Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Being American

I've been meaning to speak out on Scott Brown's taking to task Elizabeth Warren because she's claimed to have Native American ancestry. That she never did it to gain special consideration doesn't matter to him. Because she doesn't "look" like what he thinks a native person should look like, he thinks she's to blame for something. That's outrageous. He doesn't "look" like what I'd imagine a jerk to look like but that doesn't mean he's not one.

Brown's rude tactic appeals to those content with racism in America. How easy it is for Teabaggers to devolve into hatchet chops and "war whoops." Is this how civil society conducts its business?

What Brown may not appreciate is the fact that many American families have some native heritage. They may not be "registered" or even know which tribe their ancestor(s) hailed from, but family stories and DNA testing carry weight. It is something to be appreciated not kept in a closet of shame.

Depending on when his family arrived on this continent, he may have a more diverse background as well. Then again it may not be easy for someone whose American roots go back only a couple generations to understand. As a substitute teacher in Northern Westchester County, New York, a while ago I witnessed a third grader from a family of means gleefully proclaim that "we killed all the Indians." Where did he learn such unabashed racism? His own European grandparents came to this country mid-20th century. I explained to him that all Indians had indeed not been killed, that in fact many still lived in the New England area.

I then segued into teaching the origin of his school's name meaning "high on a hill" in the local Native tongue, that I had native ancestry and didn't appreciate disparaging comments in class. Talk about a teaching moment.

As a kid I felt an affinity for Native American culture. I read voraciously in school libraries and consumed the books from my grandfather's bookshelves. When I was older I heard my grandfather speak of my grandmother's family having some Indian heritage, although as it turned out to be from a very distant time.

My agnostic grandfather, with Puritan Massachusetts Bay Colony roots, orated Wordsworth by heart and lectured anyone within earshot on man's craven inhumanity to man in the name of religion. Racist genocide against Native Americans was a very real shame; he was no fan of George Armstrong Custer's mindset.

My grandmother couldn't confirm whether she had Native roots, but her freethinker father claimed that she did. Half of her flock of children had blond hair, the other dark...a typical American family.When I learned of this aspect of our family history I was already in college. Whenever filling out a form which asked for my race, I'd either check Caucasian (since that's the dominant group) or leave it blank.

It wasn't until I was a twenty-something auditioning for acting jobs in New York that I took offense for being asked to label myself from one distinct group. I am a part of the whole world, not just one subset. I may look white__and there's nothing wrong with being white__but I see the labeling as limiting. I appreciate it when I'm "allowed" to check more than one box or just write "human." Then again, how many people that like neat and tidy designations actually know whether they are of just one heritage?

In attacking Warren Brown is insinuating that she has misled people. I think that is an uncharitable view. It's offensive to say that she must not acknowledge her family's roots because someone might consider her trying to take advantage of what exactly? Should Brown cover up his own family's roots because he might have a heritage that isn't of all one background? I think not.

I admire Warren, not for her racial make up but for her guts in speaking truth to power; she stands up for ALL Americans. Is she perfect? Hardly, but do we want leaders who represent only the few and disparage families for being who they are...American?

No comments: