May 19, 2012

Racial politics of Warren case

Summing up what we know of the Elizabeth Warren case: She described herself as "Cherokee" or "Native" for several years without proof of this identity. And she didn't benefit from it in any significant way.

Now some thoughts on how conservatives are making a mountain out of this molehill--playing racial politics with a Native issue:

Elizabeth Warren Finally Teaches a Lesson on Native Identity

By Rob CapricciosoEven though many Indian educators think Warren has more explaining to do, many also feel she is being unfairly attacked. Some are even defending her, especially since Republicans are working overtime to use this controversy to their advantage, although none seem too keen on understanding the important underlying issues. Instead, conservative writer Michelle Malkin has made fun of the situation using phrases like “Pinocchio-hontas,” “Chief Full-of-Lies,” “Running Joke” and “Sacaja-whiner.” The Brown campaign, too, has twisted the situation out of context, with its campaign manager, Jim Barnett, telling the Associated Press, “Professor Warren needs to come clean about her motivations for making these claims and explain the contradictions between her rhetoric and the record.” In reality, these slams turn out to be unsubstantiated, but the Brown campaign is playing politics, nuance be damned.

Donna Akers, a professor with the Department of History and Native American Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is skeptical of the conservative outrage. “I think this is simply a cynical ploy by right-wing propagandists trying to find a piece of mud that sticks against Warren,” she says. Akers believes Republican politicians sometimes use racial issues to divide voters and to play on their insecurities. In this case, she says that the Brown campaign is trying to make it seem like a white person may have lost out on a position due to Warren’s situation. “Smearing Warren by the suggestion that she benefited unfairly by claiming Native ancestry panders to the racism extant in many sectors of the right wing—especially the working class,” Akers says. “The Republican Party today solidly embraces a thinly veiled racist agenda that privileges white Americans at the expense of Native Americans and other peoples of color in the United States.”

The intriguing question to explore, Indian academics say, is whether any Native candidates lost out on a chance to teach at Harvard because Warren was laying claim to an identity she knew very little about. That is a question, of course, that Republicans are not asking. And neither is the mainstream press. “The mainstream media definitely has added to this controversy due to their well-known ignorance about tribal citizenship and other tribal issues,” says Julia Good Fox, a professor at Haskell Indian Nations University. Good Fox notes that the media has largely failed to explain tribal citizenry and blood quantum issues to give context to the situation because these aren’t easy stories to tell. It’s easier to label the case “convoluted,” blame Warren, and move on to the next political gotcha story.
Elizabeth Warren and the Politics of Being Indian

By Lindsey Catherine Cornum[I]f Warren claimed 1/32nd Cherokee heritage and was dark-skinned, I bet the conversation would be a lot different. The problem is Warren just doesn’t look Cherokee enough. Because of her physical appearance, many believe she has not had a genuine minority experience and does not deserve to claim minority status. To some degree, that is correct. As a light-skinned woman whom most people read as of Western-European descent, Warren has probably never experienced outright racism first-hand. Because she is granted white privilege based on her white appearance, however, does not necessarily mean she is just white—this applies not only to Elizabeth Warren but to all light-skinned people with non-European heritage. Though they must be held accountable for their conditional privilege and to the communities they purport to belong to, their decision to connect to their heritage is theirs alone. Nobody gets to decide that for them but their ancestors.

Unfortunately, in defending herself and her choice to list herself as minority professor, Warren has relied on her own reductionist interpretations of Indianness. While she did give a sincere account about the family history she was told and raised on, she has also tried to confirm her Cherokee ancestry by pointing to the high cheekbones of her grandfather. I mean, a part of me gets it. For those of us who do not look Indian enough (which these days requires full-blown regalia or being dead) or those of us who are cut off from our tribal communities, there is a struggle to identify what exactly is Indian about us. That sometimes comes out in misguided generalizations that we know will be understood by the ignorant, Hollywood-fed American public. In many cases those ignorant, Hollywood-based images are some of the only ways we know ourselves what constitutes an authentic Indian.
And:In this case, it’s as if conservatives have been storing up all the unoriginal stereotypes of Indians they can think of, just waiting for a chance to unleash them all in one gushing flow of digital racist vomit. On Twitter this was manifested through the trending hashtag #ElizabethWarrenIndianNames which included such zingers as Pocca-hot-mess (a clever variation on the tired Pocca-hot-ass) and Lia-watha. Meanwhile, Ann Coulter at her ever-insightful best wrote a piece called “Elizabeth Warren’s Indian Name: Dances with Lies” which opens with, “Elizabeth Warren, who also goes by her Indian name, ‘Lies on Race Box,’ is in big heap-um trouble.”

If Elizabeth Warren hasn’t been a victim of racialized verbal violence before in her life, she certainly is now. Welcome to the good life.
Comment:  Note that two-faced conservatives are trying to have it both ways. Before anyone knew whether Warren's claims were legitimate, they were attacking her. "She's a fake Indian, she's gaming the system, she's using race to her advantage." In other words, they launched racist or semi-racist assaults on her as an Indian.

Now that her claims are in doubt, they're attacking her for lying about her identity. For making it up. They refuse to consider the obvious alternative: that she innocently repeated her family stories of being Cherokee until she thought better of it.

There's nothing strange about that. I'm sure most people have repeated stories they couldn't prove about their family history. The difference is, Warren repeated those stories before realizing she'd undergo intense scrutiny while running for public office.

But conservatives don't care about these nuances. Either way, they've attacked her: for being an Indian, or for pretending to be one. The common theme is their fear and hatred of minorities. No other conclusion encompasses the wide variety of attacks.

If you have any doubts, read the labels again: "Pinocchio-hontas," "Chief Full-of-Lies," "Running Joke," etc. No conservative has denounced these labels; many have parroted them. Regardless of Warren's identity, therefore, many conservatives are racists.

For more on the subject, see Elizabeth Warren's Birther Moment and NAJA Criticizes "Disrespectful" Warren Puns.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Where are these guys when David Yeagley the Persian Comanche Michael Jackson Lookalike comes up?