Elizabeth Warren and the Politics of Racial Passing

FILE - In this June 2, 2012 file photo, Massachusetts Democratic Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren speaks in Springfield, Mas
FILE - In this June 2, 2012 file photo, Massachusetts Democratic Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren speaks in Springfield, Mass. Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown has spent weeks fanning questions about Democratic rival Elizabeth Warren's claim of Native American heritage on the campaign trail, while Warren regularly paints Brown as a darling of Wall Street. The rhetoric is sometimes caustic, and all but invisible in the ad war being waged on Massachusetts television sets. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer, File)

This year's election season is "the battle of the racial passers." While many have fixated on the authenticity of a multiracial President Obama and a Latino Mitt Romney, questions of racial identity and passing have taken center stage in the Massachusetts Senate race between GOP incumbent Scott Brown and Democratic challenger Elizabeth Warren as well.

To put it bluntly, Brown is accusing Warren of "passing," or representing herself as a member of a different racial group than the one to which she belongs. These accusations are to be expected, as I wrote in my new book, Clearly Invisible: Racial Passing and the Color of Cultural Identity, which deals with how people from all walks of life reconcile who they are with who society tells them to be in a society where racial definitions are constantly changing.

Brown resurrected the theme of racial passing last week when his campaign released an ad called "Who Knows," which is a mashup of television reports featuring Warren being grilled about her claim to Native American heritage. "Elizabeth Warren is trying to put questions about her heritage behind her," announces the newscaster in one of the clips.

Brown underscored the ad's message with his opening remarks at last week's debate. He said, Warren "checked the box claiming she is Native American, and clearly she is not."

Translation: Don't be duped. Warren is a deceptive passer. I know this because I can see race. I know a Native American person when I see one and I'm not seeing a Native American person when I see Warren. Therefore, you shouldn't either.

Brown followed up his questions about Warren's racial identity by questioning her "character," asserting that she passed as Native American in order to take advantage of affirmative action. Apparently, Warren benefited from unfair advantage as a racial minority at Harvard Law School. Three messages are being sent here. The first is: If we can't trust Warren's outward appearance then we can't trust her actions either. The second is: Trust me!! I'm not a passer!! I am who I say I am and my appearance confirms it. Remember (a white male) appearance is a trustworthy measure of character. The third is: White (male) people are now members of a disadvantaged racial group because of programs like affirmative action.

Warren responded via a statement provided to the Boston Globe after the debate. "Growing up," Warren explained, "my mother and my grandparents and my aunts and uncles often talked about our family's Native American heritage. As a kid, I never thought to ask them for documentation - what kid would? - but that doesn't change the fact that it is a part of who I am and part of my family heritage."

Some of Brown's campaign staffers weren't convinced by the candidate's testimony, which could explain why they took to the streets making Native American "war whoops" and doing the "tomahawk chop" at a campaign rally in Boston over the weekend.

When the votes are counted this November, Warren's racial identity will be less significant than the fact that questions about her identity persist as means of disqualification. Such questions demonstrate the ongoing problems of racial identification in the twenty-first century.

But, if we're willing to get past the noise and listen to Warren, we may also find some answers. Answers to questions like: What are you? Who is most qualified to respond? What evidence can be considered? Warren's identity also provides a new answer to the old question about the definition of race. Is race real? Is it biological? Is it sociological? For Warren the answer is complicated. Race is clearly invisible -- a fact of life that may also be, to some degree, a fiction.