When Am I Passing?


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?

Comments

  1. sillybit says

    I feel similarly about my Hispanic heritage; it’s maybe more recent but I in no way look “Hispanic” (take after the German side) and I don’t speak Spanish or have any cultural Latin background, but I do check the Hispanic box on the forms. If it gives me the option to check both I also check the White/Caucasian box.

  2. Pierce R. Butler says

    Race, however, is a huge issue for teabaggers.

    They could no more ignore an assertion about an opponent’s racial background than a cat could pass by a whole tuna on the lawn.

  3. Suido says

    Professor Warren claimed that she was a Native American, a person of color. And as you can see, she’s not.

    Quote for inanity. Look at any mixed race family and you’ll see a variety of skin colours/racial features in the children. My partner has light skin, identifiable as ‘white’, while her brother’s skin colour is far darker, obviously not ‘white’. Nobody could accurately determine their heritage by purely visual inspection – any guesses based on one member of the family would be different to a guess based on a different member of the family, and different again if the guess was based on the whole family as a group.

  4. says

    The lines run differently in Germany, where the divide is often more along ethnical/cultural lines.
    And there are no boxes to check.
    From my maternal side there are some Hungarian gypsies in my line, but I would never declare that I’m “part gypsie”. I don’t belong to the Sinti and Roma who are still oppressed minorities. For me who gets a shitton of privilege it would have a bad taste to it.
    For similar reasons I don’t declare that I’m partly Russian-German, although my paternal grandmother is. But she’s been living here for 60 years and I am not “identifiable” in any way. My daughters’ friends get shit because their parents are often recent immigrants from Russia or the Ukraine, but my children don’t because they’re German in every aspect, middle class, too.
    So, no, I’m not claiming some minority “status” for things that don’t affect me. I’m not discriminated against because of my great-great-great grandparents and I’m not discriminated against because of my grandma (my dad still was as a child). I don’t have any cultural traditions I inherited from them or just an odd keepsake.
    Funny enough, in the wrong part of town my long dark hair and my dark eyes can quickly lose me all privilege and I become a “Turkish bitch”…

  5. Robofish says

    “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.”

    I think that paragraph hits the key points. As I see it, it would be wrong for you to identify as Native American/First Nations, since people don’t consider you as such and judge you accordingly; and because you don’t have any experience of that society/culture.

    If you want to identify as mixed-race, that’s your choice and it would be technically true; but then again, a large number of Americans and Canadians have at least some Native ancestry, and to consider that that necessarily makes them ‘mixed-race’ seems reminiscent of the archaic, racist ‘one-drop rule’ to me. The ultimate point is, race is a sociological category rather than a biological one; and as far as society is concerned, you’re white, whatever those family books might say.

    For those reasons, I do think what Warren did was slightly wrong. But Brown is still an ass for trying to make a political issue out of it.

  6. says

    For those reasons, I do think what Warren did was slightly wrong. But Brown is still an ass for trying to make a political issue out of it.

    I think we can be sure that the only way Ms. Warren could have done this is wrong indeed.
    Had she never ever mentioned it by now they would have dug it up and would be claiming that she is racist because she apparently hid her ancestry…

  7. Corvis illustris says

    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).

    This timing seems so weird to me, since I grew up (1940s-50s in small towns in northern Michigan) going to school with quite a few kids with (usually) French surnames but with some antecedents from the Three-Council-Fires group. This was known, accepted, and reacted to with: meh. The big difference between now and then is the prosperity that casinos have brought to various incorporated bands, with enormous positive consequences for health.

    Gilliel@7 says “Funny enough, in the wrong part of town my long dark hair and my dark eyes can quickly lose me all privilege and I become a ‘Turkish bitch’.” You’re describing the women on my mother’s side of the family, which is demonstrably (by US and Prussian records) totally German, albeit with possible Letzeburgesch connections.

  8. brucegee1962 says

    Good post, Stephanie. It does a fine job of pointing out how, for most Americans, race is an incredibly complex and sensitive issue, especially when it comes to our familial background. I heard a thought-provoking statement once: given the fact that anyone in the south who had mixed-race ancestry, but who could “pass” for white, probably did so, the odds are high that ANYONE with southern ancestors has both black and white people in their family tree.

    But for Scott Brown and others of his ilk, race is just a club to hit people with. What a creep. If that’s the best he’s got, he really needs to go.

  9. says

    Corvis, good point that local likelihood of having a mixed background does change the reaction. What I’m talking about is very much changing reactions to the “exotic”.

  10. JDG says

    Of mixed first nations (mi’kmaq) heritage myself, but by all appearances, I’m white (and nerdy.) I’ve done some work on rezzes and have some family members who look far more native than I do (my baby sister caught a lot of shit).
    I don’t know much about the culture, and I leave it at challenging people on their racism towards first nations people. I refuse to let the ‘special rights’ crowd dominate the discussion with their ignorant blather.

  11. Corvus illustris says

    When you (Stephanie) say

    … local likelihood of having a mixed background does change the reaction …

    you make me aware of a blind spot in my perceptions that may also have been present in Prof. Warren’s, namely, that the setting one grows up in may make ethnic-background questions fade into noise. I have never met (they surely exist) an Oklahoman who didn’t believe (frequently concretely know) s/he had some Native ancestors, although the distance back would not always be clear. It’s not implausible that at some stage Warren just thought “oh yeah, sure, I have a matrilineal Cherokee ancestor” and checked a box, but then found herself in a situation in which backtracking would have made things more complicated.

    The question is really in the hands of the various Cherokee organized groups, who should determine their own members: not Brown, not the mass media, nor the New England Historical Genealogical Society.

  12. geocatherder says

    My mother-in-law is a genealogy buff. She’s had good luck tracing her own ancestors from the northern part of the U.S. and southern Canada. She’s had far less luck tracing my (white) father-in-law’s southern U.S. family. Apparently a lot of county/parish records accidently caught fire or otherwise disappeared. Coincidently, there were a lot of folks who didn’t want it known they had black blood in their family lines.

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