Race and Exploitation – Explaining Elizabeth Warren’s Error

Issues this post seeks to address:

  • Why was Elizabeth Warren’s recent claiming of Native American heritage a problem?
  • How do indigenous people continue to be vulnerable to exploitation by those in positions of authority?

Posts related to this post:

Race has always been a complex issue for me. As I mentioned in an earlier post, I grew up as a half-White, half-Mexican boy in Texas. I’ve always been aware that I’m not completely white; my coarse black hair and difficulty growing a full beard remind me of that on a daily basis. People think that my last name sounds “cool;” a store clerk just commented on it yesterday. As one of the few “ethnic minorities” at my work, I’m asked to liaison with the office that supports multicultural students, and I assist in planning monthly diversity trainings for our staff.

I put the term “ethnic minority” from the last paragraph in quotations, because I’m still not sure how to navigate the intersection between my “whiteness” and my “Mexicanness.” I’ve certainly benefited from being white in that other people don’t microaggress against me; nor do they level racist remarks toward me. No one asks me about ‘the Latino perspective’ on any topic. I think that my appearance makes my ethnicity somewhat ambiguous, and that people tend to assume that I’m white.

While I’ve benefited from being white, I’ve also benefited in some ways from being Mexican. I received an academic scholarship for multicultural students that put me through my undergraduate studies. Hiring discussions probably went in my favor to some degree, as well. I imagine that a culturally-white Latino with the last name ‘Salazar’ is an attractive job candidate. I look good for diversity and inclusion initiatives, but white people don’t have to worry about my ‘Mexicanness’ making them uncomfortable.

In early 2017, I took one of those DNA tests from Ancestry. I was surprised to learn that, genetically, the highest percentage of my ethnicity came from Scandinavia. My grandmother’s maiden name was Olsen, and I suppose I must have gotten a good portion of my genetic material from her. I’ve never really felt particularly Scandinavian. We have a few neighbors from Sweden and Denmark, and I don’t look like them. They’re pretty fair-skinned, and tall, and look like they could fit in well among a group of Vikings. I…. don’t. But, that’s what my genetic code says is my primary ethnic background.

I briefly wondered what my neighbors would think if I tried to lay a claim of some kind to my Scandinavian heritage. Started including myself or encouraging others to include me in the group of Scandinavians in the neighborhood. Or making a trip to visit my “roots” in Denmark, rather than Mexico or Spain. I think it would feel a little odd, and people would probably consider it strange. But, if genetic tests are to be believed, then Scandinavian is the heritage that I can claim more than any other.

In the last couple of weeks, Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren has done something akin to what I just described. She’s come under fire for making claims about having indigenous American ancestry. Senator Warren’s claimed native ancestry led the Harvard University school newspaper to call her the “first woman with a minority background to be tenured.” As she has emerged as a likely candidate for the U.S. presidential election in 2020, President Trump has called her claims of being Native American into question.

Senator Warren has responded to President Trump’s attacks by publicly disclosing the results of a DNA test. This test demonstrated that one of her ancestors “between six and ten generations ago” was Native American. Certainly, if the science behind DNA tests is to be believed, Senator Warren can claim to have indigenous ancestry.

The problem that I, and many others, have had with Senator Warren’s claiming of Native American ancestry is that she has enjoyed all of the benefits of being white, while also capitalizing on the benefits of being Native American. Senator Warren is not affiliated with any particular tribe; she has not used her power and influence to actively champion causes that directly benefit indigenous people (at least until very recently). It seems that her Native identity is only relevant to her life when it is providing some benefit.

This action is exploitive because it reduces belonging to a historically marginalized group to having a certain genetic code. Nevermind that substance abuse, suicide, violence, and mental health concerns are more prevalent among indigenous communities than among the general population. You don’t have to think about the problems of “your people” just because you share some of their genetics. In fact, you don’t even have to care at all. The impact historical trauma has on Native American groups affects Senator Warren’s life very little, if at all.

Maybe someday, science will be able to adequately describe how and why we belong to certain groups. For now, belonging involves much more than what a genetic test can tell us.

I find Senator Warren’s lack of awareness of the inappropriateness of her actions unfortunate. I like her outside of this issue, and had hoped that she would represent something different from the status quo. But, the fact that she’s aware enough of how her “ethnic minority” status would play among her democratic constituency is a problem to me. The fact that she makes a large donation to a Native American organization just as this issue has hit the news is a problem. These things suggest to me that she might be more interested in getting elected than in resolving real problems.

Senator Warren can move forward from this in one of two ways. She can recognize that her whiteness precludes her to this point in her life from meaningfully identifying as an indigenous person in any meaningful way. Or, she can demonstrate a real and personal interest in cultivating this aspect of her identity, by aligning herself with a tribe and immersing herself in their lives, culture, and problems. Keeping a foot in the privileged white world while claiming native ancestry is a slap in the face to those whose membership in this group significantly affects their lives.


U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (1998). “Drug Use Among Native Americans Is Higher than Other Racial/Ethnic Groups”. National Clearinghouse for Alcohol & Drug Information.

Willmon-Haque, & S., Bigfoot, D. S. (2009). Violence and the Effects of Trauma on American Indian and Alaska Native Populations. In R. Geffner, D. Griffin & J. Lewis III (Eds.), Children Exposed to Violence: Current Issues, Interventions, and Research (pp. 48-63). New York: Routledge.