Why Do Politicians Keep Lying About Their Heritage?
After years of deferring — and being mocked for it by President Donald Trump — Senator Elizabeth Warren released her genetic results via a hazy campaign-style video on Monday.
My family (including Fox News-watchers) sat together and talked about what they think of @realDonaldTrump’s attacks on our heritage. And yes, a famous geneticist analyzed my DNA and concluded that it contains Native American ancestry. pic.twitter.com/r3SNzP22f8
— Elizabeth Warren (@elizabethforma) October 15, 2018
Though the results showed only a tiny percentage of Native American heritage — a potential 10th generation relative would mean she is 1/1024 Native American — the media has so far run with the narrative that Warren showed up her critics, central among them the President, and proved she is who she says.
That is very much not the case.
It’s easy to forget that Warren didn’t merely say she had a distant relative who was Native American. Both Harvard University and the University of Pennsylvania listed her as “Native American” on their federal labor forms. According to the Boston Globe, “Warren had for many years listed herself in the Association of American Law Schools directory as a minority, beginning in 1986.” She also told the Globe that her parents were forced to elope because her father’s family “so objected to my mother’s Native American heritage.”
Most egregious of all, she used bigoted language that her “high cheekbones” were indicative of Native American heritage and submitted a recipe to a cookbook with the impossibly racist title “Pow Wow Chow.” She signed those recipes “Elizabeth Warren, Cherokee.”
It was reminiscent of another heritage fabrication that hit the news recently. Julia Salazar, who is running for New York State Senate, was exposed by Armin Rosen in Tablet Magazine as lying about her Jewish identity. From there her story further unraveled. It was discovered that she wasn’t a Colombian immigrant, as she had claimed, and her upbringing was far from the picture of hardship she had painted.
Why do political figures feel the need to stretch the truth about their backgrounds?
The fetishization of oppression is the real issue with both of these examples. It’s no longer acceptable to simply be an American-born white person. In order to be taken seriously, it seems, if one looks at the left, one has to be an immigrant, a minority, or raised in poverty by a single parent. White people use “white” as an insult toward other white people. Saying someone was born middle class is downright mean.
After the Salazar story broke, Eve Fairbanks wrote at Buzzfeed that she related to Julia Salazar’s fake story, and many others did too. “We have a culture that lionizes survivors of challenging childhoods, that gobbles up memoirs of poverty and suffering, and that makes having endured harrowing circumstances seem almost necessary to speak with any moral authority,” she wrote. Fairbanks told stories of her and her friends lying about their comfortable lives, and having anxiety because of all the privilege they possessed.
For parents, it’s nightmarish to imagine that your kids will see all of your hard work and efforts to give them a comfortable, happy life as an impediment. Yet here we are seeing people making up stories so that their opinion will be taken more seriously. It’s absurd.
As an immigrant, I hope that my great grandchildren ten times removed won’t still be talking about the “Russian heritage” they have way back in their history. If they’re still pointing at their ruddy complexions, talking about how much they enjoy doughy food, and using that background to have their opinion taken more seriously, that would be unfortunate for our lineage. If they felt the need to lie about their history, because just being an American-born person is not interesting enough, that would be even worse.
“Some people have questioned my family history,” Warren says in her video announcing her genetic results. “Maybe they do it to insult me. Maybe they do it to distract from the kinds of changes I’m fighting for or the kinds of changes I’m trying to bring to Washington. Maybe they do it because they think politics is a blood sport.”
Or maybe they do it because the story Elizabeth Warren has consistently told has been a fabrication and it’s important to call her out on it.
Warren ultimately concludes that people have questioned her not just out of racism but as a pattern of “discrimination, neglect and violence” that Native Americans have faced for generations. This is the most noxious part of Warren’s big lie. She specifically has not faced “discrimination, neglect and violence” that those actually in the Native American community have experienced.
For all the hoopla around “cultural appropriation” and how white people like the Kardashians can’t wear braids or college cafeterias can’t serve inauthentic Chinese food, the appropriation by Warren and Salazar is really the only kind that is harmful.
Warren takes the experiences of people who have actually been targeted for their heritage and uses it to silence critics from pointing out that she doesn’t share that heritage.
Salazar steals the experience of immigrants, who have actually struggled in coming to a new country, learning a new language and following new customs and uses it for campaign talking points.
Karol Markowicz is a writer living in Brooklyn. Follow her on Twitter: @karol.