6 Instances Of Cultural Appropriation During Elizabeth Warren’s Night At The DNC

6 Instances Of Cultural Appropriation During Elizabeth Warren’s Night At The DNC

A progressive heroine, Warren refuses to check her privilege, and is given a pass.
Mary Katharine Ham
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Despite divisions in the party, the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia is filled with people who are unanimous in fancying themselves culturally sensitive and tolerant above all else. Why, then, do they let these cultural transgressions stand — on the podium in prime time, no less?

1. A Woman Who Once Pretended To Be Native American Spoke in Prime Time

Sen. Elizabeth Warren is a white woman. She is a blonde, blue-eyed white woman who has lived a white American’s life. During her professional journey from Oklahoma institutions to the Ivy League, however, Warren decided it behooved her to turn family legend about her possible Cherokee roots into a new cultural identity. As such, she identified in writing as a Native American law professor for almost a decade on applications and in professional directories. She had no evidence that she was Native American, but from 1986 to 1995 she claimed to be.

Even those who support Warren and dislike her current critic, Donald Trump, concede she is not Native American.

2. A Woman Who Pretended To Be Native American To Advance Her Career Spoke in Prime Time

When Warren ran for Senate in 2012, her opponent and the media confronted her about this cultural identity. Many were left to wonder why she had stopped identifying as Native American in 1995. A Washington Post story from the time:

“Warren first listed herself as a minority in the Association of American Law Schools Directory of Faculty in 1986, the year before she joined the faculty of the University of Pennsylvania Law School. She continued to list herself as a minority until 1995, the year she accepted a tenured position at Harvard Law School.”

Many questioned the timing, as they say. Her identification as a minority perfectly aligned with her ascension to the pinnacle of the legal educator’s career arc during a time when elite law schools were keenly and obviously interested in increasing their diversity. Both Harvard and Penn touted her minority status in literature about their law schools.

Warren claimed she only checked the box to meet “others like me,” but campus Native American groups had no record of her involvement with any of them.

3. Cherokees and Genealogists Had to Knock Down False Claims of Heritage From a Prime-Time Speaker

Federal recognition of tribes as Native American, the standard by which they are eligible for all the programs our country bestows upon those groups, is actually a pretty important and at times contentious topic among Native Americans. The tribal recognition of individuals is likewise important and contentious, and tribes have very specific ways of documenting it.

“Tribal membership entails making legitimate family links to government ‘rolls’ that date back to the 19th century and taking part in tribal life,” the Christian Science Monitor explained in reporting this story in 2012.

Despite claiming to The New York Times and other national media in 2012 that Warren’s memories of possible Cherokee descent would be enough to qualify her for tribal membership, they would not and they did not.

One genealogist with the New England Historical Genealogical Society briefly claimed he had some evidence, but there was no documentation and the society later retracted.

At least one group of offended Cherokees formed to press Warren on the subject.

“You claim to be Cherokee. You forget, it isn’t who you claim, but instead, who claims you. We don’t claim you,” read the tagline on a website of a group created by David Cornsilk, a member of the Cherokee Nation.

4. A Woman Who Used Racial Stereotypes About the Physical Attributes of Native Americans To Bolster Her Claims Spoke in Prime Time

One of Warren’s pieces of evidence for her claim was so racially clumsy and insensitive-sounding, I’ve always been hesitant to repeat it. Here it is, in her own words:

“I still have a picture on my mantel and it is a picture my mother had before that – a picture of my grandfather. And my Aunt Bea has walked by that picture at least a 1,000 times remarked that he – her father, my Papaw — had high cheek bones like all of the Indians do.”

Welp, her Papaw had high cheek bones, like all the Indians do.

5. A Woman Who Used a Cook Book Called Pow Wow Chow As Evidence Of Her Lineage Spoke in Prime Time

Perhaps equally insulting was Warren’s next justification. She had contributed several recipes to a family cook book called— again, her words, not mine— “Pow Wow Chow,” and had been identified as “Cherokee” in the book.

She also plagiarized at least one of those recipes from the New York Times.

6. A Woman Who Took Privilege Imparted To An Historically Oppressed Group Despite Her Obviously White Privilege?

She spoke in prime time.

One may disagree with the policy of elevating minorities and historically oppressed groups to faculty positions partially based on their ethnicity to make up for past wrongs and a dearth of minority representation that may have been caused by those wrongs. But we can all agree Native Americans are among the most historically oppressed groups in the United States.

The people who support Warren passionately are the exact people who constantly require other white Americans to “check their privilege” to better understand the plight of the historically and culturally oppressed. Their heroine Warren spent a large part of her career doing the opposite. She absconded with a privilege set aside for the historically oppressed and minorities for the purpose of piling it on top of her existing white privilege. It served her well.

If you’re fine with this, spare me your outrage about headdresses for sale, cafeteria sushi, and Trump calling Warren “Pocahontas.” He has a point. Neither one of them is Cherokee.

Mary Katharine Ham is a CNN contributor.
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