What is racial fraud and how is it possible? The answer would be clear enough, perhaps, if race were a biological reality. But the consensus seems to be that race is a social construction, a product of human ingenuity. So why can’t you choose to be any race you want?
Rachel Dolezal, the former president of the Spokane NAACP who identifies as Black despite being born to white parents, clearly believes we are free to choose our racial identity. Her case would seem to expose the limits of thinking of race as a social construction. If races are social rather than biological, some commentators on Dolezal suggest, we are free to make of them what we will; there are no rules. Yet responses to Dolezal tell a different tale. A 2015 Rasmussen survey of 1,000 likely U.S. voters found that 63 percent believed Dolezal was being deceitful in claiming to be Black: she was engaged in a kind of racial fraud.
The subtlest version of racial fraud—the fraud of whiteness itself—is the one we should be most concerned about, for it is by far the most destructive to our polity.
Is it incoherent to believe both that race is a social construct and that racial fraud is possible? In other words, does endorsing the notion of racial fraud require believing races are biological, after all? Literary scholar Walter Benn Michaels makes this sort of argument in his 1994 essay “The No-Drop Rule,” and versions of that idea endure. Michaels’s claim basically amounts to this: in order for a charge of racial fraud to have any normative power—that is, the kind of authority we generally grant to statements about what we should and should not do—it must rely on the claim that race is an essential, biological part of who we are.
But Michaels is wrong: normative significance does not ride on racial essences. In his 2008 essay “Race, Multiculturalism and Democracy,” philosopher Robert Gooding-Williams explains the error. Following Adrian Piper, Gooding-Williams claims that racial classification is the result of being subjected to a practice that counts one as a member of a particular race. According to Gooding-Williams, Michaels’s argument relies on the assumption that for social constructionists, one’s racial identity is determined solely by visual features. But, at least in the United States, racial identification draws on both visual and cognitive criteria: facial characteristics, hair texture, skin color, ancestry. That is why, Gooding-Williams writes, “someone who would not be classified as black on the basis of visual criteria could still be black because Americans’ conventional (though not universal) adherence to the one-drop rule cognitively identifies her as black.” In saying that Dolezal committed racial fraud, you do not have to believe that race is biological. You simply have to think that the practice of racial classification cognitively identifies her as white. In other words, social construction can be ruled-governed without appealing to biological essence.
What does this tell us about debates over racial fraud today? While people like Dolezal, former George Washington University professor Jessica Krug, graduate student CV Vitolo-Haddad, and activist Satchuel Cole dominate the headlines, there are more subtle forms of this phenomenon to which we should pay attention. The most obvious versions are often easiest to denounce, perhaps because they are more easily detected or recognized. But I think the subtlest version—the fraud of whiteness itself—is the one we should be most concerned about, for it is by far the most destructive to our polity. To understand its stakes, we must see how it differs from two other, more familiar types of racial fraud.
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Perhaps the most familiar type of racial fraud amounts to identity theft. A classic example occurs in the 1986 movie Soul Man, in which the character Mark Watson (played by C. Thomas Howell), a white Californian, poses as a Black man in order to get a scholarship from Harvard Law School. To pull it off, Watson takes tanning pills, perms his hair, learns a few cultural references, essentially donning blackface for the sake of personal gain. He attempts to defraud Harvard and others by misrepresenting himself, the white son of a wealthy psychiatrist, as a Black man.
Racial fraud as identity theft seems to be quite clearly what is happening in cases like that of Krug as well. Krug outed herself as a white woman last fall after having claimed various Black identities over the years. She deceived others by misrepresenting herself as something she isn’t, appropriating the identities of North Africans, African Americans, and finally Bronx-based Afro-Latinx. Krug’s posing took place all while building her career as a scholar working on the history of Africa and the African diaspora. Perhaps she believed doing so would boost her credibility as a scholar.
However, personal gain is only one basis for engaging in this kind of identity theft. Another basis is fetishization. Sometimes a person’s admiration for a group of people can result in a kind of conflation where that person no longer recognizes a distinction between themselves and the group. Arguably, this is what may have happened with Dolezal. Before her true parentage was revealed, part of her identification included claiming a Black man as her father, claiming her adopted Black brothers as her sons, wearing hairstyles typically associated with Black women, and tanning her skin to make it darker. Dolezal continues to identify as Black even after being exposed. This suggests a different motivation from that of the personal gain of things like money or social status.
It is the need to protect the ultimate fraud of whiteness that imperils not only the vulnerable other, but everyone.
Perhaps a clearer instance of fetishization is the case of German model Martina Big. Once a blonde-haired, white-skinned German woman, she has since transitioned into a brown-skinned, black-haired “Black” woman. On her website, she says she changed her ethnicity in 2017 to Black and has changed her legal name to Malaika Kubwa. She also notes that she very much likes her “new African look” and will complete the transformation by changing her facial features to “African” and enlarging her buttocks. Big—along with her husband, Michael Eurwen, who has also been injecting Melanotan to darken his skin—expressed plans to move to Kenya to “be with her ‘people’ and learn how to raise a family in the African way.”
Why should we be concerned with racial identity theft? Engaging in racial fraud for personal gain is wrong because it typically cheats members of marginalized groups out of resources intended to redress historic injustices. Racial fraud motivated by fetishization, however, is more complicated. Dolezal, for instance, was certainly wrong for the lies she told in presenting herself as Black. Big, on the other hand, does not appear to have engaged in such behavior. Her actions appear more pathological than diabolical. Big is also an extreme case. Less extreme cases may provoke more debate about what exactly is at issue. Perhaps the mildest form of these cases falls into a second type of fraud—a certain kind of appropriation.
In her book White Negroes (2019), Lauren Michele Jackson thinks through the stakes of cultural appropriation. She makes clear that the “act of cultural transport is not in itself an ethical dilemma. Appropriation can often be a means of social and political repair.” What matters, in her view, is the combination of cultural appropriation with power: white people profiting from the cultural productions of Black people, all the while denying credit to the originators—resulting in the erasure of Black contributions to society. And as Jackson notes, these kinds of appropriations exacerbate and prolong our society’s inequalities.
Instances of these kinds of erasure are quite widespread. In music, Elvis Presley is a vivid illustration; Jackson alerts us to instances of erasure in the culinary world, too. Hattie B’s Hot Chicken, a white-owned restaurant based in Nashville, has become the embodiment of this distinctively Nashville cuisine. But as it turns out, Black-owned restaurants—Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack and Bolton’s Spicy Chicken and Fish—are responsible for its creation and existence. When the mainstream culinary outlets got wind of it, Prince’s and Bolton’s were all but erased from the picture. What makes both of these cases instances of racial fraud is the consuming of the cultural productions of the group coupled with the erasure of that group’s contribution. Apportioning credit to the Elvises and Hattie B’s of the world rests on a fraud, a fraud perpetrated by the erasure of someone else.
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Beyond these two types of racial fraud, however, there is a third type—less often discussed, but perhaps most consequential—that has to do with one’s relationship to one’s own history. By “history” I don’t mean exclusively, or even primarily, a person’s particular history, but more so corporate or social history: the kind of thing a person is a part of with others in virtue of being identified in a particular way. There are narratives that provide a unified sense of the various happenings to a group of people who evolve over time. But the sense of history I have in mind is slightly different. It is the notion of history found in James Baldwin’s essay “Unnameable Objects, Unspeakable Crimes” (1965):
History, as nearly no one seems to know, is not merely something to be read. And it does not refer merely, or even principally, to the past. On the contrary, the great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do. It could scarcely be otherwise, since it is to history that we owe our frames of reference, our identities, and our aspirations.
The presence of this history in our present, its impact on our frames of reference and identity, is crucial to the third type of racial fraud.
There are at least two versions of this type. The first is exemplified by the incident last year in New York City’s Central Park when Amy Cooper, a white woman, called the police on Christian Cooper, an African American man (no relation, despite the common last name), after he asked her to leash her dog. Amy became more and more irate in response to Christian’s insistence that she leash her dog. She became so upset that she called the police and claimed Christian threatened her, making sure to emphasize that he was “an African American man.” Amy signaled the urgency of the situation in her voice, sounding agitated and fearful.
What preexisting ideas and practices did Amy have available to her to make her think her indignation over being told to leash her dog was a violation worthy of police intervention and to lead her to emphasize the perpetrator was an “African American male”? It is the latter thing that is most revealing. Amy’s inclination to point out Christian’s African American maleness drew—consciously or not—on an understanding of the world as one in which African Americans stand in a particular kind of relationship to white people. Christian was out of line, out of place, in calling Amy’s attention to the park’s rules and insisting she follow them. Given the kind of person she is, as well as the kind of person he is, this was especially egregious.
The basis of white identity is a “lie of their history,” a lie used to justify dominating others.
This understanding of the world presumes a natural relationship of ruler to ruled, reminiscent of the one Aristotle describes in his Politics. To be sure, Amy Cooper and many others would likely deny believing anything like this, but her reflex to act this way hints at something present practically, almost like muscle memory. I think that Amy’s actions can possibly be linked to what Baldwin might say is her belief in being white. In “On Being ‘White’ and Other Lies” (1984), Baldwin details the fraud of those who “believe they are white.” In a powerful passage, Baldwin registers a catalog of the effects of white racial fraud:
Because they think they are white, they do not dare confront the ravage and the lie of their history. Because they think they are white, they cannot allow themselves to be tormented by the suspicion that all men are brothers. Because they think they are white, they are looking for, or bombing into existence, stable populations, cheerful natives and cheap labor. Because they think they are white, they believe, as even no child believes, in the dream of safety. Because they think they are white, however vociferous they may be and however multitudinous, they are as speechless as Lot’s wife—looking backward, changed into a pillar of salt.
Baldwin points out that the “price of the ticket” for Europeans immigrating to the North American continent was to become “white.” What this meant, in essence, was leaving behind their history as English or Spanish or German to forge something different. But this newly forged whiteness was so monstrous that it became necessary to misrepresent it as something else—something grander, superior, innocent.
This kind of racial fraud differs from the others in that those perpetrating it do not attempt to pass themselves off as a member of another race or attempt to pass off as their own the cultural traits or mannerisms of another group. Instead, perpetrators of this fraud commit to something so disturbing that it becomes necessary to hide it even from themselves. The basis of their identity is a “lie of their history,” a lie used to justify dominating others. A stark example of this phenomenon is arguably present in our current political context. The election of figures like Donald Trump reflects, at least in part, the desperation of some to hold onto whiteness. It is as Baldwin noted: “Just so does the white community, as a means of keeping itself white, elect, as they imagine, their political (!) representatives. No nation in the world, including England, is represented by so stunning a pantheon of the relentlessly mediocre.”
A second manifestation of this type of fraud is highlighted in Frantz Fanon’s Black Skins, White Masks (1952). Fanon considers the case of an Antillean who spends time in the French metropole getting educated and then returns to his homeland with a new outlook, one that has him looking down on his fellow Antilleans with disgust:
All colonized people—in other words, people in whom an inferiority complex has taken root, whose local cultural originality has been committed to the grave—position themselves in relation to the civilizing language: i.e., the metropolitan culture. The more the colonized has assimilated the cultural values of the metropolis, the more he will have escaped the bush. The more he rejects his blackness and the bush, the whiter he will become.
The fraud in this instance is in the colonized believing the deceptive history of the colonizer. The colonized Antillean who goes to France for a “civilized” education and believes the terrible lies told about him and his descendants has failed to confront his history honestly and has identified himself with a fraudulent identity. Once again, the basis of this racial identity is a lie, and to behave on the basis of that lie is to perpetrate a fraud.
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The pervasiveness of the third type of racial fraud is a grave problem. Addressing it is much more difficult because it is less detectable, even by its perpetrators. It is not just dyed-in-the-wool racists, confident in their superior racial stock, who are racially fraudulent. The good white liberal is also guilty of this kind of fraud. That is, good white liberals also believe they are white. Amy Cooper’s political contributions to Barack Obama, Pete Buttigieg, and John Kerry suggest she identifies politically as a liberal.
While the Krugs, Dolezals, and Vitolo-Haddads attract all of the media attention, the focus on figuring out what motivates their behavior provides a neat scapegoat on which to load all of our anxieties, fears, misgivings, and disdain. Doing this allows us to avoid confronting turbulent histories that become repressed and, in turn, produce fraudulent identities that become the basis for destructive behavior.
Perhaps the fire James Baldwin foresaw in 1963 will be set by those who have had so much practice setting things ablaze.
Our present is full of such instances of destruction, as is our past. Rosewood, a small Black town in northern Florida, was burned out of existence in 1923 all in the service of protecting whiteness. As the story goes, a white woman, Fannie Taylor, was sexually assaulted, allegedly by a Black man. Sarah Carrier, a Black woman employed as a domestic worker by Taylor, remembered things differently. Carrier and her granddaughter were in the back of the house that day, preparing to wash clothes, when they saw a white man—an engineer who worked on the railroad and rumored paramour of Taylor—enter the house. Taylor and her lover apparently got into a heated argument that became physical. Carrier and her granddaughter both heard the altercation and saw him subsequently run from the house. Taylor then made her way into the street, screaming that she had been attacked by a Black man. What ensued was a rampage that resulted in the burning of the town and the lynching of several residents. (Estimates of how many were killed vary, with an official death toll of 8 but claims of up to 200.)
The massacre at Rosewood was made possible by the belief of so many that they were white. The need to protect “the purity of the white woman” from the advances of the ravenous Black man was a pretense used to lynch countless numbers of people. The belief in an identity boasting purity and superiority instigated murderous behavior that has created and sustained various inequalities in our land till this day. As we saw last week, when hundreds of white Trump supporters staged a violent insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, it is the need to protect this fraud at all costs—the ultimate fraud of whiteness—that imperils not only the vulnerable other, but everyone. What happens when reality comes crashing down and the fraudsters realize the scam cannot be maintained? In 1963 Baldwin spoke of the fire to come if America did not heed the warning of the oppressed and turn from its wicked ways. Perhaps the fire Baldwin foresaw will instead be set by those who have had so much practice setting things ablaze.
Editors’ Note: This essay has been updated to clarify Robert Gooding-Williams’s characterization of an argument made by Walter Benn Michaels.