Monday, May 7, 2012

My current minority status

In this post I pointed out that, as a military veteran trying to get a teaching position in academia, I am something of a minority in a very qualified sense, since veterans -- particularly veterans who aren't ashamed of their service -- are a rarity in academia. I mentioned that I planned to email a particular professor at Princeton who has a son who was in the Marines and had written an article suggesting military service could be a good thing to be represented in the university. He wrote back immediately, gave me some encouraging words, and even signed off with a "Semper Fi." I also received an email from a fellow PhD candidate in Medieval English Lit who is an Army veteran. She also has a great blog and linked me to a post she had just written on -- wait for it -- veterans in the classroom. I wrote her back and asked if I could link to it and she hasn't gotten back to me, but then I realized that a) she sent me an email with the link and b) the link is to a blog which is on the Innernets, so I think it's OK with her.

Another completely different issue has just come up. In a senate race in Massachusetts, the challenger is a Harvard law school professor who formerly listed herself as a minority. The problem is that she is plainly a white woman. When asked, she claimed that she has Native American blood, but she could not name which tribe, and she could not prove it -- it was only according to "family lore." When it started to hurt her campaign she looked into it and was able to discover that she has a great-great-great grandmother who was a Cherokee Indian, making the law professor 1/32nd Cherokee. So, no problem, she says. Of course, for most people it is a problem. She's still 31/32nds white. They charge her with abusing the system via affirmative action, of listing herself as a minority in order to benefit her career. In fact, once she achieved the crème de la crème and had a job at Harvard, she stopped listing herself as a minority (Harvard, of course, touts her as an example of its minority faculty). Her defenders have pointed out that the actual chief of the Cherokee nation is only 1/32nd Cherokee. If it's good enough for the chief of the tribe, why isn't it good enough for this law professor?

I'm not bringing this up to wade into the political controversy. I'm bringing it up because I have a personal reason to: my father was a lawyer and even taught law on occasion (although he wasn't a law professor). According to our family lore he was 1/32nd Cherokee, having a great-great-great grandmother who was a Cherokee Indian. That makes me 1/64th. Nor is this some minor thing I've never thought about: I grew up with it, always telling people that I had a little bit of Native American blood in me. I remember having to do school projects on my family tree on several occasions and I always emphasized the fact that I was a very little bit Cherokee. I was proud of it, it set me apart. I tell my students in Belgium that, like many Americans, I'm a mix of a lot of different ethnicities, and it's not that unusual to have a little bit of Native American in me. I'm mostly Irish and German with some English and Scottish thrown in for good measure. I associate myself most with my Irish background because my mother's family are all Irish Catholics from the old country -- Boston -- and I lived there until I was six.

Of course the very idea that my father or I could represent ourselves as minorities, as Native Americans, is silly. The cut-off point for any kind of affirmative action benefits, at least so we thought, was to be 1/16th of a particular minority. So we would joke that my grandmother could have applied for some sort of affirmative action benefits, except that by the time affirmative action began in the United States she was already retired.

Now if the very chief of the Cherokee tribe can be only 1/32nd Cherokee, the same fraction as my father, I wonder if we had it wrong that the "one-drop rule" in effect is that you have to be 1/16th of some minority or if the fraction has changed. Maybe even being 1/64th Cherokee is enough to tout one's Native American authenticity and receive some sort of official benefit from it. If so, however, I would not do so for two reasons. First, I'm still 63/64ths white. By any reasonable measurement I'm a white man. It simply wouldn't be honest to represent myself this way to receive material benefits for it. Second, my father researched our family tree late in his life and couldn't verify the family lore. I don't think he disconfirmed it I think he just couldn't research that side of the family; but for whatever reason he looked into it and couldn't find any evidence to back it up. So maybe I'm just 64/64ths white after all.

1 comment:

Ilíon said...

I know what you mean.

According to family lore, I'm as much as 1/4 Indian (I say "as much" because even a century ago, or longer, most "full-blooded Indians" remaining east of the Mississippi were at least 1/2 European in their ancestry), but to try to use that Warren did be wrong.