26 May 2012

Elizabeth Warren's Ancestry a Problem? Meh!

Someone asked me what I thought about the whole kerfufflement over Elizabeth Warren's ancestry. I've been really busy lately, and haven't read deeply on the issue, but here goes.

I'm not well versed in Native American ancestry, but I don't even think that's the issue. There are lots of descendants of Native Americans today that don't look have the stereotypical "look", and therefore don't suffer discrimination based on race. So theoretically they shouldn't be entitled to benefit from affirmative action policies. But it doesn't mean their ancestors didn't suffer disadvantages. Elizabeth Warren does not appear to be disadvantaged in any way, but there are lots of reasons why one still would want to claim that ancestry other than milking the system: pride being foremost among them.

I've been too busy to follow it closely, but from skimming reports, etc. it seems as though Warren and Harvard used this label to perhaps satisfy some quota. So big deal. Not the best idea, but did this take anything away from a "real" Native American? I don't see how it could have. I'm not sure, but suspect that affirmative action has a double purpose: make up for past transgressions and give a leg up to people still suffering. Part of the beauty of affirmative action is being played out right here. It undoes the stigma attached to a group of people and moves everything back towards equilibrium.

I know Warren has been mocked because of the "high cheekbones" comment. Hello, we genealogists call that a family myth. Is she just lying? I don't actually care, because I do not think it indicates anything evil in her character. I'd so much rather talk about critical issues. The high cheekbones comment is simply the basis for future research: one clue in thousands to help us figure out the ancestral trail. The general public, including Harvard, has no freaking idea on how to prove such a claim. There are deserving Native Americans who cannot claim membership in a tribe because the tribes are extremely picky about who they let in, and rightfully so. But that does not mean that those individuals do not have Native American blood. It's just a very complex issue that cannot be distilled down to a sound bite. Or a paragraph.

So what percentage of ancestry qualifies you to call yourself black, white, Native American? Why is Obama always thought of as black? His mother was white! He's neither and both, something the press can't seem to handle. People assume I'm Irish because of my FitzGerald maiden name, and although my grandfather was an Irish laborer straight off the boat during "Irish need not apply days," my mother's ancestors came over on the Mayflower. There are just as many family stories about freckle-faced redheads indicating Irish ancestry, or platinum blonds revealing Scandinavian blood, short people being Pygmies (kidding). It doesn't mean she's evil if she believes her mother's stories about family. That's where we all start out. Family tradition. I'm Irish. And I'm a blue-blood. And I'm descended from kings and peasants.

Summing up, I think it is a non-issue and wish it would just go away. That fact that she's a blue-eyed blonde is irrelevant. I do kind of like it that today people are fighting to prove that ARE Native American. Makes a tiny dent in the horror that has been inflicted upon people for their race/religion/sexual orientation. If it can help balance the universe and help us let go of these labels, I'm all for it. And to Elizabeth Warren I'd just like to say I know the best Native American board-certified genealogist in the country and would be happy to refer you to her!

1 comment:

Frances Elizabeth Schwab said...

If you asked my relatives, they'd all say we're Irish--and if there had been an official box to check that said Irish, we all would have checked it without a second thought. But the research I'm doing is causing me to think we might actually be Scottish. All those years of saying "I don't have to wear green because I'm actually Irish"--oops.

I can't fault an individual for believing family tradition--never once occurred to me to doubt mine until I started researching my roots. It does surprise me though that there isn't some burden of proof if a specific category provides advantage, whether to the individual or the institution.