A couple weeks ago, Senator Scott Brown of Massachusetts went into a debate with Elizabeth Warren in which he alleged that Warren had claimed to be of Native American ancestry to help advance her career when she claimed to be Native American on school applications. Indignant, Mr. Brown claimed that he could tell that she wasn’t Native American at all. How? By looking at her.
Some viewers from TRMS wrote in following Maddow’s coverage of the debate with personal photos which normally would be a little strange unless a candidate for U.S. Senate has just claimed that he can tell, just by looking at her, that Elizabeth Warren is not Native American and these viewers are all also Native American.
The photos all showed people with light complexions who would probably pass as Caucasian any day of the week.
This works the other way around, too. I grew up in a very white, very Dutch swathe of West Michigan. How Dutch, you ask? Well, for those of you outside the Midwest’s Windmill Belt, I think you’ll have some idea based off a popular saying in the area: “If you ain’t Dutch, you ain’t much.”
My family is originally from the east side of the state. We are not Dutch. We don’t have blond hair. We don’t belong to the Dutch Christian Reformed Church which is a driving force in the local culture, politics and business.
I grew up there, a tan olive-skinned, brown-eyed kid with dark brown hair that borders on black. From the time I was nine or ten until the time I left when I was 23, people grilled me on my background. My favorite is still my best friend asking me if I was African American when we were 10 or 11. That one’s pretty extreme but I had countless others ask me everything from Indonesian to Native American to Hispanic to Greek or Italian. Grand Rapids is a pretty exceptional place, I grant you that, but look at all the people throughout my life who had no clue that I was not only European, but western European when they looked at me.
My boyfriend laughed at me when I told him stories about getting confused for a minority but now that he’s visited Grand Rapids, I think he understands.
From one white guy to another, Mr. Brown, never question someone’s background. Background is far deeper, far more complex and far-reaching than skin complexion or your hair color or eye color. The people of Massachusetts deserve a campaign about issues and solutions, not unfounded personal attacks and this country deserves a better discussion of racial identity than “You can tell just by looking at her.”