The Ethics Project

Ethics Blog Posts

A Puzzle for Racial Constructivism: “Race Faking” as an Appeal to Moral Authority and Community Inclusion

POSTED ON APRIL 7, 2021 BY SAVANNAH PEARLMAN (ASSOCIATE INSTRUCTOR, INDIANA UNIVERSITY, BLOOMINGTON)

 
Popularized by Charles Mills, Racial Constructivism is now the dominant philosophical theory to explain the central ontological questions about Race — “What is race?” and “If race is ‘real,’ how?”
 
Racial Constructivism argues that a race is a contingent reality, which is socially imposed by our history of demarcating populations by certain characteristics, features, and identities. In treating people as if there were real racial differences, we have made race socially real.
 
In recent years, a growing number of activists and academics have been “exposed” as having “faked” their race. These individuals eschew the white, traditionally privileged racial identity of their birth in order to adopt a new identity, which allows them to present as a person of color—a historically disadvantaged racial identity.
 
On the face of it, these cases pose an interesting puzzle for Racial Constructivism. These individuals succeeded in being socially accepted and treated as a member of a marginalized race,  despite later admitting to being a member of a privileged race who participated in a ruse for morally suspect reasons.
 
For example, Jessica Krug, a George Washington University professor, admitted to creating “a false identity,” portraying herself as a Black academic.
 
CV Vittolo-Haddad, a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, apologized for lying about Cuban roots, and wrongly identifying as Black to take part in activist organizations. They wrote: “When asked if I identify as Black, my answer should have always been 'No.' There were three separate instances I said otherwise... I should have never entered Black organizing spaces.”
 
Similarly, Satchuel Cole (born with the name Jennifer Benton) participated at the highest level of leadership as a Black Lives Matter activist, claiming to be biracial. Cole likewise expressed regret over her deception, as well as for past Facebook posts, which included entries of life events titled “My adult white phase” and “Became Black.”
 
Note that unlike Rachel Dolezal (the former NAACP representative, who was outed as having white parents), all three individuals in the above cases admit to wrong-doing and deception. (This is in contrast to Dolezal, who identifies as transracial.) Setting aside the question of whether or not there can be genuine cases of transracialism, I wish to focus on those cases that (even according to the individuals themselves) are very obviously not genuine in nature.
 
On the one hand, Racial Constructivism offers an explanation for why it is that racial assignments sometimes change according to time, location, and social circumstance. (For instance, the Irish being perceived as non-white prior to their later assimilation). On the other hand, if these three recognize that their co-opting marginalized identities was morally wrong, it seems like a bad result of the view to characterize them as the race they were taken, socially, to be.
 
Mills (2000) considers a number of similar cases in his seminal paper, “‘But What Are You Really?’: The Metaphysics of Race.” In that paper, Mills introduces several scenarios of what he terms “racial transgressors.” Racial transgressors are those who have one or more features that we traditionally use to categorize race in conflict with one another. For instance, someone might have the bodily appearance of one race and yet the culture of another, or the ancestry of one race but the lack of knowledge that they derive from that ancestry.
 
Still, none of Mill’s original scenarios captures the case that I wish to consider here. If we assume Racial Constructivism is correct, and we also stipulate that these activists and academics were both presenting as people of color and succeeded in being treated as people of color by others, it seems rather straightforward that we ought to accept their chosen racial identity as being socially ‘real.’
 
And yet, this is blatantly at odds with all three of our examples’ willingness to admit to wrongdoing. All three expressed regret for falsely identifying themselves and deceiving their way into spaces reserved for marginalized people.
 
The reasoning behind their attempts to forge new racial identities are also suspect. Of those cases popularized in the press, three primary schools of motivational reasoning have emerged, involving (but not limited to) some combination of the following:
 
1) A desire to lay claim to some moral authority provided by one’s status as having experienced some normatively-laden identity phenomenology. (I.E. Speaking as an X…).
 
2) As a matter of opportunist career advancement, where one takes up an identity to self-advantage oneself as a “diverse” hire.
 
3) To gain insider access to an exclusive community, where this community is defined (at least in part) by racial lines.
 
At first blush, either Racial Constructivists must accept the conclusion that a privileged person can in fact take on a marginalized persona for some combination of bad motivational reasons 1)-3) (as long as they exist socially as an X), or they must adapt the theory in some way to avoid this trouble.
 
One compatible solution on behalf of the Racial Constructivist is to point to the social reality of ancestry, if not the biology of that ancestry itself. On this interpretation, merely passing as an X is dwarfed by other social features of our contingent reality. For instance, maybe our social belief that white parents produce white children is sufficient to define what’s wrong with the examples at hand.
 
Still, this brings us right back to the interesting and complex question about what to do when the social criteria that designate race conflict.
 
There is also a concern about epistemic access to the social reality surrounding the biology of the parents in question. For instance, racial transgressors often go through great lengths to bury their relationship to their biological parents, and usually claim others (with the race they hope to appropriate) as their biological parents instead. Both Rachel Dolezal and Satchuel Cole are on record doing exactly this.
 
Does obscuring one’s parentage allow the racial transgressors to succeed in being a marginalized person, in fact, on the Racial Constructivist view? Or are the social facts regarding the biology of their parentage (regardless of who is aware of them) sufficient for the Racial Constructivists to exclude these transgressors as not who they purported to be?
 
Mills ends each of his cases with a giant proverbial question mark, and so I do the same.
 
I have offered a puzzle for Racial Constructivism, and I welcome further discussion of it.

Savannah Pearlman
Associate Instructor
Indiana University, Bloomington
savannah.pearlman@gmail.com

 

Sources:

Guardian staff, "Jessica Krug: white professor who pretended to be Black resigns from university post." The Guardian. Sept. 9, 2020 at: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/sep/09/jessica-krug-professor-resigns-george-washington

Hira Humayun, "University of Wisconsin-Madison grad student admits pretending to be a person of color." CNN. Sept. 17, 2020 at: https://www.cnn.com/2020/09/17/us/wisconsin-grad-student-race-trnd/index.html

Tim Evans and Natalia E. Contreras. "Satchuel Cole, leader in the fight for racial equality in Indianapolis, lied about own race." IndyStar. Sept. 18, 2020 at: https://www.indystar.com/get-access/?return=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.indystar.com%2Fstory%2Fnews%2Finvestigations%2F2020%2F09%2F18%2Findianapolis-activist-satchuel-cole-lied-being-black%2F3486542001%2F

Charles W. Mills, Blackness Visible, "But What Are You Really?" The Metaphysics of Race, Cornell University Press (2015). https://www.degruyter.com/document/doi/10.7591/9781501702952-004/html

Black Indy Live Staff, "Shocking Details Emerge on Indy Activist Who Faked Life as a Black Woman." Black Indy Live. Sept. 15, 2020 at: https://www.blackindylive.com/shocking-details-emerge-on-indy-activist-who-faked-life-as-a-black-woman/ 

Colleen Flaherty, "More White Lies." Inside Higher Ed. Sept. 10, 2020 at: https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2020/09/10/more-allegations-racial-fraud-academe 

Image Credit: Gerd Altmann from Pixabay