Ethnic Imposters


How often do we see it? People claim an ethnic heritage they don’t really have. Remember Rachel Dolezal? There was a scandal a few years ago because she identified as black and even served as president of the NAACP in Spokane without having the right DNA for the job.

Some people might think it’s an easy call. She claimed to be black but she’s not, so she’s an impostor. It’s easy to see that way of looking at, but for most of us there’s probably also a lingering suspicion that we haven’t quite hit the nail.

In fact, there are layers and layers of meaning and complication here.

For example, our society is coming to terms with trans people. I think most of us can understand that someone who is born in a male body can nevertheless identify as female (or vice versa). Conservatives might think we just need to beat it out of them, but that view is becoming less common (I think).

But how is ethnic dysphoria any different than gender dysphoria? That’s a hard question. And it doesn’t stop there.

Right now, Ralph Northam is fighting to save his political career after it became public that he wore black face in high school. (Because that used to count as entertainment. I don’t remember it that way but everyone sez so.) Northam’s basic argument is no one back then knew it was wrong so it’s not fair to hold him accountable now.

So, the world seems to have agreed black face is bad. But when I was a kid I read a book called Black Like Me by John Howard Griffin (1961). He darkened his skin and traveled around the South, pretending to be black. Broadly speaking, that seems like a kind of black face, but the prejudice he suffered served a purpose. It wasn’t just entertainment. He was my hero for years.

We could say there was no redeeming social value to Northam’s black face, as there was with Black Like Me. But I don’t think we can make “redeeming social value” the bright line between right and wrong, good and bad. Rachel Dolezal was doing good work as a civil rights activist, but that didn’t save her. Trans people aren’t usually offering anything for the greater social good, except of course their own wholeness, but that doesn’t mean we dismiss them.

Nor are we at a place where we can posit a rule it’s okay for people to define their own gender but not their own ethnicity. Northam is in trouble for doing black face 40 years ago, but he could probably do red face right now and get away with it. Kim TallBear notes, “Since the 18th century, non-Natives have dressed as Indians at the Boston Tea Party, in fraternal orders, in the Boy Scouts, at hobbyist powwows, within the New Age movement, and in sports, as racist mascots.”

Indeed, Italian immigrant Espira DiCorti made his entire television career posing as Iron Eyes Cody, supposedly a Native American with Cree and Cherokee ancestry. We’re in the upteenth year of the Washington Redskins trying to explain why their name is not really racist. And President Trump is using Pocahontas as a slur for political rival, apparently with the approval of the Republican party.

As a genealogist I don’t have to wait for cases like these to hit the front page. There is a constant drizzle of people who’ve had a DNA test, found that they’re zero point five percent Native American, and have adopted a full-blown Native American identity. Impostors who emerge as “Pipe Carriers for the Blackfoot Nation” or “Cheraw Nation Non-Profit Members” are a pain in the butt for all of us because their vanity distorts the research.

Very often the problem is nothing more than a stubborn naivete, usually on top of an inept and uneducated use of DNA. But in other cases, the DNA gets pressed into service to support an imposture that would be made anyway. It’s as though Rachel Dolezal could point to a 5th great grandmother who might have been black. (Oh, never mind then. That makes it okay.)

And that’s still not the end of it. Someone like Elizabeth Warren can have a genuine tradition of Cherokee ancestry, validated by DNA, but still run afoul of prevailing norms because her ancestry didn’t make her Cherokee.

But it could have. The layers just keep piling up. If her family has maintained their Cherokee culture there might not be the same controversy. And, if she had an ancestor on the Dawes Roll she would be eligible for Cherokee citizenship. But even then, there’s a strong feeling nowadays that blood quantum is an ineffective and perhaps even imperialist way of determining Native American identity. This is quite a complex topic. I was fortunate to come across a symposium in progress by the Smithsonian many years ago. I finished watching, then I’ve come back to watch and re-watch many times since. I highly recommend it. The short version is that culture not DNA determines identity.

I’m going to leave it there. Our current cultural landscape is a mess. Whites are in the same privileged position we’ve always been in. Judging by public opinion it’s sorta, kinda not okay for whites to do black face, but it might be okay to adopt a black identity. But Native Americans are different. It’s okay to do red face, okay to adopt a Native American identity, and even okay to make a living selling Native American shamanism.

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