On my father’s side of the family, there exists an old family bible. It is what genealogy we have for a family that doesn’t talk about itself or its traditions much. It shows that the family was originally French, though the name was changed after being deemed by some unspecified someone to be too hard to spell.
In among the marriage records for a family that seems never to have been very large, there are two that would be surprising to most modern owners of family bibles. They simply say:
On [some date], [one of my multiply great grandfathers] took a wife.
They don’t say this because no one knew who the taken wife was. In each case, she was one of my multiply great grandmothers. In each case, she had a name.
Those names were not recorded in the family bible because two of my multiply great grandmothers were not Christians. Their heathen names could not be allowed to sully such a holy book, possibly because the only person in the area literate enough to record the marriage was the priest. In other words, they were (almost certainly) from a society indigenous to the lands along the Canadian-American border. They were First Nations.
As you may have seen recently, Scott Brown, who was handed his Senate seat through the arrogance of the Massachusetts Democratic Party after Ted Kennedy died, is now defending that seat by attacking Elizabeth Warren for claiming her own native heritage. This was a perenial talking point from him over the summer, and he repeated it again at their first debate last week:
“Professor Warren claimed that she was a Native American, a person of color. And as you can see, she’s not. That being said, she checked the box. And she had an opportunity, actually, to make a decision throughout her career,” Brown said when asked about Warren’s character during the first debate between the two. “When she applied to Penn and Harvard, she checked the box claiming she was a Native American. And, you know, clearly she’s not. That being said, I don’t know, and neither do the viewers know whether, in fact, she got ahead as a result of that checking of the box.”
Brown notes that Warren stopped claiming this heritage publicly once she had tenure. Of course, that was also the mid-1990s, when the money starting to come out of gaming made the question of who was and who wasn’t Native American very visible. When there was real money involved, identity suddenly became a political question for everyone. Narratives of cultural appreciation versus cultural appropriation, which had always been lurking in the background, were pulled out into the sunlight.
This was the atmosphere in which I found out about that family bible. That means I’m careful in how I talk about my heritage and my identity. The two are separated politically in ways that probably don’t reflect my experiences. The realities of being of mixed race (as well as of being the class in which that was a reasonable option in those days) are probably there to be read in the disfunction that has been handed down through that side of the family.
The knowledge of our heritage never existed separate from the prejudices of the day. I’m the first of us to have grown up fully in a time when being part Native American was even kind of cool (which touches on appropriation again). All of that is as much a part of the history of my family as is the farmhouse that stood for over 100 years on land we still own.
When I don’t identify as mixed race–an option that is remarkably recent, not just in our nation’s history, but even within Elizabeth Warren’s lifetime–I don’t identify any of that. It’s as though none of it happened. My appearance hides it just as strongly. Even the broad face and square chin, which people suddenly clued might point to as evidence that this was obvious all along, comes from my half-Swedish grandmother instead.
When I don’t choose to identify myself with my ancestors, everything about me denies them instead. That’s just how appearing to be the default race works. No one assumes that race was ever important to me or to my ancestors. Privilege in a nutshell, and nothing I can do anything about unless I not only identified as mixed race but continued to advertise that identification everywhere so that no one could simply assume the default.
In other words, it won’t be seen by most people to be a part of who I am unless I do what Warren did.
I don’t go nearly that far, though I’m not exactly silent about it either. I talk about it from time to time. Still, most people don’t know. For most people, those women who were not considered fit to be named in a bible didn’t exist. Their children and grandchildren never dealt with the prejudice of a world that thought “half-breed” a perfectly acceptable term. Their distant descendents are perfectly happy to have them forgotten, are maybe even a little ashamed that such marriages ever occured.
Yet if I were to do what Warren did, I would be effectively erasing a different group of people. This is why some Native Americans are upset with Warren right now. By claiming a Native American identity, she allowed the institutions at which she was employed to claim to represent a much wider variety of experience and identities than they actually did, whether or not she understood at the time that this is what they were doing. And this is despite coming from a family and a time in which her mother reportedly experienced direct prejudice for her heritage.
The same thing makes me cautious about claiming a mixed race identity when its impact on my life has been so tenuous and hard to define. I haven’t lived the same life as most people who can clearly identify that way. I haven’t had the same experiences. No one ever asks me “what” I am or where I’m from. I’ve never watched someone rethink who I am because they met someone I’m related to. I’ve never had someone try to divvy up my personality into different races. I’ve never had to choose between cultures. There has always been one that would accept me wholly, even if it felt alien to me for other reasons.
And yet. And yet. It is still part of the truth of who I am. It is still part of the truth of the history of my family and my nation (and Canada of course). It’s still important, just not something I can claim in any of the words open to me.
So tell me, Scott Brown, with your magical ability to see the truth of race in people, when am I not telling the truth about my heritage and my identity? Is it when I do claim it or when I don’t? When am I passing?