An interestingly illuminating spat occurred this week in the ever dirty Scott Brown v Elizabeth Warren fight for the Massachusetts seat in the Senate. Mrs Warren was taken to task over her claims to be of Native American Indian stock, and whether her pride in this and her “high cheekbones” lead her to falsely claim being an Indian for preferment in her career..
What better example than this to show how ancestry is a social construct and varies over time. Mrs Warren is, it seems, 1/32 Indian. By chance, since my mother was born in India, I too have Indian ancestry, I too am 1/32 Indian, except my Indian ancestress was Assamese or Bengali rather than Cherokee.
The ramifications of her pride in her g-g-g-grandmother OC Sarah Smith have occupied the blogosphere all week, with quite a lot of people deriding Ms Warren for hypocrisy of one kind or another. Some complained that in her various applications she at some times didn’t put a tick against the ethnic box, and other times did, accusing her of playing on the need of academic institutions to use ethnic profiling to positively discriminate for these groups.
It’s still uncertain whether she did this from pride in her native heritage or played the system to advantage. She certainly said, that despite the blond hair and blue eyes, she felt strongly she had come from a family imbued with pride for its native American heritage.
Pride in ancestry is fine; it’s pretty much how I too feel on occasion. Some days I fondly imagine my playing cricket for India, and other times, looking round for my reading glasses, I am more sensible. Occasionally I dig out old curry recipes from my mulatto great grand-mother’s notebook. But it’s not something I ponder 24/7, after all 1/32 of something ain’t much of anything right?
Not to me perhaps, but to my mother being 1/16 was certainly something. It was central to the core of her being, and in America too, being 1/16 of something other than white northern European did indeed mean something. And that “something” was not always pleasant either. One drop of this so-called befouled blood even at a dilution of 1/16 was enough to brand you colored. It was perhaps one reason my mother’s family came to Britain when they moved from India, rather than to America where my grandfather’s sisters lived.
America had, even when I was a boy, an appalling attitude to black people and arguably an even worse one to those who were of mixed race. Despite laws being in place which said all people are born equal, black people and those “of color” could not use the same restaurants, drink from the same taps, eat at the same restaurants or sit at the front of a bus. America practised apartheid every bit as rabid and vile as South Africa. As for job opportunities forget it.
Forget this week’s issues about same-sex marriage, America used to be a country which would not even allow mixed race marriages, which they called “miscegenation” well into the sixties. Yes that’s the sixties. The last seventeen states (yes 17!) only relenting after being dragged kicking and screaming into the nineteenth century by Loving v Virginia 388 US1 1967. And yes, to stress the point that is only 45 years ago.
Gray No Laws against mixed marriages.
Green Repealed before 1887
Yellow Repealed 1948 through 1967
Red Repealed 12 June 1967
You can bet those states would do their level best to arrange statistics of mixed race peoples as advantageously as possible.
Some bloggers and their commentators have mentioned that not many of Elizabeth Warren’s ancestors advertised that they had this Indian descent. Now I just ask…if your family, as my family, had mixed race elements in it, and lived in a country as appallingly prejudiced as America used to be, just how much would you want others to know? Not much might be the honest reply. Even in Britain in the sixties my mother was very careful never to reveal her native Indian ancestry even at that 1/16 degree for fear of prejudice. She would never have ticked the box or told the Census her racial origin.
This loathsome doctrine ascribed a black outcome to any person who had down to one sixteenth black or colored ancestry, condemning them to sit at the back of the bus of life forever. Worst of all this rule was never some hangover of a benighted past, but was a product of the enlightened twentieth century. For example Tennessee, introduced it in 1910 and Virginia in 1924. So in the lifetime of Elizabeth’s g-g-g-grandmother in the twentieth century the whole thing was getting worse rather than better!
So for me, at least, the rise of the numbers of people “coming out” as having levels of mixed race background is both indicative of an acceptance of one’s mixed ancestry and a pride in this heritage. Maybe in this respect America is growing up.
It’s a very American politics to manage to place your opponent as both colored and a race cheat seeking selective preference in her career in the one move. By playing the race card both Scott and Warren have set the issue of improved racial relations back. They should both be ashamed of themselves.
Copyright David Macadam 2012