Some thoughts on white women academics passing themselves off as women of color
2020, it’s been quite the year. One of the minor story lines in this ongoing bizarre-fest are reports of white women academics passing themselves off as women of color. Here are some thoughts on the phenomenon. Since Medium seems to be the medium for reflections and discussion on this, I’m posting it here.
To start, I want to tell about my personal experiences, to give at least some partial sense of the struggle uphill. I am privileged in many respects, and everyone comes with their own experiences, still it’s useful to look at what those experiences might be, even for someone biracial such as me.
I have a white mother and a Malaysian father, and I grew up in Flanders, Belgium, in a very white village. Both my sister and I did well academically, though ours was a working-class family (my father was a bricklayer, my mom a homemaker). In that context, my grandparents (pictured with me on here, on my First Communion) would say such things as (about my sister and me): "Those girls are doing so well in spite of their father being a person of color" [the word she used was "kleurling"]. My grandmother would often speculate that maybe it was the hardiness of hybrids that accounted for our academic successes. I'm just commenting on this not because I bear my grandma any ill will, I loved her dearly and she didn't mean badly. Rather, it's just to show how common and routine such remarks were.
At my small-to-medium-sized village elementary school, there were four kids of color in a total of about 200. There were two Tunisian kids, brother and sister, one black boy who was adopted into a white family, and me (my sister was not yet in school).
One day — I was about eight, in Belgium this was grade three — the principal announced there would be a special intelligence test, just for the four of us, to see if we were in the correct year or perhaps needed extra language classes. Note that none of us was doing badly in academic terms, and in fact the Tunisian girl and I were doing very well. My parents were mortified. My mother came to school with a birth certificate to prove I was in fact born in Belgium and so I did not need to take the test.
I’m not sure what happened, but the test was cancelled for all of us.
I was pretty used to being shoved on the playground with remarks about my glasses or skin color, but such was life and I didn't think much of it.
But one day, early in grade four just after the summer break, a new slide and climbing frame combination was installed on the playground of my school.
I wanted to try it and started climbing it, but one girl (not from my class) said, "I'm sorry, you're not allowed on, only white kids are allowed on here." Her friends didn't say anything to disagree, and a couple of them nodded in agreement.
I said, "I'm sorry, what?"
"You heard me," said this one girl (a known bully) "You're not allowed on, you're not white enough."
I ignored her and just continued climbing, but then, to my surprise, she grabbed my wrist and just pulled me so I fell off, on my back. I was hurt, so I went to see the teacher and told her, pretty much verbatim, what happened.
Then, at the start of school that afternoon after recess, I was called by the principal to see her in her office. I went with some trepidation but hoped that we would have a conversation about a growing number of incidents like these, which I felt were going beyond the shoving-you-because-you're-brown day-to-day incidents.
But my hopes were dashed when the principal said "Why would you tell a lie like this, do you think you're interesting?"
I was not expecting this, but it turned out she didn't believe my testimony and she went on that I shouldn't play the race card, and that I should just stand up for myself rather than find excuses, and nobody likes tattlers. "You people," she concluded, "Should just get a grip." Maybe she was still upset about the intelligence test.
Things went on in this manner, and age 11 last year of primary school, my parents were strongly encouraged to send me to vocational school because it's good to do something technical, like textile, or typing, even all other kids who had grades comparable to mine were encouraged to study Latin and Greek (sorting worked like this in Belgium, at an early age). But fortunately, my parents chose ASO (General Secondary Education) with Modern Languages for me, so I ended up learning English, French, and German rather than Latin and Greek or textiles and typing, and this allowed me to go to university.
Very slowly, the issue of race receded in the background. My sister and I tried to navigate our multi-cultural, multi-racial identity, we overcame the shame of the smell of unfamiliar food in the house when friends came over, but we also learned early on to not draw attention to our different skin color, lest we'd be perceived of trying to use that for advantage.
I am just flagging it to give a fuller picture, of the experiences people of color will have faced before they become academics. There's always this need to push back against lots of assumptions about superior intelligence of white people, and to navigate a sense of identity in a white-majority country.
In the US and many other countries, people of color face also additional problems of structural disadvantage. They attend schools that are underfunded and under-staffed, and have little help and support in applying to college from family or teachers. Added to the prejudice about persons of color and intelligence (which, by the way, mainstream academic journals are still publishing as if it is edgy blue sky thinking), it is a pretty steep uphill battle to become an academic person of color in a majority-white country. In Saint Louis which has extensive racial segregation in living and school districts, I witness how huge the socio-economic disadvantages people of color face here. I have been privileged in many respects if I compare myself to my colleagues of color here in the US.
It is to compensate for such structural inequalities that diversity fellowships and efforts to recruit more people of color into faculty positions can be understood, namely, as leveling a very unequal playing field. Some people have been trying to gain advantage by presenting themselves as people of color. They seem to deem a PoC parent or grandparent as some sort of superpower they can wield to their advantage. A bit like people in Europe used to try to find a fraction of nobility in their family tree, they are seeking fractions of African, Native, or Latin American heritage. They talk about their abuela, though they never had an abuela.
It is under these background conditions that we can properly evaluate the recent cases of white women passing themselves off as women of color in academia, even, disturbingly cases of fake profiles on Twitter of a Hopi scholar who supposedly died of Covid, and of an (unspecified) woman of color in STEM, who prided herself on killing her department's diversity statement. Entirely divorced from any relevant experience, they can basically sock-puppet people of color to say whatever they think is advantageous for them, or whatever scores them points online. If it all doesn’t work out, or if they are confronted with open racists, they can always safely retreat into their white identity again.
By contrast, for people of color in academia there's no safe retreat. This is one's identity — if you do not pass as white, you're going to be dependent on the thoughtfulness of your mostly white colleagues. They can get accolades for their efforts in diversity, while a person of color can be loaded with a lot of invisible service labor and get little recognition. But worst of all, the fake women of color in academia reinforce the notion that it's just so easy for people of color to get jobs and fellowships, because after all they faked their identity to get those very scarce goods.