Americans always have been prone to reinventing themselves.
We now live in an age of radical social construction—a sort of expansive update on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s American notion of becoming anyone one pleases.
One common denominator, however, seems to govern today’s endless search for some sort of authenticity: a careerist effort to separate oneself from the assumed dominant and victimizing majority of white heterosexual and often Christian males.
Ironically, the quest for a superficial separation from the majority comes at a time when the majority has never been so committed to the promise of the Declaration of Independence and when equal opportunity has become a reality rather than an abstract ideal.
Yet in our new binary society, we all have a choice to be seen either as victims or victimizers. And thus we make the necessary adjustments for the often more lucrative and careerist choice.
At the most buffoonish, sometimes activists simply construct identities out of whole cloth. Ward Churchill did that pretty well, when he fabricated a Native American persona and parlayed it into a faculty billet at the University of Colorado that was otherwise unattainable for such a mediocrity with pseudo-credentials.
Rachel Dolezal, recently charged with welfare fraud, became Spokane chapter president of the NAACP by falsely claiming she was African-American.
U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) for years leveraged old family yarns about a high-cheekbone, Native American heritage into Harvard’s first authentically Native American law professor. Her self-invention was much more likely a route to advancement than more dreary publication, better teaching, or just being Elizabeth Warren, middle-aged white female scholar.
Sometimes the self-transformation is subtler, and made through inference, not the wholesale construction of a new identity. Robert Francis O’Rourke, from a wealthy and well-connected Texas family of Irish descent, was a more or less a nondescript Democrat, three-term congressman backbencher—at least until he ran for Ted Cruz’s Senate seat. But in the midst of the national anti-Trump “Resistance,” “Beto” (Robert = Roberto = “Beto”) became a sort of veritable Latino identity politics and hard-left progressive sensation. O’Rourke’s Latinate emphasis too was a wise move, in that most longtime obscure congressional white male representatives do not become national figures and would-be presidential candidates in less than a year.
The oddity of Beto’s efforts at social construction was that Senator Rafael Cruz ran as “Ted.” In other words, he campaigned as what he really was: an assimilated Latino of half-Cuban heritage. In contrast, an Irishman without any Latino ancestry reinvented himself as a veritable Latino. And note that while most so-called white Texans voted for the authentic “Latino” Ted, most Latinos voted for the fake Latino Beto.
Barack Obama grew up as a middle to upper-middle-class student in prep school in Honolulu, the child of a visiting Kenyan student and a white middle-class mother. His sometimes privileged childhood was due largely to the talent and hard-work of his white grandmother from the Midwest who rose through the ranks to become a successful banking executive.
At various times in school Obama was known as Barry Obama or Barry Soetoro before returning to his given name as Barack Obama as a college student. Part of the reason why the later so-called unhinged “birther” conspiracy theory took hold (i.e., that yarn that Barack Obama allegedly was not born in the United States) was that Barack Obama’s own literary agency Acton & Dystel, in one of its own promotional pamphlets produced in 1991, identified Obama as “born in Kenya and raised in Indonesia and Hawaii.”
His publicist likely created that myth—and Obama himself either did not correct the mistake or was not consulted about the attribution—not because Obama was a native of Kenya but because such a false claim was seen as useful in offering greater authenticity of the author’s “otherness.” The editor later confessed error on her part.
Recent California senate candidate and former state legislator, Kevin Alexander Leon was born to Guatemalan immigrants. He later changed his name to Kevin de León by adding the de and an acute accent mark apparently to emphasize his authentic generic Latino and perhaps pseudo-Mexican-American fides, in a manner his Irish first name apparently did not sufficiently convey. “Kevin” apparently sounded too suburban in the manner that Barry lacked the ethnic gravitas of Barack. And Leon, without the de, perhaps was prone to be mistaken as too generically European (in fact, it derives from Greek “leôn,” lion).
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the youngest congressional representative in history, grew up in a mostly upper middle-class family in Yorktown Heights, an affluent suburb in Westchester County, New York. Her parents were Puerto Rican immigrants, her father an architect. Alexandria herself graduated from the upscale Yorktown Heights High School. The suburb was 90 percent white and the average median household income was nearly $110,000, placing it among the most affluent communities in the nation. Ocasio-Cortez graduated from the private Boston University.
In other words, Ocasio-Cortez’s family’s story is one of higher education, upward mobility, and integration into the majority population (somewhat similar to Kamala Harris’s upbringing in Berkeley and Montreal, the daughter of a cancer research scientist, and a Stanford economics professor).
While Ocasio-Cortez described herself as working-class and brought up in the Bronx, her family in fact moved to Yorktown when she was 5 years old. In her meteoric political career, she has presented herself as a Bronx barista (where she moved after graduation), and an often impoverished activist, who seeks social justice on behalf of the poor. While her message is certainly mainstream socialist (abolish the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Service, ban internal combustion engines by 2030, Medicare for all, etc.), it gains credence by the working-class patina that Ocasio-Cortez wears.
Affirming American Identity in Denying It
There are logical inconsistencies in all these quests for greater authenticity, ranging from the outright fabrications to the more nuanced efforts of largely middle class and upper middle-class individuals seeking greater minority authenticity and by association claims on marginalization. But at the same time, a number of familiar explanations account for our epidemic of constructed identities.
First, racial, ethnic, or class appropriation seems to work, at least if the perpetrators do not push the envelope and earn too much scrutiny. Ward Churchill attracted too much attention in the aftermath of 9/11 with his unhinged rhetoric. Elizabeth Warren did the same by running for Senate and earlier allowing Harvard to advertise her ancestry as the law school’s first Native American professor, or testing fate with her misguided attempt to silence critics with a DNA test.
Second, what exactly is a 21st-century American identity? After all, if Churchill, Dolezal, and Warren for years were able to convince their employers that they were not part of the white oppressive majority, how did they pull off such bold “cultural appropriation”?
The easiest answer is that in a multiracial society like ours no one is usually quite sure of any ancestry that he claims (ancestry companies run TV ads precisely on the notion that we will all be surprised by our DNA results). And when superficial appearance is no guarantee either of minority status (given that we have not yet established DNA badges or quite reestablished Old Confederate racial purity standards), almost anyone can say he is anyone he pleases. Nor is class much help, since thankfully it has become more or less divorced from race and ethnicity. (Most white deplorables and irredeemables did not grow up in upscale neighborhoods nor did they have educated parents like those of Harris and Ocasio-Cortez.)
Is race then becoming a mere construct that we put on and take off as though it were a suit of clothes? In our collective effort to create difference where it does not always exists, we would have to invent an Elizabeth Warren or Ward Churchill if they did not exist—given the perceived advantages of white suburbanites in gaining a part time minority cachet deemed advantageous in terms of career and psychological well-being.
How odd that our establishment insists that being “white” is synonymous with unearned “white privilege,” while millions of whites in job and college applications for decades have been trying to con fake minority-identities and while upscale minorities have no desire—even when intermarried, assimilated, and integrated into the majority culture—of emphasizing the partial white ancestry that is so frequently part of their heritage. The old idea of “passing” now means hoping to be tagged as non-white, not white. The effort is certainly similar to the lunatic racial obsessions of the past, but the conditions under which advantage is measured have flipped completely.
Third, the process of appropriation nonetheless is constructed within the safety net of a comfortable and bourgeoisie middle and upper middle class. Warren was not so foolish as to emulate Ward Churchill and dress up in beads and buckskin (it would amuse but not impress Harvard Law School). Instead, she found authenticity far more subtly by submitting a bogus Native American recipe (lifted from the New York Times) to a cookbook anthology (Pow Wow Chow) of minority recipes, in which she signed off as “Elizabeth Warren, Cherokee.”
Barack Obama’s epicurean, sartorial and culture tastes were decidedly upper-middle class (e.g., “Anybody gone into Whole Foods lately? See what they charge for arugula?”). Ocasio-Cortez may be a hard core socialist representative of the masses, but she still had no objections to appearing in a $3,000 designer suit and posing for a tony photo-shoot.
Minority identity has become a brand for the upper middle class in the manner of a luxury car. One strives to drive a Mercedes or Jaguar not because it is more reliable or even all that much more drivable than a Toyota or Honda, but because it signals a particular cachet. And so too wealthy suburbanites often find emphasizing non-white identities useful even if it means occasionally constructing them.
Most of the constructed identity movement is deeply embedded within progressive and identity politics of the Left. In our strange society, a Shaun King, who appears to be as white as his birth certificate seems to suggest, is considered a more authentic African-American than a conservative and quite darker Supreme Justice Clarence Thomas, who grew up in poverty and discrimination in the Jim Crow South and yet is often despised by progressives as inauthentic. Is there some unspoken rule that the more one is of an authentically poor and of an unquestioned minority background, the more he wishes to assimilate, while the more one is upper-middle class and of dubious minority bona fides, the more likely one is to exaggerate them?
In other words, in almost every case of cultural or racial appropriation, the effort is largely one of a progressive seeking to be more even authentically progressive by identifying more genuinely with perceived victims of majority biases and discrimination. (In defense of the aging white liberal constructionist like Warren, if your race-obsessed party operates on principles of a perceived appearances, and grows obsessed with rooting out “white privilege,” and so often boasts that a new demography is at last replacing a spent and tired white majority, then it is perhaps logical to reinvent yourself, to identify with the rising rather than the perceived to be setting sun.)
In contrast, in a past multiracial rather than multicultural society, the common norm was radical assimilation into the purported American middle class to square choices and tastes with identities. That’s why arriving Juan Garcias became “Johnnies,” African-Americans were christened Eloise rather than Lashawndra, and Haruki Yamatos became “Harrys,” on the premise that Americanism was desirable—and anyone could become anyone he wished, which so often was an unhyphenated American.
We still can shed our ethnic and racial identities to become simple Americans, but the point now is not to appear part of the great American middle class with its whiff of the country’s Waspish founding, but rather to construct an identity in opposition to it—even if the construction is merely convenient and partial.
By “partial” I mean in court-jester fashion to deprecate more than appreciate, but most certainly participate in and benefit from, a rare democratic, free, and prosperous society as envisioned by the Founders. If there exists an alternate non-Western, non-American superior tradition (Chinese? Latin American? Nigerian? Russian?), then America should be the least desirable, not the most sought out home, of non-Western emigrants.
In the past, immigrants of all classes and backgrounds sought to identify as Americans and did so authentically, on the premise that one left one’s old country for a reason and had no wish to replicate its failures in a new and preferred homeland.
Now many immigrants and natives often wish to distance themselves from the perception of belonging to American majority culture—but many do so as inauthentically as their less well off forefathers once authentically sought to join it.
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