance. They refuse to see how destructive they are being by taking the place of a minority and less privileged person by pretending to be something they are not. They know they are violating the spirit of “diversity” by being yet another white face, but they don’t care.
Senator Warren made such a destructive choice not to correct people at Harvard and instead fill the shoes of what should have been actual diversity. This is the worst kind of “progressive” because it is a kind of progressive space that is infused with white supremacism. When white people stand together and pretend to be minorities and take the place of minorities in order to boast about an imagined ancestry, they deeply harm the notion of multi-culturalism and diversity. They perpetuate the worst kinds of institutionalized racism.
Senator Warren had a chance to admit she erred and that although she might have heard stories she had no right to put herself in as an example of “diversity.” If you are a real minority and you walk into an office full of people who look like Elizabeth Warren you won’t think you are walking into a “diverse” work environment. You will see a white work environment. Not a group of “Native-Americans.”
I went to school with actual Native-Americans. Navajos, Apaches and others. Those are the people who deserve a place at Harvard. They deserve to be empowered and succeed. Not have their place taken by yet another white person and their “stories” of Native heritage. The people I knew had real native heritage. And they suffered the difficulties of growing up with family on the reservation and the lack of privilege and other issues that go along with it. It’s time for institutions to take responsibility and stop letting white people pretend to be “minorities.”