ISTM that there’s been a big change over the last few decades. At one point, it was not uncommon for ethnic minorities who could “pass” as members of the majority identity to adopt that identity. But I can’t remember hearing of such an instance in recent decades.
Conversely, it’s common for people to “pass” in the other direction. This manifests itself in people who can legitimately claim two ethnicities choosing the minority one (e.g. Barry/Barack Obama, Gerald/Geraldo Rivera et al) but also in a whole slew of Caucasian people adopting entirely fictitious minority identities in recent years. Some examples here (though it does seem from that list that claiming Native American ancestry is older than other forms of fakery.) I would add Warren, and the latest example of Hilaria Baldwin, from what comes to mind offhand.
ISTM that this is areal trend, and speaks to changing US attitudes about ethnic minorites, and assimilation generally.
It’s because being part Native used to be a lot more acceptable and came with a lot fewer legal liabilities than being of African descent. If you couldn’t pass as entirely white then passing as part Native rather than Black could have some advantages.
Which is why a lot of people raised with stories of an “Indian Princess” in the family tree are discovering when getting test results from places like 23andMe that the “Indiana Princess” was actually someone from Africa.
Assuming a “fake” Native American ethnicity had another reason a long time ago.
When states has miscegenation laws, you were illegitimate if you were 1/2 black in a state that didn’t recognize a black/white marriage, and some states additionally had laws that people who were illegitimate could not do certain things, like buy property, or at least that it was legal to discriminate against them by refusing to sell them property. When they got licenses, some states stamped the word “illegitimate” after their name. This applied to any illegitimate person, but it was easy for a clearly white (or “passing”), or clearly black (or passing that direction) person to lie. It was harder for someone obviously biracial to lie about being only white, or only black.
So people who had to admit to being biracial claimed to be half white and half Native American, or otherwise, half black and half Native American. If people would believe that, they then could claim to be legitimate, because miscegenation laws were black/white only; white/Native and black/Native were permitted.
Certainly people who were Native American faced discrimination, but not to the extent that black people did.
As far as people assuming ethnicities that they don’t have, I can’t really speak to that, but there definitely has been a move in the last few generations to reclaim legitimate ancestry that was discarded by previous generations-- mine was the big one, I think, and it has continued in the ones that followed, but I think it was a natural outcome of the genealogy craze that started in the 1970s, and was really a Boomer thing.
I’m not sure what was responsible for the genealogy craze; it started before the internet, so the access to information wasn’t responsible for it, unless maybe it had something to do with microfilm and microfiche becoming cheap and common in the 1960s. Anyway, people discovering their ancestry led to them reclaiming it.
It’s not just ethnic minorities. It used to be that women would “pass” for men in order to be treated like men. They still do, but female-to-male sex reassignment surgery is less common than male-to-female.
Well for one thing, it’s far more familiar and acceptable nowadays to identify as biracial, or multiracial, than it used to be. People have more opportunity to identify as what they actually are, rather than having to fit themselves into one of a small set of rigidly defined racial categories.
ISTM it’s not totally accurate to suggest that Obama “chose” to identify as black. As he and many other “not-white-looking” biracial Americans have publicly remarked, he was perceived and treated as a black person in the US because of how he looked. He didn’t really have the option of saying “Actually you’re mistaken, I happen to be a white person” and being accepted as such, no matter how much he might be theoretically entitled to “claim” white ethnicity.
Rivera, AIUI, started using the variant “Geraldo” of his given name Gerald at the suggestion of his first employer in the news media, who thought his byline should have a more obviously Latino-sounding name. And that was back in 1969.
Given that Obama’s self-identification as black likewise goes back at least several decades, I’m not sure why you’re proposing these examples as evidence for a recent change in social trends.
Your list of examples doesn’t really support your claim that the phenomenon of white people deceptively claiming some kind of nonwhite identity is significantly more common now than it used to be.
It also seems a bit peculiar to list Elizabeth Warren as a contemporary example of that phenomenon, given that she and her brothers even back in their childhood were apparently told (erroneously, as it turns out) by older family members that they had some Cherokee ancestry. I don’t know how far back you’d have to go in the Warren family tree to find the person who actually made up that story, but it seems a bit sketchy to consider their descendants “impostors” for accepting it as part of family lore.
Likewise in the “not really recent” category belongs the imposture of Ruth McBride, the mother of the author of the autobiography The Color of Water, who identified herself to her community and her children in the 1950s as a light-complexioned black woman instead of the racially white woman of Polish Jewish ancestry that she actually was.
TL;DR: There have always been numerous people who for various reasons have claimed for themselves an ethnic background different from their own, even if their claimed ethnic identity is in some ways less socially prestigious or privileged than their real one. I don’t think the OP has succeeded in making a case that this phenomenon is significantly more widespread nowadays than it was in the past.
I suspect “numerous” is too strong a word, but otherwise I agree with this statement. I don’t know if there is a DSM* category that covers it; if not I believe there should be. There are a few people who seem to have a pathological need to identify with a racial/ethnic/national group they don’t belong to. As an armchair psychologist, I imagine it is rooted in a deep-seated need for acceptance in a community, coupled with great alienation from the milieu one is “supposed” to be integrated into. Hence the wistful, desperate, and even delusional search for a different community where one can belong.
Rachel Dolezal is a classic and extreme example, but there are others. My first encounter with the phenomenon was reading history about Warren Harding’s mistress Carrie Fulton Philips, who (from the detailed biographical material I’ve read) became obsessed with being German.
The extreme and bizarre cases are the ones we hear about, so our perceptions (and those of the OP) on the frequency of “identity-changing” may well be distorted by what we hear in the news, without giving us an accurate picture of the true frequency and nature of the phenomenon.
*DSM = Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, periodically published by the American Psychiatric Association. I assume the vast majority of Dopers are well aware of this, but I’ve seen the occasional derisive remark when unexplained acronyms are used, and I’d prefer not to be sniped at on that basis, so please no complaints that I didn’t spell out DSM.
“should” – but the reality is that you live in a society and that society today still WILL impose its social construct upon you. If you look like Barack Obama you WILL be treated as “black”, end of argument, full stop, with all that implies, by people who come across you in the street. Regardless of ancestry or upbringing, if you look other-than-“white” the society will force you to live the role of “black” and wonder WTF is wrong with you if you claim otherwise.
Take three 20 year old college athletes one all the way European Caucasian, one all the way Subsaharan African and one noticeably mixed, dress them in the same identical outfit, and put them in the corner, and this society will see one “white” and two “blacks”.
Her DNA test showed Native ancestry six to ten generations back. She wouldn’t qualify to be a tribal member, but the family lore was true.
Given the number of articles I’ve seen over the past month over “was Queen Charlotte black” - with people like Shonda Rhimes claiming it is very possible, Elizabeth Warren is definitely Native.
(If Queen Charlotte had African blood, it would have come from when the Moors conquered Portugal, and specifically the 13th century. Queen Charlotte was an 18th century English queen (former German princess). My racist uncle’s DNA test showed that much African ancestry - and boy was he pissed about it.)
Race is entirely relative and culturally defined. In the United States it is just appearance, full stop.
In the former Yugoslavia it is essentially confessional. Serbs, Croats and Bosniaks have somewhat different histories, but are more or less identical in appearance and spoken language. They are mostly distinguished by being Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Sunni Muslim, respectively.
In Darfur it is primarily linguistic and economic (pastoral herders vs. settled agriculturalists). The “Arab” and “Black African” populations are in fact pretty overlapping in skin tone and share the same religion.
The first part of that’s entirely true. The second is only mostly true. People who look dark enough will be identified as black, yes; and people who look pale enough will be identified as white; but there are some in that blurry margin inbetween who may be identified as either.
Sure, but that’s still just based on appearance . Someone with an ambiguous appearance can pass one way or the other, but they still generally get slotted into a category and ‘multiethnic’ still isn’t a very common one.
There must be more to it than that, or no one would care about these imposters. If you change your appearance to look like another race, people will treat you accordingly. But we don’t think you have actually changed race.
While it’s true that nobody would call Barack Obama white, it’s a little more confusing to say how he was thought of racially in 2008. Basically, everyone knew that his mother was white and born in the U.S. and his father was black and born in Kenya. Except for the people who actually believed that his birth certificate was fake, everyone knew most of his life history. His parents were separated so young that he didn’t really know his father until much later. I think he only met his father twice later in life, each time just for a short time. Everyone who bothered to read knew that he was raised mostly by his mother. His mother’s parents also helped raise him, as did his Indonesian stepfather for a few years.
So what did people call him? Well, when they wanted to use a single term, they called him black or African-American. This was because it was standard to refer to anyone with known black ancestry as black, no matter how small a proportion that ancestry was. Most people who didn’t outright dislike him would add that that definition was out of date. He had a black father and a white mother, and they thought that the “one drop of blood” rule was ridiculous.
It’s interesting how many unspoken rules Obama broke by being elected in 2008 (and by being elected helped to get rid of those rules). There were many people who disliked the facts that (1) he was black by the “one drop” rule, (2) he was the product of a marriage between a white woman and a black man, (3) his middle name Hussein was the name of someone the U.S. had just fought a war against, (4) his last name was an African name, and (5) his first name comes from Islamic mysticism (although it’s also similar to a Hebrew name).
Also, the people who didn’t like him were baffled that he wasn’t similar to the black people they knew in the U.S. in several ways. He didn’t have a standard European name (probably taken from the name of a slave owner). Indeed, he wasn’t on his father’s side descended from a pre-Civil War slave at all. Bizarrely, someone later in researching his mother’s ancestry discovered that one of her ancestors far back was probably a slave. Those people had grudgingly accepted that there were American politicians with European names who were descended from American slaves, although they seldom voted for them. Now they had to accept that an American president could violate their expectations in so many ways.
It may have been an advantage that voters didn’t already have a ready made label for him. Prejudice let’s us quickly label and mentally file away people without giving it any conscious thought. If a person’s ancestry is complicated enough that you have to think about it for any length of time, the whole concept of racial identity starts to seem a bit ridiculous.