Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Just what are YOU, Scott Brown?

Time for another rant? Yes. And, as usual, it refers not just to a controversy, but how that controversy is broadly framed in the media.

For months, Elizabeth Warren has been accused of taking advantage of the "affirmative action" system at Harvard by lying about her Native American heritage. She only got her job as a professor of bankruptcy, so she is accused of, because she claimed to be a member of a disadvantaged minority group.

Republican Senator Scott Brown, in a tough reelection fight [that he'll probably lose, if there is good Democratic turnout this fall], accuses Warren of misleading Harvard to get some "special advantage." He repeated these accusations in last week's debate [a must-watch for any political junkie and fan of Warren as I am]. Warren defended herself by saying that she was referring only to family lore when making claims about her heritage. Inevitably, the attention that this issue received evolved into crass, racist displays of offensive chants and sloganeering by the mobs, as shown here. It seems Brown is getting a bit desperate in his attempt for re-election, and tapping into the latent racism of many working-class whites in MA to show that the "Professor" is an "outsider" and not "one of us." Sound familiar?

What I find most offensive is what Brown said during the debate and how the media choose to report the story so far. Brown brought it up during the debate by suggesting it is a character issue. By claiming she's Native American, when she's not. And the proof? Well..."Just look at her! Clearly she's not!"

Really, Scott Brown? And what is the test that she must pass? Her skin is not "red" enough for you? Her hair too blonde? Let us know what the standard is for you, and we'll see if she meets it. My guess is that standard is so full of racist imagery that I don't even want to begin to unpack it.

What really gets my goat is the fact that her identity has to pass some "test" determined by him. Whether you're Native American, Jewish, white, or black is not exclusively up to others, especially not Scott Brown. Everyone has the privilege and ability, although difficult, to construct their own identity. You always have to make some room for your own conscious perception and self-construction. This is topic that I myself have dealt with a long time. People could say I'm not Jewish because my mother is not (and I satisfied their Jewish legal doctrinalism by undergoing "re-circumcision). I'm not German, because I grew up in the States, even though I have a German passport through my "mother's blood." Maybe I'm not gay, because I don't listen to enough showtunes (see Halperin's How to Be Gay).

I always retort that no one else is charge of my identity or how I choose to express it. And no one else has any right to set up some test for me personally. But I don't want to sound naive. Do rabbis in Israel, the Catholic Church, or, in the case of tribal identity, determine who is a member or not? Sure, all the time. Membership in their organizations is always a privilege. And is Barack Obama black, even tough he has a white mother? Of course, because that is how others have identified and treated him, not really because of anything he's done (although he struggled as well with his racial identity and came to accept society's dictates, probably because it's just so hard to ignore them when you're trying to get a taxi).

As most of us know in the social sciences, social institutions are extremely powerful and almost wipe out diversity and outliers as part of their raison d'ĂȘtre. And it's difficult to maintain a sense of independence in the wake of such powerful forces. And usually one's identity becomes an amalgam of sorts when it has such a complex background. But that doesn't mean one should give up and leave it to racists like Scott Brown and others to define our ethnic identities for us. Or say they are lies (see this stupid Slate piece).

Of course, the media have covered this story poorly. Basically, it's a blend of "how well does she 'deal' with this issue" or "is she on the defensive still; can she get on offense?" And, to fully confess, I don't think she has responded as aggressively as she could, which would simply be asking, "Who are you, Scott Brown, to say I'm not?! And just what are you anyway?" But this misses the main point; that Brown seems to be the judge and jury about what is truly Native American or not. Wow, another job for the white man to do.

While a bit of a pipe-dream, the media should be focusing instead on the underlying assumptions instead; that Scott Brown thinks Warren is "too white" to be "red," according to him. And that's what so infuriating about this little, stupid kerfuffle in this exciting election year.

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