By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
When the story broke in early September 2020 that a “white professor” in the US had pretended to be Black I was unsurprised. She isn’t the first, she isn’t the last and her story is symbolic of America in the last decades. There have been many reactions to her admitting that she was a “culture leech” and was involved in “appropriation.”
The details of the latest story are of interest only because of what they say about how American culture regards those who come up with what appear to be “authentic” complex backgrounds. One student said the professor was an “energetic woman of color.” What is particularly interesting about the US today is that despite having unprecedented diversity in terms of people from all over the world and many children who have multiple racial and ethnic backgrounds, the country largely divides itself into categories of “black” and “white.” At times it speaks of “people of color.” Overall though what is interesting is that a woman like the one in this story could be “black” one day and “white” the next. Students could see her as “black” on Friday and on Monday she has become “white.” Students who had questioned her “blackness” in August 2020 would have been accused of racism against her.
To achieve this it appears all the professor had to do was provide the students a story about being from the “Bronx.” She said she was from Puerto Rico but that her family subsisted on plantains in the Dominican Republic. While newspapers focus on some of the salacious details of this story, they don’t have to look far for details to work with. A Puerto Rican identity went along with the “black” one. Stories about being near a police shooting rounded out the background of growing up with “police brutality.” This was her “earliest” memory. Former students recalled a teacher who is now seen as having “mimicked stereotypes” to pass and who adopted a persona of an “aggressive black woman,” the Cut reports. One former student expressed dismay after learning their professor was not black that other “qualified African American professors” could have been hired in her stead. It appears that the story of being Puerto Rican was the most recent identity after having claimed to be “half Algerian.” It appears that she was confronted and was on the verge of being called out when she admitted the truth.
To build the identity, according to reports, she often insulted or called out “white” people, despite being one. She’s not the first example of someone who adopts a new culture and then appears self-hating or simply hating towards the old one. Therefore this story is really not about her, hence I’ve not mentioned the now infamous academic’s name, because this story is about America and what the country’s history of race has done to people.
Historically in the US many people of color pretended to be white and some African-Americans pretended to be of Indian or other heritage to avoid racism. In the book The Senator and the Socialite, the author tells the story of one African-American family and how several descendants changed their identities. “In the same manner that passing blacks were conducting themselves at the time, Barrington and his wife had, by 1940, created a believable mix to explain their swarthy complexions while rewriting their histories and leaving out associations with actual schools they had attended and communities in which they had lived, or family members who might reveal their true racial backgrounds.”
Ironically since the story of the professor revolves around a Jewish American who claimed to be black, there are examples of Jews who pretended to be “white” in the past to get around discrimination. In the Price of Whiteness, the author discusses how antisemitism pushed by Henry ford in the Dearborn Independent led to attacks on Jews as a “separate people, marked off from other races by distinct characteristics, both physical and spiritual.” The newspaper sought to emphasize Jewish “racial difference” and drew attention to Jews who were changing their names “exposing it as another means by which Jews tried to blend in to the American mainstream.” For the antisemites this was a negative because it meant Jews could blend in.
Stories about people changing their identity form part of the background of America. Philip Roth, in The Human Stain tells the ostensibly fictional story of Coleman Silk, an African-American academic who pretends to be Jewish and is later accused of racism against African-American students.
America’s journey to this point is due to the country’s relationship with race. The US Census, which has ramifications for government policies, has changed its racial categories almost every ten years. Where once in 1890 it had white, black, mulatto and terms like “quadroon” and Chinese and Japanese, it quickly altered its categories to include “Hindustani,” Korean and Filipino as races in 1910, specified in 1930 that anyone with “negro” ancestry, even if mixed was to be registered as “black.” In 1930 the census even added “Mexican” only to take the term out by 1940. Later “Hawaiian” would be added and Aleutians, Vietnamese, Samoans, American Indian and other categories. Hispanic was added as an ethnic category in 2010.
To an outsider the US census and the other ways that race is tabulated in the US, such as on mortgage applications or university applications, may appear inexplicable. Why are many countries in Asia given their own “racial” category whereas people from Portugal to Russia are all called “white” and the entire continent of Africa is called “black”? How are people from a whole swath of countries, such as Morocco to Turkmenistan, supposed to identify? The US has decided that while Samoan is a separate “race,” several billion people between China and Portugal and all the way to Argentina are all “white.” This is not a scientific breakdown that the US relies on, it is a uniquely American obsession with defining White and Black and then seeing diversity in other places. That is why Korean and Japanese and Chinese and Filipino are seen as different “races” on the US Census, but people from Bulgaria, Ireland and Finland, Turkey and Armenia, Syria and Uzbekistan, are all seen as “white.”
My own experience and family was linked this history. My ancestors were not only some of the earliest English immigrants to the US, in the 1640s, but also some of the more recent arrivals, with the wave of Jewish immigration of the early 1900s. On once side they struggled with antisemitism, on the other they were stereotypically white privileged. But within two generations this family had not only mixed with eachother, Jews and non-Jews, but my family includes African-Americans, and relatives from Latin America, Asia, and other places. In this it could be seen as quintessentially American. That should be a positive thing. Diversity and multi-culturalism. “Intermarriage.” But in the last decades as I went to high school and then university I saw that this is not the case. In my high school there were some students who, judging that being diverse and a minority was more interesting, adopted imagined backgrounds, such as becoming “part Native-American.” Later in University I saw people try to navigate the complexities of racial self-definition. I saw people who looked white and blond haired, claim to suffer “racial profiling.” They told stories of their complex backgrounds, perhaps invented, perhaps not. This was a generation or two raised in an America that was trying to become less racist, but not succeeding in breaking down the walls of institutional or systematic racism. As I entered my thirties and forties, looking back, it becomes clear how the definitions that the US used in the 19th century, the ones with origins in American slavery, still hang heavy over America today. Despite more diverse families, there is a desire to bifurcate into black and white and in so doing encourage some people to box up all their diverse backgrounds into a flattening definition imposed by American culture and media.
What about the people who had to grow up under this kind of American prison of racial categories who felt they did not belong simply to “white” and “black”? If they felt there was more to their identity than America would allow them to be, they were conflicted. To be “white” would be to be seen as privileged and the majority. To be a “person of color” would provide more layers of identity and the right to speak about one’s ethnicity and culture and race openly, not under the lens of “white supremacism” but of diversity.
Consider the 1962 article by James Baldwin in The New Yorker; “In short, we, the black and the white, deeply need each other here if we are really to become a nation—if we are really, that is, to achieve our identity, our maturity, as men and women. To create one nation has proved to be a hideously difficult task; there is certainly no need now to create two, one black and one white. But white men with far more political power than that possessed by the Nation of Islam movement have been advocating exactly this, in effect, for generations. If this sentiment is honored when it falls from the lips of Senator Byrd, then there is no reason it should not be honored when it falls from the lips of Malcolm X.”
Baldwin’s interesting essay is particularly insightful because it divides the United States primarily into “black” and “white” with little acknowledgement that there can be much in between. This is a binary that still underpins how Americans talk and define themselves. It doesn’t matter that millions are confused by the US Census and try to figure out how to mark that they have mixed ancestry, that they are not either black or white, because US culture and society requires that one define as one or the other. This is essentially a segregationist and apartheid concept, that people must either drink from the black or white drinking fountain, or attend the class for blacks or whites, or live in a black or white community.
However the United States has spent the last several decades ostensibly celebrating diversity and seeking not only integration and affirmative action, but also to have faculties and politicians and boards of directors that look more like America. In the pursuit of that some people simply adopted a fake identity as a member of a minority group and were then promoted on panels as the “African American.” For the University that hired the professor who passed herself off as black and Puerto Rican it was probably easy not to ask questions because they could claim this professor as part of their “diverse” staff. Again, this isn’t the first time that a “white” person in the US simply adopted another culture and then got “diversity” points for it. A well-known US politician, Elizabeth Warren, also was listed as “native American.” Factually, some 95% of her DNA was related to European ancestors. This is emblematic of how the US interprets things like race and diversity. If someone is 95% “white” or European then one is sometimes considered a minority because of the 5%.
This is a uniquely American phenomenon. In most other places someone can’t so easily invent an identity without having some actual connection to that culture and history. On the other hand our understandings of imagined communities, nation states and borders are changing. What it means to be “French” today may not be what it meant 100 or 200 years ago. But the malleable nature of America’s history of race and ethnicity and self-definition is certainly different than some places where someone who is not Armenian might have a difficult time showing up from Sweden and claiming to be Armenian in Armenia. Someone from Spain who has no Chinese ancestry might find it difficult to go to China and claim to be “Chinese.” Can someone after two generations in Cuba become Cuban or after two generations in Brazil?
Because the United States is a country built on immigration and changing notions of what it means to be American, whether by melting pot or multi-culturalism, the changing self-definitions of people dividing into various categories has always shifted.
The current shift, despite the country becoming more intermarried and more diverse, is towards keeping the binaries of “white” and “black” as strong as possible in discussions. America requires the “white” category as much as it requires the “black” category because it cannot accept communities that are more diverse. This is why, for instance, it has spent the last 150 years taking people from all over the world and shoehorning them into “whiteness” and then accusing them of “white privilege.”
The example of this can be found in the changing notions of Jewish “race” in America. As evidenced from the passages above about how Jews were once seen as a “race” it is clear that there was a process of then trying to re-define Jews as “white.” There was then pushback by some Jewish activists arguing that Jews are not “white.” Then there was an attempt to define Jews as “black Jews” and “white Jews” as if an ancient people with thousands of years of history must be defined by the racial categories that the United States has largely invented for everyone. This bizarre feature of the US, to take Jews from Yemen and Morocco and Turkey and Ukraine and tell them now that their ancient history, of the Babylonian Talmud and Maimonides, must be re-written to define by US terms borrowed from an era of slavery and apartheid, is extraordinary. More extraordinary is that some submitted to this with Jews arguing that they are “white” and “black”, not that they are in between, that they are neither. Because the US cannot allow a “both” and “neither.” That is why the US census took tens of millions of Hispanics and redefined them as an “ethnicity” because their numbers as the largest minority group was about to overwhelm the simplistic “white” and “black” binary. So the US decided there are “black Hispanics” and “white Hispanics” and “non-hispanic whites” and “non-hispanic blacks”. There cannot be a group that is simply “Hispanic” or “Latino.” Even if the United states was 100% made up of people who were half-black and half-white, the United States would take them and re-define them as either black or white.
We can see how this works when the US has to deal with politicians who are of mixed ancestry. Barack Obama was the first black president. He was half-black. His father was black and his mother was white. But the US cannot accept “half.” Kamala Harris, who is half black and half Indian, is seen primarily as “black.” Nikki Haley, who is Indian, was accused of being a “white woman” when she spoke at the Republican National Convention.
Returning now to the story of the academic who pretended to be black it illustrates a very American journey. Raised in the 1980s and 1990s she would have understood that having a “white” identity was not of interest. Adopting a new identity to become popular in an America that prizes diversity, may have seemed a route to take. It was also likely a feeling of entitlement and privilege to be able to virtue-signal and shout at others for being “white” and “racist” while holding up a shield of diversity against similar accusations. Having white privilege and accusing others of it in the US has become a national pastime now.
America created people who have adopted either fake, or partly imaginary, ancestries because it has told them that they can either choose “whiteness” which is “privileged” and “racist” or choose something else. Others have felt that America’s simplistic notions take away their complex heritage. This strategy of escaping whiteness was foisted upon people who understood that there was no other escape from the prison of having been born with skin color that marks them as “privileged” and excluded from certain conversations or shouted down. Would someone prefer to be the people being shouted at for “silence is racism” or doing the shouting?
History is full of countries that went through a process of unification through an imagined nationalism. This is how Italy became modern Italy, or Germany became modern Germany. As nationalism grew in the 19th and 20th centuries it gave birth to large numbers of nation states where people were forced to quickly choose sides. People in the Balkans or borderlands of Greece and Turkey and Greece and Albania had to quickly embrace one side or the other. Those caught in the middle like Jews or Roma or others often suffered. Similarly the United States has asked, or rather forced, people to become “black” or “white.” People who come from Uzbekistan or southern Iraq may not understand but they must choose quickly, or they will be accused of racism and “privilege.” The professor who adopted the false identity knew that it was a shield, because had some accused her of being “white” in August, prior to her admitting her background, it would have been seen as racist. People who were “white” had to sit on panels with her and be berated for their “whiteness” by someone who was equally, if not more, white.
The fact that someone who was white was able to become “black” not by changing their skin color, but simply by claiming to be “black” illustrates how much of a charade the US definition of “race” is. For instance in the United States one could have twin brothers and one could be raised and told they are “black” and the other “white” and in the US this arbitrary decision would be respected, while the white one grows up with “privilege” and the other suffers “racism” even though they are identical. Later one will be accused of racism against the other. That is how arbitrary the US is in how it views “race.”
Much of the world has had to look on this bizarre self-definition race division with wonder. The US has even tried to push its race definitions on others, trying to conjure up the idea of a “black-white” divide in Europe or India, without taking into account that such simple American views are not what is best for complex diverse places like India, or for places in Europe where the largest minority groups may be Arabic speakers from north Africa or people from India. Americans even try to foist their racial views on Israel, with the activist Shaun King claiming that Jews in Afula who are racist against Arabs are “white Jews” and “white supremacists.” Yet the Jews in Afula are not a different ‘race’ than Arabs, Americans would be hard pressed in Israel to easily put Arabs and Jews in different racial boxes. Yet they want to. They need there to be “white” and “black.” They cannot imagine a world that is not like that. They can’t imagine that in Afghanistan hatred of Hazzaras may be a combination of ethnic and religious divisions. For them the only question is “which are the whites in this group.” That is essentially an apartheid methodology. But it is also the way America has educated the last generation and it is one that is rooted in US history.
This attempt by the US to colonize race, both internally and externally, is what causes some people to adopt a fictional background in order to fit into whatever the US currently says is the “correct” definition to be part of. The US can never escape this cycle because so much has been invested in it. It cannot see Coptic people, Armenians, Arabs, Turks, Greeks, Uzbeks, Pathans, Sikhs or Yemenites as individuals. It can only see them as “black” and “white.” This is essentially a form of cultural genocide that the US has embarked on. While people are accused of ‘cultural appropriation’ in the US, the real issue is not appropriation, but an attack on world cultures. The US has taken in millions of migrants from all over the world and exterminated their cultural diversity and forced them to be “black” and “white.” A few have rebelled. Some have left the US to go back to the free world of diversity where one can become Portuguese and Moroccan again and not just be “white” or “black.” Others continue to suffer under the American Apartheid.