The Case of the “Optional Ethnicity”

As a race scholar, I always tell my students, “I just can’t make this stuff up, it really happens.” Well, when we talk about whiteness in the classroom, many students like to pull out there “ethnic” card of being Irish, German, or Italian. Many of them suggest, as Gallagher (2003) noted in his research of white ethnicity, that their “troubled” ethnic history makes their past equal to the struggles of at least recent immigrants and sometimes, the strife that Blacks face. In this discussion, I often point out that I come from an ethnic heritage as well and even that I am 1/16 Cherokee. Of course, they all laugh because that’s hard to believe when I stand in front of them with my reddish hair, blue eyes, and pale, freckled skin. I also point out that my family never really claimed this mixed-blood past until recently since the marriage of “whites” to Native Americans was socially frowned upon and illegal in North Carolina until 1967 (Loving vs. Virginia).

Just recently, Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren (pictured above) has been called out for checking on college applications that she was Native American/Indian. This has caused some serious blow-back, particularly since her opponent, Senator Scott Brown, and his supporters have decided to use the “tomahawk chop” and “Indian chanting” to show their disapproval of this situation. In fact, Senator Brown stated that she is not a person of color, “as we can clearly see.” The Cherokee Nation has also strongly denounced the use of offensive language and symbols in this conversation.

So, I love when life intimates social theory and certainly does in the case of Elizabeth Warren. Here, we have a “white-looking” woman who claims to be have some mixed heritage. However, as Scott Brown and others have argued, you can’t have your cake and eat it too. In other words, you can’t have the supposedly double-advantage of being white and being Native American when applying to college. However, the real point here is that Senator Brown is a little misled to think that being a Native American is an advantage in any situation even in 21st century America. Sure, you may get preferential treatment for a college scholarship but let’s not forget that “whites” make up about 64% of all college enrollments and Native Americans are about 1%.

However, the real issue is this: Elizabeth gets to use her “ethnicity” as an option when it is to her advantage. As Mary Waters (1996) theorized, whites certainly cling on to some “ethnic” ties but can shed them in moments of social strain. Elizabeth, based on social definition, is white because, as Scott Brown suggested, she looks the part. This is, in fact, the most powerful identity she has in her line of ethnic heritage and is what will help her become a U.S. Senator (Of course, being a woman many not – see Patricia Hill Collins). So, in essence, it does not really matter that she checked the box to be Native American because let’s face it, she was applying to top elite universities and already had all the economic advantages of being white to attend these schools. More important, if she was actually Native American, she would have never really been given the opportunities to even get close to Harvard or University of Pennsylvania WITHOUT the “check the box” option.

In short, Elizabeth Warren can be any identity she wants but Americans want here to pick a side and stick with it. I guess Senator Brown would argue that either she lives in the burbs with him or stay on the “Res” with her ancestors. Nice One Drop Rule, huh?




About lippardcd

Assistant Professor of Sociology at Appalachian State University.
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