It's Sunday. I'm home. I've been applying to jobs, looking for apartments, grounded in reality, in the rigorous way that life forces you to be sometimes.
On a “Sunday Read” episode of The Daily, The New York Times podcast with Michael Barbaro, there’s a story with a title that will be personally difficult for me to listen to: “The Native Scholar Who Wasn’t.”
Description: “More than a decade ago, a prominent academic was exposed for having faked her Cherokee ancestry. Why has her career continued to thrive?” The article focuses on Andrea Smith, “Andy,” a prominent scholar of Native Studies who is revealed to have been faking her Cherokee ancestry to establish more credibility and meet more success in her field.
Keywords: Exposed. Faked. Ancestry. Why.
It’s okay, I know why a story like this is interesting. I’ll take a moment here to empathize with the interest: When people insist upon an ethnic identity, how do we know to believe people versus when to be skeptical? In the aftermath of generations of white supremacy designed to step on people of color and steal their resources, what could be worse than pretending to have the identity of a Black person, Indigenous person, or Person of Color (BIPOC) simply to gain more credibility in your field, let alone to steal that opportunity for success from actual BIPOC? And in a society that we all like to think is improving itself through social change and open recognition of its flaws, of course we would want to know how something like this could happen. If the titular subject of “The Native Scholar Who Wasn’t,” really wasn’t, then what allowed her to be one—to was—in the first place? Why was she allowed to speak as an authority on a subject about which she lied to obtain credibility? It’s shocking, isn’t it? How could no one have known?
I also know why a story like this is important. Someone who was faking an identity to take away opportunities from other more deserving individuals deserves to be called out, have her titles questioned, and her work stripped of much of its merit. I understand that non-BIPOC people profit in unusual ways off of BIPOC identities, and they deserve to be singled out for the harm they cause.
This story isn’t shocking to a person like me, not because it isn’t appalling, but because neither the person who is the subject of this article nor the story itself are the first of their kind that I’ve encountered. I understand why these sorts of things get sensationalized. I do. But with each one that I come across, I feel not desensitized, but rather more disappointed, more frustrated.
I don’t look Black. I don’t look White. And I don’t look mixed-with-Black-and-White because we have entered a time when there is a general stereotype for that as well.
A little about me: I am multiracial, ethnically ambiguous. I am mixed with Black and White, and yet I do not look quite like either. I get questions, daily, requesting clarification of my ethnicity, of my ethnic identity. I am no stranger to accusations of falsifying an identity as a BIPOC for personal gain, because people have accused me of exactly this. But, I have never been accused of faking my identity to enhance my career trajectory, but perhaps this has more to do with my youth than my employment history.
The accusations I get have more to do with the confusion between the mismatch in the identity itself and the indisputable fact of my physical body. I don’t look Black. I don’t look White. And I don’t look mixed-with-Black-and-White because we have entered a time when there is a general stereotype for that as well. The other day I told someone who asked the percentage of Black that technically runs through my blood and my family. After I told him, between laughs, he said, “And you claim that? You feel like it’s right to claim ‘Black’ with just that percentage, looking the way you do?”
What do you say to a person in a situation like that? Who do you direct your anger towards? I still don’t know. I just feel uncomfortable. Why can’t a stranger on the street believe me when I say the identity society has forced me to live with?
And yet, and yet, that isn’t what makes me the angriest.
Here’s what does: Why do we need to hear another story about someone who successfully convinced people, has successfully fooled their way to an identity they had no right ever to claim? As if racial imposters are an epidemic, as if people like me–the ones already getting all this questioning–need more harassment, need to shoulder more of the burden of proof of ethnicity than we already shoulder? Another story about a race liar passing backwards (meaning a white person passing for non-white rather than vice versa) simply exacerbates the lines people draw across my face and body as the site where race and ethnicity invite disbelief, doubt, and the need for proof.
Maybe it doesn’t feel like it to someone less obsessed with the story of who may or may not rightfully claim an identity, but to me, it feels like the media, the public, and generally, everyone is obsessed with stories like this one. A story about someone, usually someone in power, who created a fake identity based on race or ethnicity that was not their own, stole opportunities from real members of a minority group, and who eventually was caught.
I tired of hearing these stories. I’m so tired of this fascination with faking identity and using it to carry yourself to material success.
In each one of them, the narrative is the same, and it kills me every time. The narrative charts the offender’s rise, traces their desire to conform to a different identity, leads up to the arc of the story—the step taken too far, the moment when things started to fall apart because this is what happens when you lie about who you are, about what runs through your genes. It’s artful characterization, this painting of them as the con artist who wasn’t satisfied with their own story, who had to fabricate a new one to be recognized as unique, as desirable. It’s engaging, this slow burn of turning the listener against someone who would dare claim an identity that isn’t theirs, that could never be theirs.
Let me be honest. There is nothing inherently wrong with these stories in painting these identity thieves as con artists who steal material opportunities and material wealth from minorities, all based on a lie. I dislike Rachel Dolezal and her transracialism as much as the next person. I wrote an entire article about it.
But God, am I tired of hearing these stories. I’m so tired of this fascination with faking identity and using it to carry yourself to material success. I’m tired of the “See? We always knew something was wrong with this picture” narrative. “He always dodged questions of proof of heritage,” or “We always suspected something about her physical appearance didn’t add up,” or “Why won’t they just tell the truth?” After all, the everyday understanding asks, “How could you ever feel comfortable stealing something so personal, so clearly verifiable as an identity?” Only the worst type of person would do that. And yet, so many people feel totally at ease when they accuse me of this very action.
I just want to feel seen sometimes. I just want to be believed sometimes. I just want to answer a question about my identity and not have to answer a whole bunch of follow-up questions to appease my inquisitor. Which one of your parents is the Black one? Where is the White one from? Okay, but is that your real eye color? Oh, wait. I actually knew you were Black the whole time; I could definitely tell. But what do you do to make your skin that color? You’re so exotic. I’d love to have a mixed baby just like you. I want to get one with those colored eyes.
How many Rachel Dolezals are there in the world? No, really. I want to know. I’m dying to know. I want to know a percentage so that when people ask me if I am faking, if I am lying, if I am making up an identity for myself, I can show a number verifying the likelihood that what I am saying is true versus what race liars fabricate to make themselves seem more interesting. The way people attach their definition of my identity to my body, to the confusing and exotic and strange shape and color and size of it, and so easily deny my words, the words that come out of the being associated with this body makes me wonder what on earth could make it possible for a person to get these questions and still hold onto the lie. Who would choose this, if they had any other option? Who would keep at this if they didn’t have to? If it wasn’t true? I’d give it all up for a day of peace.
Do you know why the story of someone like Rachel Dolezal, like Andrea Smith, like Jessica Krug, bothers people like me? It isn’t because I cannot fathom the idea of faking an identity. It honestly isn’t even because of what they did, the things they stole, the lies they told to get ahead, or the tamping down of opportunity they did for true, deserving individuals (although these are large points of contention for me). It’s because of the collective outrage, the shock, the disbelief that follows the release of a story like this. “How could they do something like this? And, worse, how could we have believed them? My God, we must start policing identity more closely, with all these identity fabricators in our midst.”
As if the real problem to be solved is how to rule out the identity con artists, as if that is the only thing we must do to make sense of this thing called identity, this thing called race . . .
Where does that leave someone like me? Someone who has been accused, for many reasons, in many contexts, so so many times, of faking an identity.
God, I’ve written about this topic so much. How many words are left for me to say before I run out of breath? This world has made me watch people laugh directly into my face when I tell them my identity, and they don’t believe me. Why must it give this same world another story of outrage at an identity faker? As if the real problem to be solved is how to rule out the identity con artists, as if that is the only thing we must do to make sense of this thing called identity, this thing called race, this thing called ethnicity, is to punish the people who lie about it for personal gain. Then we will be at the center of it. Then the lines won’t be so blurred and the complications won’t be so messy. Everyone will have their identity and everyone will claim their identity. With the liars behind bars (metaphorically or physically), we can all rest peacefully.
Please, please stop thinking of it this way.
Excuse my language, but if that shit worked, don’t you think I would’ve noticed it by now? There’s a significant piece of the puzzle missing here: this assumption that people will always believe you when you are telling the truth about your identity. After all, how do these identity fakers get so far on the path of fabrication if not by people believing them? That’s not a universal experience.
So many people don’t know, will never know what it feels like not to be believed when I speak the truth of myself, when I have tried everything short of cutting into my own skin to prove the validity of my claims to what I am. Repeat after me: you do not develop and claim and defend a particular identity without gaining at least a little bit of understanding about the strange, fluid, often unrecognizable structures of identity as a general concept.
The truth is, I’m jealous of, no, I’m hurt by the people who feel so confident in their own identities and their own ability to discern identities by looking at people. Their ability to make sweeping generalizations about identity and determine who does and doesn’t tell lies about it is maddening. I’ve never lived an experience like that. I’m hurt that the liars are believed over me, the one who is so quickly branded a liar simply for telling a truth that doesn’t always make sense to the person listening. But I live in this body, in this identity, in this existence. That’s all there is to say about it, as the questions keep coming.
Identity is messy. It’s personal, it’s individual, but it’s also public record. It’s attached to community, it’s something that must be proven, must be performed. That is, if you want to get anywhere with an identity. I don’t respect the things these identity fakers, these identity tourists, do, but I do have some feeling for them.
Perhaps I could call it empathy? At least they understand that identity is fluid. At least they wouldn’t likely look at me dirty, ask me for a picture of my parents when I proclaim my own identity. Or maybe they wouldn’t understand, I don’t know. I’m just tired.
What gives us credibility in any one identity? Because in a world where I am punished for the crimes of a select few, it feels like having my genetics, being myself, claiming my identity despite how confused it makes people doesn’t give me much credibility at all.
When trying to prove my identity to a skeptical audience, I feel the words leak through my bones as I speak. They drag energy out of me every time.