Dear 100 Hour Board,
Before launching her presidential bid, Senator Elizabeth Warren published a video about her DNA test, indicating that she might have a distant Native American ancestor. Critics lambasted the video, mocking Warren for only having maybe 0.1% Native American DNA.
My question for you: what if the test had shown that Warren had a substantial amount of Native American DNA? Like 20-30%? Could someone like Warren who looks distinctly European claim to be a person of color because of their DNA results?
One of my friends took a 23andMe test and it indicated that she was only 50% European (her estranged father was from Iran.) She has fair skin and blue eyes, but demands to be recognized as a minority because 23andMe says she's half Middle Eastern. From scientific perspective, she's right, but can a white-looking person rightfully make that claim?
Who's to judge who qualifies as a person of color?
Well gee, that's a question that I don't think anyone can answer fully. I totally second Anathema's advice that you listen to the Invisibilia episode, as well as venture into some of NPR's Code Switch which can help as well.
White privilege is something that can also come with being "white-passing." If you are a person of color with very light skin, sometimes you get some of the benefits of being white - but not all of them. You may still have a name that doesn't sound white, which may impact your chances of getting a job or a loan at a bank or perhaps your insurance rates.
So, there are two sides to this. To some extent, society decides who counts as a person of color based on things like your name, your skin color, your hair, or the races of your parents. People who can't pass as white, according to society, automatically go in the POC bin. White-passing individuals most often still identify as their race, and the communities they belong to most often acknowledge them as part of the group - for the bloodline. Mixed race individuals tend to have a bit more autonomy when deciding how involved they would like to be in their various identities. That being said, in America there is a cultural assumption that being white is normal, so any person who deviates even a bit from that tends to get put in the 'person of color' category (which, as we are beginning to learn, is an interesting term because it groups all sorts of people together whose experiences are very different.)
For example, you may have heard of the "One-drop rule." This societal classification rule stated that if you had even one Black ancestor, you were considered Black... even if it was your fourth great-grandma who died decades before you were born. The 1890 census even had words like "quadroon" or "octoroon" to determine just how Black someone was.
Think about it - we always call Obama the first Black president of the U.S.... but technically speaking, he is mixed-race. But instead of saying that, we just call him Black... because that's how we categorize things. Anything other than only white is color. (With the caveat that obviously after lots of generations you don't even know anymore and if there is no strong identification with any other race or ethnicity, sometimes one might even be surprised to learn that they had ancestry other than white European.)
The in-group also can do boundary management, deciding who "counts". Native American tribes especially are an example of this - most have different "thresholds" for membership. For some, you just have to prove any direct connection to someone who was listed as Cherokee in the 1800s, regardless of how far back that connection is. For the Eastern Band of Cherokee, there is a different set of criteria. You might be interested in this New York Times article as well, which goes into a bit more on this topic, for the Nooksack Tribe in Washington.
The last part I think plays a role is cultural connection. It's not a fully necessary part to be considered part of a race, but for some it can play a very big role. For some people who are white-passing, their cultural heritage plays a huge role in their identity. If you have a cultural heritage that you are involved in that is associated with a race or ethnicity, it seems fair that you get to label yourself as what you feel like, within reason. Like Josefina mentions with her experience - I think that's really important to keep in mind. Self-identity does play a significant role in this. Now, there have been some people (see Rachel Dolezal) who have taken that self-identity to extreme and it has not ended well for them. Her situation is so involved and complicated I'm not going to get into it here, you can read into it what you want. The point is, not everyone always looks like the race or ethnicity they identify with, but they do have some agency in what role that connection plays in their life and identity.
TL;DR - It's a complex process. To some extent, you get to self-identify. To some extent, the accepted in-group gets to decide whether you're included. And to some extent, society automatically decides for you.
This is a really complicated question. You would probably be interested in the episode 'White vs. White' from the podcast Invisibilia. I've listened to it, and it explores the concept of whiteness and what it means to be part of a race.
Actually, this kind of applies to me*. I'm a quarter Cuban, and I've spent a significant amount of time thinking about that identity and what it means to me.
First - functionally, I'm a white American woman. That's what I look like, that's my primary culture, and I have all of the privileges that come with that identity.
At the same time, I do have a secondary culture through my grandma. I remember a number of Christmases where my family celebrated Noche Buena instead of a more traditional American Christmas Eve. I grew up with parents and grandparents who wanted me to learn Spanish, in part so that I could connect better with that side of my ancestry. I learned my grandma's story. And the older I get, the more I care about connecting with my Cuban and Puerto Rican heritage.
So, I won't ever deny that heritage. If a survey asks me whether I'm Hispanic, I answer yes. If someone asks me about my ancestry, I tell them about it. I'm proud of my grandma and my ancestors, and I'm excited to connect more with that side of my family history. But I also want to make sure that I'm not unfairly taking advantage of an identity that I'm only partially connected to, and that I don't experience many of the difficulties of. I don't consider myself a person of color, and I won't attempt to speak for Cubans, Puerto Ricans, or other Hispanic people.
I'm definitely not here to dictate a right or wrong way for anyone to view their identity, and I think that my own perception of myself and how to appropriately connect with my heritage will continue to evolve. But for now, that's my perspective.
*I recognize the differences between my situation and the ones you described. Still, I felt like your question was applicable enough to me that it was relevant to add my take.