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The unbearable whiteness of being an academic
Why are so many white people claiming to be black or indigenous?
Until recently, Carrie Bourassa had been a woman to inspire all. An indigenous member of the Métis Nation who had overcome poverty and racism to scale the heights of academia in Canada, she was a scientific director for indigenous peoples’ health at a leading scientific institute and described as ‘a selfless leader and a tireless champion for all Indigenous peoples in this country’. She had also edited a book on indigenous parenting; all in all, the type of person you expect to see in pious public sector celebrations of women put out by the BBC.
On one occasion Bourassa had delivered a TEDx Talk at the University of Saskatchewan ‘with a feather in her hand and a bright blue shawl and Métis sash draped over her shoulders’. Calling herself Morning Star Bear, she had tearfully told the audience: ‘I’m just going to say it — I’m emotional…. I’m Bear Clan. I’m Anishinaabe Métis from Treaty Four Territory,’ and went on explain how she had grown up experiencing racism, violence and addiction in the community. Bourassa had in articles and talks opened up about the difficulties of being raised by her Métis grandfather and facing the ‘intergenerational trauma’ of her people. It was a story that seemed to push all the right buttons – which was perhaps the problem.
But then some serious allegations came to light casting doubt on Morning Star Bear’s fitness for office: Bourassa, it turned out, was white. Her forebears were all Russian, Czech and Polish farmers, who while the Metis struggled with the arrival of the Europeans were back in Tsarist Russia, living lives of unbridled white privilege as agricultural workers.
The response was merciless anger. Bourassa’s colleague Winona Wheeler, an associate professor of Indigenous Studies at the University of Saskatchewan, told the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation that what she did was ‘abuse’ and ‘theft’, ‘colonialism in its worst form and it’s a gross form of white privilege.’
Another called her ‘the modern-day Grey Owl’ in reference to the famous early 20th century English conservationist who had managed to convince the world he was Native American, rather than being Archibald from Hastings.
Bourassa’s outing was followed last weekend by that of Jessica Bardill, an ‘indigenous’ language speaker at Montreal University who was reportedly suspended because of doubts about her race. And who could have suspected she was white?
Bourassa and Bardill are hardly exceptional: the past two years have seen at least half a dozen similar racial unmaskings, almost all female academics. Is this the result of the strange racial spoils system created by affirmative action, or does it reflect the cultural emptiness felt by some North Americans, the unbearableness whiteness of being?
Among them is Suzy Kies, an indigenous ‘expert’ in – yet again - Canada, on whose advice a Catholic school district burned 30 library books about indigenous people, removing another 4,700. Kies had become quite a prominent figure on all matters indigenous; again, how could they have possibly noticed?
One suspects that a conference of Canada’s indigenous educators would turn out like those legendary Klan gatherings where everyone is an uncover FBI agent, or that meeting of Holocaust survivor memoir writers where both were fake.
Many of these ‘indigenous’ experts had risen far by telling white liberals what they wanted to hear, confirming their worldview. The same was true of @Sciencing_Bi, who enthralled Twitter last spring with her powerful denunciations of sexual misconduct in higher education. The mysterious young woman had grown up in Alabama, a member of the Hopi tribe, but had ‘fled the south because of their oppression of queer folk’. Sadly, Sciencing Bi contracted Covid in April 2020, having been forced by her cruel university to do in-person teaching just at the point when that issue was becoming a culture war hot topic, and died, quite unusually for someone so young.
Fellow academic BethAnn McLaughlin, who was Sciencing Bi’s colleague and also her lover, paid tribute via a long Twitter thread, and then held a Zoom memorial for her dead friend. Her feelings towards Sciencing Bi were obviously deep and heartfelt – but then, of course, McLaughlin was Sciencing Bi.
This was fantasy not entirely dissimilar to ‘Syrian Gay Girl’, blogger Amina Abdallah who wrote from war-torn Damascus and pulled every heartstring that white American liberals possessed – which she could do because Abdallah was one of them, a man by the name of Tom MacMaster.
The closer a public individual’s personal narrative fits perfectly with the university-educated public’s prejudices, the more likely they are to be fictional – truth can be stranger than fiction, but it’s never more ideologically satisfying. But in some cases, academics adopting other identities go almost into parody.
Among those exposed last year was Jessica Krug, a George Washington University professor specialising in Black History who had adopted numerous identities along her racial odyssey. She had originally claimed to be half-Algerian, her German father having raped her mother; then, after moving to New York, she identified as ‘Afro-Latinx’ and called herself ‘Jessica La Bombalera’; this might have set alarm bells, Latinx being a term far more popular with scolding white liberals than the people it is supposed to describe.
Krug’s new identity was stereotypical to the point of absurdity, wearing crop tops and hoop earrings to class and speaking with an exaggerated accent. One academic told The Cut how ‘She identified and clung to and mimicked and performed what I would say are the worst stereotypes about black women, which is the trope of the aggressive black woman. That was her demeanor: very aggressive, very confrontational… She would go as far as to call our authenticity as black women into question if we weren’t from the “hood,” calling into question our commitment to the “struggle”.’
Another academic said how ‘she also made life difficult for a lot of Black and Latinx scholars... During the deception, she made other scholars feel that they were not Black or Latina enough. She was policing Blackness.’
After her exposure Krug wrote a self-denouncing essay called ‘The Truth, and the Anti-Black Violence of My Lies’ in which she confessed: ‘You absolutely should cancel me, and I absolutely cancel myself.’
Krug had not committed any actual violence, but she had taken funding from a programme set up to help ‘marginalized scholars’ ie those from certain races. Her income in part depended on her assumed racial identity, but then was that her fault or just a twisted system that valued blood over scholarship? As Helen Lewis wrote for The Atlantic, ‘the work was well regarded. The white, Jewish Jessica Krug could have had an academic career. What she would not have had was moral authority.’
Moral authority could not come from intellectual brilliance, nor wisdom or personal conduct; it could only derive from lived experience and in particular from suffering. Lewis called it ‘social Munchausen syndrome’, faking social injuries in the way a Munchausen sufferer fakes illness. ‘It was not enough to feel the pain of marginalized groups; they had to be part of them, too.’
Krug was denounced by other academics, among them C.V. Vitolo-Haddad, a black/Cuban graduate student at the University of Wisconsin, who accused her of ‘performing blackface’ and of being a ‘Kansas cracker’. And you’ll never guess what happened next! Yes, Vitolo-Haddad (pronouns: they/them) inevitably also turned out to be white, and it was reported that ‘C.V. has confirmed that they are Italian’.
Vitolo-Haddad, too, had engaged in race policing, telling others that they weren’t ‘black enough’ and on one occasion bringing herbs into class to ‘cleanse the space of whiteness’. As with Krug, the tale feels like a satire if today’s prevailing ideas were allowed to be satirised.
Then there was Satchuel Cole, a prominent local LGBT BLM activist in Indiana who confessed, in the demented language of progressive activism, that ‘I have taken up space as a Black person while knowing I am white. I have asked for support and energy as a Black person.’ Or Kelly Kean Sharp, professor of African American studies at Furman University in Greenville, South Carolina, a ‘Chicana’ woman and ‘Latinx faculty advocate’.
One of the strange things to outsiders is how many of the ‘indigenous’ or ‘Latinx’ or ‘Black’ experts are quite clearly, obviously white, their disguises as feeble as Clark Kent’s glasses. Yet we live in an atmosphere of such heavily-laden taboos about race, sex and sexuality, where perceived identity is sacred and unquestionable, that it’s impolite to question it even when it’s clearly deluded or fraudulent.
The most famous case, of course, is Rachel Dolezal, who had spent many years masquerading as a black woman before her exposure. Dolezal was at least empowered by her faith in a way, able to use its theology to defend herself. ‘I'm more black than I am white,’ she said: ‘That's the accurate answer from my truth.’ On another occasion she declared that ‘race didn’t create racism. Racism creates race.’ And so, if race was no more than a fiction created by an unjust society, where was her lie?
Dolezal’s exposure had come curiously soon after Bruce Jenner’s famous transition, a strange moment where the media in uniformity had instructed the public to celebrate this stunning and beautiful woman if they knew what was best for them. Changing sex – perhaps the most dimorphic and clear-cut division in biology, even if there are a tiny number of individuals who fit neither category – was simply a matter of personal will, while moving across the fuzzy and often ambiguous categories of race was a crime against nature.
Unlike many activists in the world of identity politics, who often have highly disagreeable temperaments or even personality disorders, Dolezal was very popular with students and, as is obvious from her second career as a Cameo star, very affable. But she did, from an early age, have an uncomfortable relationship with who she was, and even while drawing crayons as a child had made herself far darker.
Dolezal clearly wanted to be black; today she has mixed-race children, and goes by the name Nkechi Amare Diallo. A reasonable person might think ‘good for her’, and yet at the time the response was merciless. What angered many was that, as Slate’s Jamelle Bouie argued, people like Dolezal were ‘adopting the culture without carrying the burdens’. Others compared it to men who pretended to be war veterans – ‘Walts’ who stole others’ valour with fake medals and tales of storming the Iranian embassy.
These are the high-profile cases but the practice may be widespread, with one study claiming that more than a third of white students applying to colleges in the US now falsely claim to be a racial minority – the vast majority of those who got accepted believing that lying had helped them. Curiously men are far more likely to lie on applications, by a factor of three to one.
This might somewhat undermine the argument that America is some uniquely-sinful racial hell; there weren’t that many people masquerading as Jews in Russia under the tsars, or Helots in Sparta. The counter-argument is that many people pretend to be victims of fires in order to claim insurance, but that’s not to say that fires don’t cause misery.
Yet it is certainly true that in some areas there is more demand for minority figures than supply. Academia suffers from the same paradoxical problem that most progressive-dominated social milieus do: as a rule, things that tend to interest liberals, whether it’s new atheism, veganism, yoga or ‘interrogating’ texts and reading the works of famous French paedophiles, tend to be heavily white, because liberals are the whitest of white people.
No one in finance would need to fake their race, because there is both far more supply – the City is much more diverse than the West End – but also less demand, because no one is interested in your personal identity where money is at stake.
Certainly, evidence suggests that people are happy to change race if the incentives are in place. One study of 14 African states showed that, when a member of one ethnic group becomes president, it leads to an increase in people identifying with that group, since ‘citizens [who] perceive more ethnic favoritism see higher levels of ethnic switching.’ Plenty of white Americans perceive the same thing.
But there is also the spiritual void of whiteness and the quest for the authentic. Whiteness is evil and oppressive, a message hammered home repeatedly by cultural gatekeepers in films, television, academia and commentary. But whiteness is also boring.
In the TV series The Looming Tower, which charts the build-up to 9/11 and so the conflict between east and west, one episode contrasts the lifeless family meal of the white FBI agent John O’Neill and that of his Lebanese-American colleague Ali Soufan; the one showing a below-replacement level nuclear family sitting in stulted silence as they eat some flavourless meat-and-potato dish, the couple on the verge of divorce; the other warmth and colour and music, with various aunts and cousins and others whose familial relationship English doesn’t even have a word for, together laughing and dancing, in between delicious bites of falafel and flatbread.
Due to a strange mixture of guilt and narcissism, the result of centuries of dominance, white people have come to think of themselves as default humans lacking authenticity and culture. Many are desperate to escape.
Christopher Caldwell wrote in Age of Entitlement that ‘many whites… had acquired a burning regret that they were not black… In the prevailing culture, whiteness was a lower spiritual state, associated with moral unfitness and shame, and it was hereditary. Whiteness was a “bloody heirloom,” as [Ta-Nehisi] Coates wrote. Even if they sincerely believed there was no such thing as inherited race, white people seemed also to believe they were at risk of inheriting racism, and scrambled to separate not just themselves but their families, their bloodlines, from any taint of it.’
That is why so many are reverse passing, or ‘race-shifting’, a term only now vaguely coming into existence. Indeed, one of the many strange arguments in White Fragility, the bestselling work of polemical scolding that became the Little Red Book of HR departments last year, comes when Robin Di Angelo points out that while there is a concept of ‘passing’, there is ‘no corresponding term for the ability to pass as a person of colour.’ For Di Angelo, ‘this highlights the fact that, in a racist society, the desired direction is always towards whiteness and away from being perceived as a person of colour.’
That’s quite clearly untrue, and maybe there is no term yet for reverse-passing only because it is such a taboo subject and societies find it hard to articulate concepts that go against the grain of ruling class prejudice. Perhaps it reveals too much about the way white liberals feel towards people of colour, an obsession which now borders on a fetish.