Sociologist Garroutte Offers Insights on Racial Identity

Sociologist Garroutte Offers Insights on Racial Identity

By Stephen Gawlik
Staff Writer

The term "racial identity" might seem best suited to ethnographical debates or political rhetoric, says Asst. Prof. Eva Marie Garroutte (Sociology), but it has plenty of serious, real-life applications.

Asst. Prof. Eva Marie Garroutte (Sociology) will be the featured speaker at next week's "Writers Among Us" event.
She cites a federal investigation of a major insurance scam perpetrated by a man who took advantage of laws designed to help Native American businesses. Not only was his enterprise a fraud, Garroutte says, so was his claim of being a Native American. Racial identity, in this case, had been a means of exploitation - and not for the first time.

However unusual the case, Garroutte says it serves as a lead-in to a discussion about racial identity and race in America. "It helps us think about how we classify people into different races, and the consequences associated with particular classifications."

Garroutte looks at those consequences in her recently published book, Real Indians: Identity and Survival of Native America. She will discuss her work on Oct. 22 at 7:30 p.m. in Devlin 101 as part of the "Writers Among Us" series sponsored by Boston College Magazine and the Boston College Bookstore.

While Garroutte's book focuses on the experiences of Native Americans, she says racial identity is a matter of interest and a potential issue of concern for many Americans.

Garroutte points to the revised procedures for the 2000 census as a powerful indicator of a shift in American thinking about race. In that year, for the first time, people were allowed to categorize themselves as belonging to more than one race.

"Now an important question becomes: Is a person who describes himself as both white and some other race really a minority?" she said. "Are further determinations of his 'real' racial identity going to be based on his degree of ancestry, his self-identification, cultural characteristics, physical appearance, or something else?"

By combining scholarly sources, personal accounts and interview data with her own reflections, Garroutte examines the evolution of individual and collective American Indian identities. Throughout history, she says, the federal government, tribal officials, and Indians and non-Indians alike have manipulated the identity of Indian people and tribes for political, social or economic advantage.

"All those groups had - and continue to have - a hand in it at one time or another. But the federal and state governments have had the most power to enforce varying definitions of identity in ways with really profound consequences having to do with things like land cessions and the collective rights of whole categories of people."

The challenge in writing Real Indians, Garroutte says, was in being responsible not only to the values and interests of academia, but also to Native Americans.

"In this book I just tried hard to let everyone make their case, from all perspectives, just as persuasively as they could - whether or not I agreed.

"I hope that through this book I have opened a space for further conversation people will have," she said.


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