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We Should Not Be Defending Elizabeth Warren From Indigenous Voters

There is a historical precedent for white people asserting that they have Native ancestry that does not make Elizabeth Warren’s previous claim harmless at all.

I have refrained from writing more “political” pieces where this current election cycle is concerned. Mostly because I’ve already cast my lot in with Elizabeth Warren for the primaries, because I believe there are no perfect or “clean” political candidates, and because I believe that the president’s primary job is to protect the material and imperial interests of these United States and that anyone gunning for such a position has to be a particular kind of person. 

But also mainly because I am still traumatized from 2016… and the rise of “stans” on the internet in the last decade (which deserves its own thorough conversation). 

Why? Because “stans” have made it so that matters of policy and policymakers themselves are being touted as perfect deities at best and untouchable celebrities at worst. Much of this political “stanning” has been attributed and assigned solely to “Bernie Bros”, but let us be clear. Other politicians have their share of… supporters (and I use that word very lightly). MAGAts are probably the top among them but make no mistake, there have been plenty of stans for candidates like Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg, and previously—and hilariously, still—Hillary Clinton. And these stans are always ready to throw themselves on the most illogical of swords and it means that you don’t get to say anything negative about their chosen candidate, even valid criticism.

This time around, that sword just so happens to be “Native Ancestry” and the untouchable one is Elizabeth A. Warren.

To explain, earlier this week, actress Yvette Nicole Brown went to bat for Warren when she stated that she too had been previously told by family members that they had Native ancestry on her grandmother’s side and that people should lay off Warren for her previous, ahem, misstep.

This was perturbing to me for a number of reasons, but let’s start with the most important one:

There is a historical precedent for white people asserting that they have Native ancestry that does not make Elizabeth Warren’s previous claim harmless at all.

Before I even dive into what makes Brown’s tweets dubious when it comes to Black people, I have to start at the source. Many of us who are marginalized know that people who are of the Ecru and Eggshell persuasion have a real affinity for claiming ancestry they know and we know they do not possess, usually in a bid to pull some “gotcha!” bullshit on a member of that same community or worse, siphon resources or representation. It’s why many of us collectively roll our eyes when someone claims to be 1/64th Native American or “Cherokee” and why my eyes always fall out of my head when someone claims their great-great-great-great-great-great-twice-removed-on-their-mother’s side-great-great-great-great grandmother was Black.

Recommended: ELIZABETH WARREN’S CLAIMS OF INDIGENIETY ARE A SLAP IN THE FACE TO INDIGENOUS PEOPLE

You may be wondering why this is a thing. In the past, there have been actual material benefits to falsely claiming Native ancestry. However, besides the “gotcha” phenomenon I mentioned above, there is something… even more sinister at work. Per the insightful Jesse Daniels at HuffPost, it’s an insidious form of white guilt that yields itself as “race-shifting” or race cosplaying as I like to say. Under this phenomenon where Indigenous people are concerned, white people who are embarrassed, but not actually repentant, over the atrocities committed against the Indigenous people of this country try to assuage that embarrassment by distancing themselves from the construct that is whiteness. The construct that committed those crimes. So, by claiming some “mysterious Cherokee ancestor” or reducing Native ancestry down to DNA rather than fucking cultural heritage and tribal affiliation, white people can pull the ultimate “gotcha!” on Indigenous people by claiming innocence under the pretense of not really being white.

This “gotcha” shit is something Black people are also familiar with as well (hello, Rachel Dolezal). So that’s why it was disturbing to see a handful of Black and brown people trying to take up for Warren in that manner. I say this mainly because we of all people know the harm that is caused by non-Black people trying to muscle their way into our community based on mere DNA percentages (re: the one-drop rule). But even on top of that, Brown’s story about her family claiming Native ancestry (because Twitter leaves little room for nuance) leaves out the context of why it is so different for a Black woman to be claiming Native ancestry in comparison to a white woman.

Which is to say:

A lot of claims to Native ancestry among Black people are rooted in discomfort in Blackness or worse, embarrassment and trauma experienced as a result of sexual exploitation during slavery.

Probably the most common reason that many Black people tend to also have some “mysterious Cherokee ancestor” boils down to one big thing: hair. Hair is an extremely touchy subject in our community (because racism and colorism of course) and the touchiness of it all is hard to provide a proper summation for, but if I were to even attempt to provide some spark-notes, I’d deploy words like “good hair” and “bad hair”. Good hair is usually long. Bone-straight. But if it must be curly, it’s “soft” to the touch and its’ “curls” are actually waves. On a hair texture chart, good hair would probably fall into the category of 3B and above. Now, bad hair? That’s the opposite. It’s 3C and below. Bad hair is not “soft” to the touch. It’s coarse. “Nappy”. Much shorter in length and may even experience, gasp, shrinkage! And if it does possess curls, those curls are kinkier or coilier in nature. Which, per the anti-Black racism that the world spins on, is not desirable.

Because of these deeply held anti-Black beliefs, people who fall into the “good hair” category will usually have people asking weird questions about their Blackness or assuming that they cannot be “fully” Black because of how their hair presents itself. On a good day, such people will push back on these ludicrous claims, but on a bad day, they may, let’s say, fall back on a commonly passed down fable that their “good hair” or “prominent cheekbones” surely came from a Native ancestor. But the truth of the matter, however painful, is that this is often not the case. Because on one hand, there are an abundance of different facial features from different African ethnicities which are often mistaken for non-Black features because, well, anti-Blackness (this is commonly leveled at East Africans and the reason I hate the misappropriation of “Eurocentric beauty standards”). And on the other hand? Well, such things were likely passed down by a white ancestor.

Recommended: BLACK AND INDIGENOUS AMERICAN SOLIDARITY IS CRUCIAL TO ENDING SETTLER COLONIALISM

This fact, that many enslaved Black people were sexually assaulted and exploited by white slave owners, and gave birth to multiracial children, as a result, is a hard thing to reckon with. And it’s chiefly one of the reasons why we are having the same conversations over and over again about things like colorism. But as disturbing as this history is, it should not give any of us some carte blanche to claim heritage that does not belong to us or worse, attempt to forgive someone who has harmed another marginalized community on their behalf or undermine the anger of this community because we just so happen to like the political candidate who wronged them.

Because at the end of the day, regardless of how apologetic Warren is, material harm—both historically and presently—was done to Indigenous people. On top of the DNA test bullshit, she was previously counted as a “Native American” when it came to affirmative action statistics recorded by Harvard Law School in the 90s. And she, while still believing she had such ancestry, was noticeably quiet when it came to Indigenous issues like the fight against the Dakota Access Pipeline in North Dakota in 2016. So. Because of shit like this, it’s really not up to anyone to forgive her except Indigenous people.

And all stans, but particularly Elizabeth Warren stans, need to understand this.  

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