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Reverse passing

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Reading Scott’s post about J.D. Vance’s transparently faux working class angst as he navigates the Masters of the Universe social scene reminded me of this fascinating article published a couple of days ago in the Atlantic. It’s about people who fake coming from marginalized or traumatic backgrounds for a variety of reasons:

In July 2019, a 31-year-old German blogger named Sophie Hingst was found dead after having been exposed for inventing 22 relatives and submitting details of their deaths to Israel’s official memorial to the Holocaust, Yad Vashem. When Derek Scally, a journalist from The Irish Timesconfronted Hingst after the deception was exposed, she spun a tale of family troubles, saying that her mother had been a “madwoman” who shot herself, and that she had discovered her body. But Scally found Hingst’s mother in the German phone book: “My daughter has many realities and I only have access to one,” she told the reporter.

Scally decided that Hingst was mentally unstable, rather than a scam artist. A therapist friend had told him “that Germans claiming to be from Jewish families touched by the Holocaust was not an unusual phenomenon. The need to be associated with the victims rather than the perpetrators in such a context was, he said, often linked to another trauma in a person’s life.”

The writer Anne Karpf, the daughter of a Holocaust survivor herself, puts it another way: “If you are [a] victimized, miserable, turbulent person because you’ve been adopted, because you’ve been badly treated, you aren’t necessarily going to get the kind of sympathy which you’re going to get if you are a Holocaust survivor. In the hierarchy of suffering, it’s at the pinnacle.”

The notion of needing “to be associated with the victims rather than the perpetrators” is what sent me down the rabbit hole of identity hoaxers. You would be surprised at how many there are: the “pretendians,” who claim Native American ancestry, including the former Klansman who reinvented himself as a best-selling “Cherokee” author; the Syrian blogger “Gay Girl in Damascus,” who turned out to be a straight American man named Tom MacMaster; Scott Peake, who presented himself as a fluent Gaelic speaker from a remote Scottish island when he took over the Saltire Society, which promotes Scottish culture. (He was really from South London, and couldn’t speak Gaelic.)

Within this galaxy of hoaxers, the academics and activists who attempt “reverse passing” are a distinct group. “Passing” has historically referred to the practice of nonwhite people adopting white identities or being read as white, allowing them to bypass the racial segregation of housing, jobs, and services. But the racial reckoning in the United States in recent years has asked white Americans to see themselves as perpetrators of centuries of injustice, and Black Americans as victims of that injustice. “Reverse passing,” also called “blackfishing” or “race-shifting,” seems intriguingly common in university humanities departments and leftist activist spaces, where many subscribe to the worldview outlined by Robin DiAngelo in her best-selling book White Fragility: “White people do need to feel grief about the brutality of white supremacy and our role in it.” Perhaps the subconscious reasoning runs like this: White people are oppressors, but I’m a good person, not an oppressor, so I can’t be white. (The right-wing version of this argument is different: I’m white, but don’t feel like an oppressor, so I reject this ideology.)

In individual instances, there can be financial or professional benefits to “reverse passing.” Ayendy Bonifacio, an assistant professor of U.S. ethnic literary studies at the University of Toledo, told me that for an academic such as Krug, “embodying that same identity that she writes about, and teaches, could lend her more cultural credit, to a certain extent, but also more trust from her readers, from her students, from other scholars in the field.” Watching a video of “Jessica La Bombalera” made him wonder whether Krug’s performance, in one sense, reflected a failure of solidarity, an inability to generate empathy without identification. Yet, he noted, discussing issues such as racism, gentrification, and police violence while posing as a person of color was “not just a performance of identity, but also a performance of other people’s traumas.”

As with Munchausen-syndrome patients, though, there did appear to be trauma in Krug’s life—just not the one she claimed. In her Medium post, she wrote of the “abuse” and “alienation” of her childhood. “The mental health professionals from whom I have been so belatedly seeking help assure me that [creating a false identity] is a common response to some of the severe trauma that marked my early childhood and teen years … I have not lived a double life. There is no parallel form of my adulthood connected to white people or a white community or an alternative white identity.” She claimed to be, in the popular phrase, living her truth—even though her truth was a charade. (Krug has since disappeared from social media, and I was unable to contact her for comment.)

Once I noticed the Krug case, further examples kept coming to my attention. On September 18, the Black Lives Matter activist Satchuel Cole was outed by the website Black Indy Live for passing as biracial while being white. Cole, who uses they/them pronouns and legally changed their name in 2010, was well known in Indianapolis as a community leader, and acted as a spokesperson for the family of a Black man killed by police. There may be childhood trauma behind their story too: A 1994 article in The Indianapolis Star quoted someone of the same age and former name as Cole, whose sister had just received a 30-year jail term for killing their abusive mother. (The mother had also been complicit in their stepfather’s sexual abuse.) In the activist community, Cole had claimed that their biological father was Black, but after the Black Indy Live story was published, they posted on Facebook: “I have taken up space as a Black person while knowing I am white. I have used Blackness when it was not mine to use.”

A month after Cole was unmasked, Kelly Kean Sharp resigned as an assistant professor of African American studies at Furman University, in South Carolina, after her claim to Mexican heritage was debunked. She had described herself in her Twitter biography as “Chicana” and took part in panels on the experience of being Latina in academia. (Furman confirmed to me that Sharp had quit, and had no forwarding address for correspondence.)

The third story belongs to CV Vitolo-Haddad, a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, who reacted with outrage to the news of Krug’s deception, calling her a “Kansas cracker” with a doctorate in “performing blackface.” Soon after, an anonymous Medium post alleged that Vitolo-Haddad, who uses they/them pronouns, had claimed to be Cuban and Black “while distancing themselves from their upbringing in a wealthy Italian family in Florida.” Name and appearance changes along the way had helped this impression—CV came from the initials of their first and middle names; Haddad came from a previous marriage—while photos from Vitolo-Haddad’s teenage years show them with paler skin and straighter hair. In their own Medium post, Vitolo-Haddad wrote: “I have let guesses about my ancestry become answers I wanted but couldn’t prove. I have let people make assumptions when I should have corrected them.” After this, California State University withdrew its offer of a tenure-track position to Vitolo-Haddad.

0ne unfortunate if probably unavoidable consequence of various institutions becoming aware of the desirability of opening their membership to historically marginalized groups is that an informal norm tends to develop that you can’t call bullshit on people who are more or less clearly faking it.

For example, one reason Alice Goffman got away with inventing so much of her massively praised pseudo-ethnography On the Run is that people were understandably nervous about asking any hard questions about the authenticity of Goffman’s narrative, even when it was completely obvious on its face that a lot of her “research” was simply made up. (The most prestigious American sociology journal has still not retracted her article, which was based on an obviously fabricated study, nor have either the University of Chicago Press or Farrar Straus & Giroux ever acknowledged that they published a work that is in no small part fiction as if it were a legitimate ethnography).

The insatiable market for authenticity in regard to bringing marginalized people and their narratives into formerly exclusive institutions also creates all sorts of incentives for what might be called racial and ethnic fugazi. Again, this is to some extent unavoidable, but it’s good to be conscious of it.

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