Criticism of Elizabeth Warren for revealing her DNA test confuses the potential for the actual

Our story begins, yet again, with Donald Trump, who bundles misogyny with racism in calling Elizabeth Warren, a possible Democratic Party presidential contender in 2020, “Pocohontas.” He did this much like when he was a “birther,” questioning Barack Obama’s U.S. birth. And we might remember that Obama eventually released his long form birth certificate—also in response, partly, to Trump’s protracted goading.[1] Warren now has released a DNA test demonstrating that she probably does indeed have some American Indian heritage.[2]

Warren is, in turn, now criticized by folks such as the New Yorker’s Masha Gessen both for having succumbed to Trump’s trap and because, quoting Rebecca Nagle, “[Native Americans] live in the space between Donald Trump and Elizabeth Warren, between the stereotypes that were created to excuse the wholesale slaughter of our people and the stereotypes that were created to excuse the wholesale appropriation of our identity and cultures. The Trumps and Warrens of the world leave very little space for us [Native Americans] to exist—which, when you understand the history of the United States, makes perfect sense.”[3]

I don’t want to dismiss any of this criticism. Though “Warren says that she is laying no claim to citizenship in a tribe,” in Gessen’s paraphrase, Nagle expresses a fear that Warren “is positioning herself as a representative of people whose experience she does not share or understand.”[4] Which is to say that though Warren makes no claim even to tribal citizenship, she threatens to speak for them, that is, to speak for others and therefore to diminish the voices of those others. Which is a thorny problem involving both the privilege of those empowered to speak (and be heard) and the lack of that same privilege among subaltern people. Linda Alcott accordingly recommends that those empowered to speak do so only in close consultation and cooperation with those others,[5] which doesn’t seem particularly to be one of Warren’s projects.

The trouble I see here is the jump from the potential to the actual. Yes, Warren might claim to speak for American Indians. But to my knowledge, she has not yet done so. Nor do I understand her to be likely to do so.

Within hours of the appearance of the video, Kim TallBear, a professor at the University of Alberta and a leading expert on the use of DNA testing in tribal communities, posted a statement. Sharply critical of Warren’s behavior and publicity surrounding the test, she pointed out that tribal governments have developed an approach for determining who belongs to a tribe that is explicitly not based on the results of DNA tests. Still, she wrote, Warren and her staff “know very well that the broader US public will understand a DNA test to be a true indication of Elizabeth Warren’s right to claim Native American identity in some way.”[6]

In other words, even without claiming to speak for American Indians, Warren appropriates their identity as a biological rather than a cultural construct.[7] Which is a legitimate point.

But then there’s Warren’s side of the story: It seems that “the defining event in Warren’s family was her father’s family’s disapproval of his marriage to her future mother; Warren says that it was the Native American heritage that made her father’s family suspicious.”[8] So under something really rather resembling a one-drop rule, Warren’s father’s family regarded her mother as not white and, I think we can safely assume, less than white.

That experience is very legitimately part of Warren’s personal story, a way of expressing to audiences an understanding—even as a white woman—of racism. But Gessen thinks “[s]he frames her understanding of her ancestry in terms of experience, though this experience seems fairly well removed.”[9] Gessen continues,

Visually and dramatically, though, the video suggests a different framing. We see Warren’s three brothers, who appear darker than she is. It seems that we might be seeing them not only because they are Republicans, as they say, but also because they look more like what we imagine Native Americans should look like. A female cousin is identified as a citizen of the Cherokee Nation. And the centerpiece of the clip is the DNA-test reveal: the professor confirms that the senator has Native American blood.[10]

Here, we need to acknowledge what has become obvious first with the backlash to Obama’s presidency and second, blatantly, with Trump’s presidency: U.S. society is racist society. Only in a world where we deny that racism, do we diminish the significance of the Warren brothers’ skin tone. Her brothers were likely also subject to racism. As her mother was.

But Gessen takes all this in combination with the female cousin’s Cherokee citizenship to perceive a claim to American Indian identity. This is a step beyond what Warren actually said. Again Gessen seems to confuse the potential with the actual.

To borrow a phrase from Obama, let me be clear: Warren is a Democrat. I do not trust the Democratic Party to do anything in power other than to do just as Obama did with the so-called “war on terror” and the institutions that precipitated the 2008 financial crisis, and just as the Democrats did when gaining bicameral control of Congress in 2006, that is, to embrace and extend repugnant policies, granting them a bipartisan imprimatur, all in the name of an incoherent so-called “moderation.” So I certainly do not endorse Warren.

But while the criticism of Warren for revealing her DNA test is based on entirely legitimate concerns, concerns I hope she is well aware of, that criticism needs to wait to see what she actually does.

  1. [1]Mike Vilensky, “Trump Roasted and Skewered at White House Correspondents’ Dinner,” New York, May 1, 2011, http://nymag.com/intelligencer/2011/05/whcd.html; Jacob Weisberg, “Are Republicans losing their grip on reality?” Slate, May 20, 2011, http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/the_big_idea/2011/05/fantasy_island.html
  2. [2]Masha Gessen, “Elizabeth Warren Falls for Trump’s Trap—and Promotes Insidious Ideas About Race and DNA,” New Yorker, October 16, 2018, https://www.newyorker.com/news/our-columnists/elizabeth-warren-falls-for-trumps-trap-and-promotes-insidious-ideas-about-race-and-dna
  3. [3]Rebecca Nagle, quoted in Masha Gessen, “Elizabeth Warren Falls for Trump’s Trap—and Promotes Insidious Ideas About Race and DNA,” New Yorker, October 16, 2018, https://www.newyorker.com/news/our-columnists/elizabeth-warren-falls-for-trumps-trap-and-promotes-insidious-ideas-about-race-and-dna
  4. [4]Masha Gessen, “Elizabeth Warren Falls for Trump’s Trap—and Promotes Insidious Ideas About Race and DNA,” New Yorker, October 16, 2018, https://www.newyorker.com/news/our-columnists/elizabeth-warren-falls-for-trumps-trap-and-promotes-insidious-ideas-about-race-and-dna
  5. [5]Linda Martín Alcott, “The Problem of Speaking for Others,” in Who Can Speak? Authority and Critical Identity, Judith Roof and Robyn Wiegman, eds. (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois, 1995), 97-119.
  6. [6]Masha Gessen, “Elizabeth Warren Falls for Trump’s Trap—and Promotes Insidious Ideas About Race and DNA,” New Yorker, October 16, 2018, https://www.newyorker.com/news/our-columnists/elizabeth-warren-falls-for-trumps-trap-and-promotes-insidious-ideas-about-race-and-dna
  7. [7]Masha Gessen, “Elizabeth Warren Falls for Trump’s Trap—and Promotes Insidious Ideas About Race and DNA,” New Yorker, October 16, 2018, https://www.newyorker.com/news/our-columnists/elizabeth-warren-falls-for-trumps-trap-and-promotes-insidious-ideas-about-race-and-dna
  8. [8]Masha Gessen, “Elizabeth Warren Falls for Trump’s Trap—and Promotes Insidious Ideas About Race and DNA,” New Yorker, October 16, 2018, https://www.newyorker.com/news/our-columnists/elizabeth-warren-falls-for-trumps-trap-and-promotes-insidious-ideas-about-race-and-dna
  9. [9]Masha Gessen, “Elizabeth Warren Falls for Trump’s Trap—and Promotes Insidious Ideas About Race and DNA,” New Yorker, October 16, 2018, https://www.newyorker.com/news/our-columnists/elizabeth-warren-falls-for-trumps-trap-and-promotes-insidious-ideas-about-race-and-dna
  10. [10]Masha Gessen, “Elizabeth Warren Falls for Trump’s Trap—and Promotes Insidious Ideas About Race and DNA,” New Yorker, October 16, 2018, https://www.newyorker.com/news/our-columnists/elizabeth-warren-falls-for-trumps-trap-and-promotes-insidious-ideas-about-race-and-dna

Author: benfell

David Benfell holds a Ph.D. in Human Science from Saybrook University. He earned a M.A. in Speech Communication from CSU East Bay in 2009 and has studied at California Institute of Integral Studies. He is an anarchist, a vegetarian ecofeminist, a naturist, and a Taoist.

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