I have taken to these pages in the past to defend practices that progressives pejoratively call “cultural appropriation.” By now we all know the phrase and that it refers to people (mainly white people) using elements of foreign cultures including costumes, music, food, or, frankly, anything without permission. In most cases the outrage over cultural appropriation is silly, but this week Sen. Elizabeth Warren has opened herself to a charge of cultural appropriation that seems a bit more serious. Will the left hold her to account? Or will her politics earn her a pass?
We now know through Warren’s DNA test that she is about 1/1000 Native American (either from North or South America), or roughly as Native American as Chief Wahoo. During her academic career, Warren changed the identification of her race from white to Native American on the basis of family legends about an Indian ancestor.
Warren didn’t wear a headdress for Halloween or don the jersey of a certain subpar NFL team from Washington DC. She claimed to be of Indian descent to the extent that she described it as her racial identity. Whether it was her intent or not, she did so in a way that was quite likely to increase her professional opportunities. She didn’t appropriate some aspect of Indian culture; she appropriated the whole thing.
While most cases of cultural appropriation are criticized for offending actual members of the culture being appropriated, Warren’s might really have created less opportunity for actual Native Americans. Harvard University was pleased enough at having hired its first “Native American” to the faculty of its law school, and made a bit of a big deal about it. Had Warren not claimed such ancestry, might the job have gone to an actual Native American rather than a woman with about as much claim to it as an actor on “F Troop”?
That Warren thinks her DNA test exonerates her is somewhat hard to believe. Does anyone really think that, in identifying one’s race in a professional setting where it may affect hiring, being 1/1,000 of any race qualifies a person for those advantages? The whole point of those advantages, whether one agrees or disagrees with their use, is to help marginalized people overcome systemic disadvantages. Did Warren’s family legend of Indian blood disadvantage her in some way? It’s hard to see how.
It may well be that Warren fully believed the tall tales of her family lore when deciding to identify professionally as a person of color. But how could she in good conscience have done so knowing that it might help her in ways that clearly weren’t intended to help her, but rather members of that group who really did have to overcome racist disadvantage? At the very least it seems that she should admit this was an error in judgment. Instead, she is bizarrely claiming to be vindicated.
On some level, the Warren situation opens up a wide array of questions about what we really mean by racial or ethnic identity. She may well have believed she had some large percentage of Indian ancestry. In fact, lots of people in today’s world who believe they are members of certain ethnic groups are coming to find out they aren’t. The booming business of DNA testing is changing the stories that many people know about themselves.
I haven’t taken a DNA ancestry test, but recently some family members from my Irish side did. They discovered that we are not insignificantly of Norwegian descent. Now this isn’t terribly surprising, as the Vikings had a penchant for rape and pillage in Ireland. I can report, however, that upon learning the news I did not feel a new desire to start skiing and perusing the works of Knut Hampsun. I didn’t start waxing poetic about how Henrik Ibsen is better than Anton Chekov (which is true.) In fact, nothing changed at all about how I think about myself.
On ancestry adverts we often see people shocked to learn they are German, African, or Latino. They seem excited to investigate this new part of who they are. But is there anything new about who they are? Aren’t they still the same person, with the same cultural influences that shaped them?
If, as seems possible, Warren really did take pride in what she believed to be her Native American roots, might that have influenced how she views America, politics, everything? It absolutely could, and there is nothing wrong with that. But that fact is hard to fit with the progressive idea that real members of a given culture have a proprietary right to control the cultural output of their group.
I want to cut Warren a break here, but I want progressives to meet me halfway. If Warren can use her perceived minority status to seek professional advantage without outrage from the left, then let’s calm down about costumes, Taco Tuesday, and Cinco de Mayo.
That progressives aren’t throwing Warren under the bus is probably a good thing, but please extend that courtesy to everyone, not just those who share your politics. This moment can help diffuse the identity and culture wars. We should use it in that way. If Warren is proud of her slight potential Native American heritage, great. But if her appropriation is not cause for scorn and outrage, then please allow the rest of us to borrow from the rich human history of multifarious cultures. We will all be better off for it.