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Elizabeth Warren's cheekbones

Op-Ed

A blond, blue-eyed Cherokee? Maybe not, but who cares?

May 27, 2012|By Charlotte Allen
  • Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate, Elizabeth Warren, speaks to reporters during a news conference in Braintree, Mass., addressing questions on her claim of Native American heritage.
Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate, Elizabeth Warren, speaks to… (Steven Senne / Associated…)

The contretemps over whether Elizabeth Warren is really an American Indian has gone from the ridiculous to the ridiculous. Warren is the blond, blue-eyed, ultra-liberal Harvard law professor running for Republican Sen. Scott Brown's seat in Massachusetts. Despite a complete lack of evidence outside of "family lore" and "high cheekbones," she listed herself as a "minority" professor in a law faculty directory for some years. Documentation showing Warren to be 1/32 Cherokee — that is, having a Cherokee great-great-great-grandfather — turned out not to exist.

The latest hilarious datum consists of some recipes that Warren, styling herself as a Cherokee, contributed to a 1984 cookbook titled "Pow Wow Chow" that claimed to preserve culinary lore passed down through generations of Indians in her native Oklahoma. One of her contributions, "Cold Omelets With Crab Meat," calls for such unlikely traditional Cherokee ingredients as cognac, shallots, imported mustard and lump crab meat. Then it turned out, as Boston radio talk show host Howie Carr gleefully revealed, that Warren's instructions closely tracked a recipe published in 1979 by New York Times food columnist Pierre Franey. He described the omelet as "a great favorite of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor and Cole Porter" when they dined at New York's Le Pavillon.

As might be expected, Warren's "Fauxcahontas" problems provoked the wrath of her Democratic Party supporters. In a blog post for the New York Times, Kevin Noble Maillard, a law professor at Syracuse University and an enrolled member of the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma, accused the GOP of manufacturing Obama-style "birther" hysteria and deeming Warren "not Indian enough" because she didn't conform to an Indian stereotype of wearing feathers, smoking cheap cigarettes and frequenting a sweat lodge.

Conservatives, for their part, have pointed to Warren as an example of the potential for abuse in affirmative action and "diversity" employment practices. Whether Warren actually got her Ivy League position because she passed herself off as an Indian isn't clear (she denies it), but Harvard made something of her heritage. A 1998 editorial in the Harvard Crimson noted that the law school "currently has only one tenured minority woman … Elizabeth Warren, who is Native American."

As for me, I see the Warren fracas as a paradigm of the pitfalls inherent in defining people by race. That's because by the standards that Warren has invoked — family lore, high cheekbones — I'm an Indian too.

I'm half-Latino, with a mother born in Lima, Peru. Nearly all Latin Americans have at least a little — often a lot — of Native American blood. Even though I'm even fairer of complexion than Warren (thanks to my father's Irish-Scottish lineage), I've got a brunet sister and far darker-skinned uncles, aunts and cousins, living and dead.

I can remember sitting at the dining-room table years ago with my mother and some of her relatives. They were recalling a Spanish proverb observing that all Spaniards, especially those from Andalusia, whence my maternal great-grandfather emigrated, are cuarto moro, cuarto judío — that is, one-fourth Moorish and one-fourth Jewish. Someone joked, "And with Latinos, it's cuarto indio." That's the family lore. As for high cheekbones, in profile I look like Chief Pontiac on the old GM hood ornament.

It is only recently that race has become intertwined with identity politics and a mind-set of victimization, making racial identity a tool for extracting payback for real or imagined oppression. Large numbers of white Westerners, even Elizabeth Warren, probably have some Indian blood because on the frontier, lust, loneliness and romantic attraction made that sort of intermixing inevitable. Similarly, many American blacks have at least one white ancestor, and in the South, vice versa for many whites.

Today we abhor, and rightly so, the notion of racial classifications by law (the "one-drop" rule), so racial identity has become for many people strictly a matter of self-fashioning. President Obama's autobiography, "Dreams from My Father," is specifically about the half-white future president's efforts to mold a black identity for himself even though he didn't grow up in anything resembling African American culture.

Naturally, though, when there is something to be gained from racial self-creation — whether minority set-asides, cushy teaching jobs at universities eager to advertise their commitment to diversity, or simply the opportunity to feel sorry for oneself as a societal victim — there are going to be jeers when a blond with a taste for French cuisine checks off the box marked Cherokee. I often wonder what my life would be like had I decided to be a "wise Latina" dispensing indigenous bromides instead of the ethnic farrago I actually am — and that so many other Americans are these days.

Isn't it time, really, to give up on identity politics and racial classifications? The left is constantly assuring us that race is only a "social construct" — so how about treating it that way?

Charlotte Allen is a contributing editor at the Manhattan Institute's Minding the Campus website.

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