Friday, July 20, 2012

Genes, Identity, Authenticity, Rigged Systems and Justin Bieber

I’m not super proud of this, but as I was surfing through news stories this morning, I felt compelled to click on a story which highlighted excerpts of an upcoming Rolling Stone interview with Justin Bieber. I don’t know why I might be a little bit fascinated by a celebrity, who appears about 13 years old, but seems to attract a lot of strange, young, lustful attention. I guess there’s just something creepy about it all that I find intriguing. Anthropologically, he also seems a nexus of gender, generation, sex, art, commodification, and now...views European Americans often hold about the place in society held by Native North Americans.

How’s that, you may ask. Well, it’s the following quote caught my attention. In describing his background, Bieber notes:

I’m actually part Indian. I think Inuit or something? I’m enough percent that in Canada I can get free gas

(I did not thoroughly research this, but I did find this Ontario Ministry of Aboriginal Affairs web page that indicates the ability to purchase gas tax-free)

I had been thinking about these issues as my last post was a tertiary commentary on the widespread lack of participation of US Native American groups in genetic studies to better pin down ancient population movements in the New World. My post focused on the long-standing antipathy between US Native peoples and US archaeologists. In a comment to that post, however, Jason Antrosio brought up what is likely an even more salient point:

Namely, can you think of another contemporary people group that would be more materially affected--economically, politically, legally--by claims of genetic admixture? The climate for Native Americans seems especially, perhaps even uniquely tense in that respect. The fact of the matter is that most of the groups that "particpated" in this study (and those aren't just scare quotes, we really don't know how much informed consent groups outside the U.S. were given) are unlikely to be very affected by what some Harvard study says. The situation for many Native Americans seems to be quite different.

The question Antrosio brings up is much more important than those I’m about to discuss, but I apparently feel a much greater need to get things back to the issue Mr. Bieber inspired. I’m also largely ignorant of the bureaucratic and legal challenges that Native Americans face relevant to levels of genetic admixture other than the well-known fights for federal and state recognition of tribal groups. However, teaching many intro classes in anthropology has provided ample opportunity to get a sense of a common perception among my students about the role of genetics and Native American identity. This perspective also demonstrates a broader view that negates history and celebrates individualism. And, these outlooks seem to jibe with those of Mr. Bieber.

The most common way questions of identity and ancestry come up is when I’m discussing some aspect of ethnography based on Native Americans. At this point, a student offers that they, like Mr. Bieber, are “part Indian.” This “part Indian”-ness is based on family recollection and hearsay and not any kind of lived experience. While I have no doubt there is often truth to the claims--precontact Native American DNA makes up part of their individual genomes--it seems to end there. None of the students who’ve volunteered this information come from a family or community background that at all could be characterized as Native American. Instead, my questions to them indicate that almost all who have made such claims come from the general White American context.

Invariably, the conversation then moves onto the perceived bonanza of mythical scholarships that would become available to them if they just had the documented evidence that demonstrated this ancestry. Accompanying this is the rough grumbling that their damned White genetic heritage is now a liability for getting ahead.

Such recurrent conversations have led me to the following conclusions about common European (White) Americans views on the identity and ancestry of Native Americans.

1. Genetic Identity is Authentic Identity

In this view, one’s racial identity is largely shaped by a perceived deterministic racial gene--in this case the “Native American one.” While they don’t see it in terms of hypodescent, but more as a racial DNA potpourri, in which you can claim ancestry if you possess one little bit of the relevant genetic material. This reminds me of folks who also claim some kind of cultural authority about a place simply because they’ve visited it. And having some “part Indian” genetics is enough to be Native’ve got the gene, you’ve got what’s authentic about the identity. Just like Bieber, who is “part Indian.”

2. Contemporary Native Americans Have Unfair Advantages

The value of such an identity is seen mostly in terms of the benefits it can provide, given the institutional context of the US. The repeated belief that demonstrating a Native American ancestry would provide material gain in the form of scholarships is always mentioned when a student discusses their supposed ancestry.  Authentic genes become a kind of poker chip to be cashed in.  I have never heard a student argue that it could help legitimate them in the eyes of a particular cultural community and provide access to a gratifying social and human experience. Remember, they don’t need that, they already possess the authenticity that genetics gives.

Following from this point, despite their desire to take advantage of purported benefits, it’s built upon the premise that they would be gaming a rigged system that provides unfair advantages to individuals how can claim some kind of group identity. While genetics creates identity, such identity shouldn’t be considered in a truly fair world. This, along with other discussions in class, has clearly shown me that a typical college freshman at my school strongly believes that all forms of affirmative action are no longer necessary. Further, the continued existence of such programs provide important opportunities to unqualified individuals at the expense of qualified Whites. Most are ardent believers in an America where a meritocracy might be possible if such “politically correct” regulations were removed. An American utopia would be one where the invisible hand of individualism could take its course. Only individual qualities should be truly important, social identities obscure what’s really important. However, identity politics have created an uneven playing field of “reverse discrimination” when some Bieber-Canadians are able to get “free gas.”

3. History Doesn’t Matter

People can only believe that social group identity doesn’t really matter if they also believe that history doesn’t matter. In the case of Native Americans, students are superficially aware of their painful history and suffering at the hands of Europeans, but it’s just that, history. It’s in the past, society has progressed to a point where all people have equal opportunity and again, formerly disenfranchised groups should just “get over it.” After all, no one’s handing out smallpox blankets anymore. Any special circumstances that characterize a particular group today are either of their own modern creation (e.g. poverty on Indian reservations) or unfair advantages (e.g. see above).

This, of course, is symptomatic of a much more widespread problem in the way many see the relationship between history and contemporary society. This should be one of the primary challenges for teachers of social sciences and humanities--convincing students of the consequential linkages between past and present.

For Bieber and many of my students, genes equal an authentic identity that identity can allow a kind of rigged access to casino riches, college scholarships, and free gas.

Post script
While much of this post’s focus on Justin Bieber is a cheap gag, such public figures do offer great teaching tools. Many more student eyes and ears get directed at me when I mention a name like Bieber than one like Geertz. And, if using Bieber as foot in the door to get students to think about larger, much more meaningful issues, then I’m sure going to use him.


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