Like many Americans whose political views tend to the right of center, I have long enjoyed mercilessly mocking the claims of one Massachusetts senator to claim legitimacy with regards to our nation’s troubled identity politics by pointing to her Cherokee ancestry. The general political tone in conservative circles towards this particular politician tends to be fairly savage, even pointing out that rather than being descended from the Cherokee, that she appears to be descended from the land-hungry people who dispossessed the Cherokee of their land *sad trumpet*. It should go without saying that a lot of people find a great deal of enjoyment in skewering the obvious self-promotion of someone who does not look at all like a Cherokee, never faced the struggles of growing up on a reservation, but who benefited by claiming such an identity when it was convenient for her as a way of helping the diversity of institutions while also ensuring herself a job that she might otherwise not have been viewed as competent of. While it is fun to make light of this politician and her lack of moral integrity when it comes to claiming an identity that she does not really deserve to have, I thought it would be more worthwhile today to examine the sort of problem that she exhibits.
First, though, I would like to talk about myself. Like Senator Warren, I too am someone who does not at all look native American and never lived on the reservation and cannot speak or write the quirky language of the Cherokee tribe that family history tells me I am at least partly descended from . While I have from time to time commented on my complicated but fairly ordinary American ancestry–ordinary given that since my European roots in this country go back mostly to colonial times, it is fairly unsurprising that there was some intermarriage in my background between European settlers and indigenous peoples–I have no tribal affiliation, none of my ancestors (to my knowledge at least) signed any treaties that I can find with the American government, and therefore I feel it would be unethical for me to attempt to profit off of an identity given that context. Certainly other people can choose differently, but I have never wanted to be a Val Kilmeresque “instant Indian” in the manner of at least one of our nation’s august Senators.
Part of the reason that race is such a contentious issue is that what we consider to be race is an obvious continuum. We are all part of one human race, but a great deal of our identity is only skin deep. This is not to say that we do not fight over such matters or that such matters are unimportant in shaping our lives and our possibilities, but they are skin deep all the same. My pale freckly skin does not define my moral and intellectual qualities as a human being, but they send a clear signal to the world that I am (mostly) of European ancestry with all the advantages and disadvantages that brings in terms of my ordinary life and my travels around the world. Quite a few people, though, have a more obviously mixed ancestry and this places questions as to which identity or identities they claim. How much blood is necessary for one to claim an identity and have that claim accepted by others in that group? Does the ease at which someone can pass as one identity make it problematic for them to claim an identity that is less obvious to them–let us think here of people like Stacey Dash, Logic, or Mariah Carey, all of whom have at some point in their careers sought to pivot to an African-American identity that not everyone has been willing to let them claim. Identity politics is not only about what we are, but whether other people are willing to accept the identity that we claim and accept them as part of the group of those who have that identity so that we can gain the full benefits that identity provides to those who have it. Few people are going to be intent to claim an identity that provides them no benefit, after all.
Let us suppose, for the sake of argument, that Senator Warren has a few drops of Cherokee blood. What difference would that make for her identity when she is also descended from the land-hungry thieves of Cherokee land? Do we have the liberty to claim only those parts of our identity that are convenient for us at any given time, even if we have not faced the drawbacks associated with that identity? Is it necessary to suffer from having an identity before we can claim the positive aspects of that identity, or are those people whose identities are fairly mixed up simply going to find it increasingly difficult to claim larger identities at all except for something relating to mixed or partial ancestries. Given the tendency for people to be able to form identities at an alarmingly easy rate and the way that such identities divide us and also provide benefit to those who have them, it is unlikely that we will be able to stop quarreling over such matters anytime soon, not least because we are painfully aware of the repercussions of our identities and our desire to be a part of something greater than ourselves, not least so we can leverage some kind of strength in numbers. Policing identities is by no means an easy task, as the question of who belongs is asked and answered over and over and over again.
 See, for example: