Monday, May 7, 2012

The Elizabeth Warren Controversy?

Driving back home at noon today I heard a Boston journalist say that he would not have checked the minority box that Elizabeth Warren checked even though he is 1/16th Native American. He said it in a way that seemed to me to convey the assurance that his decision was the only reasonable one and that Warren's decision must, therefore, be open to severe criticism. I disagree. The decisions we make about seld-identification should rarely be open to challenge. There is no evidence that Warren's decision to self-identify as having Native ancestors was made with the intention of furthering her career, nor is there any evidence that it did. Absent any evidence of the sort, her decision should go unchallenged. 

The manufactured controversy reflects not only the way in which politics often "majors in the minors" but also a tendency which people have to want to define the Other. Pigeonholing people makes life seem less complicated, although that is a delusion. Pigeonholing people is also a favorite pastime of many privileged folks. Thus Romney, whose privileged status should be obvious, tries to pigeonhole Obama with comments about his having spent too much time at Harvard. (Doesn't Romney have a Harvard degree or two?) Attempts to classify others or to denigrate their decisions about their identities are not as much about understanding as about power. If we can successfully put someone in her place - it's more often her place than his - then we have power to get what we want, often, maybe usually, at the expense of the other person. 

Whether it's a refusal to allow Warren to claim her family's story of a Natve ancestor, or a refusal to refer to groups by the name they choose for themselves - remember the consternation with which some white folks clung to calling Americans of African descent "colored"? - or even the uneasiness many of us feel about using the pronouns that transgendered people claim for themselves, at heart it's about power. At its best it's about our power to have a way to understand the world around. At its worst it's about the power to control others, to make them what we want them to be, rather than who they know themselves to be. 

If Elizabeth Warren isn't elected to the Senate, I hope it's about the issues and about the experience and character of the candidates and not about the non-issue of Warren's self identification. The citizens of the Commonwealth deserve that.

No comments: