Meet the ‘race fakers’ — and the people tracking them down

When Rachel Dolezal was revealed to be white in 2015, it seemed like she was an isolated — and bizarre — case. But now Dolezal has a podcast, ‘transracialism’ has a following, and the ‘Alleged Pretendians List’ is revealing fake Natives everywhere from Hollywood to academia. Holly Baxter reports

Friday 28 April 2023 14:39 BST
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“Welcome to Peripheries. I am Rachel Dolezal, your host,” begins the first episode of the podcast. “So today I’m going to share with you a letter I received from someone I’m going to called Afina. She writes: Dear Mrs Dolezal, though we have never met, I felt the need to reach out and apologize for the way our society has treated the question of race and has attacked your character.”

The letter goes on to describe a complex upbringing from the perspective of a first-generation American raised by Arab parents. Why do her friends of Moroccan or Egyptian descent, she asks, not count as “African American” on federal forms? What is she supposed to say if she’s asked whether she’s Black or white, with no added information allowed? “Like I said, I just wanted to reach out and extend my empathy. Identity is a troubling question and it’s even further complicated when it’s highlighted in such a public forum,” Afina’s letter concludes. “You will certainly be in my thoughts. I genuinely hope that you will continue to fight for justice.”

What is the justice that Rachel Dolezal, years after her very public outing as a white person masquerading as a Black one, hopes to achieve? Much of the anger surrounding her outing was not so much personal as focused on her professional life: the fact that she was working as a professor of Africana studies at a prestigious university, for instance, and that she had previously headed up a chapter of the NAACP. But the anger was compounded by the fact she has steadfastly refused to apologize since being outed. In fact, she has doubled down.

In a 2019 Netflix documentary, The Rachel Divide —four years after she’d been outed by her family —Dolezal described herself as “unapologetically Black”. Her sons expressed sadness that she had been held to account. The documentary provided some evidence for why Dolezal might have chosen to identify so strongly with a community that is not her own — she grew up with a number of adopted Black siblings, while her own biological family largely rejected her; she found positive reinforcement and camaraderie while advocating for Black people in her former home of Spokane, Washington — but the inconvenient truth was that she hurt a lot of people by masquerading as something she was not. Real Black people lost out on heading up that chapter of the NAACP or teaching on “the Black woman’s experience” at Eastern Washington University. They want her to be able to see that. Defiant, Dolezal continues to respond that she is a real Black person, too.

In the second episode of Peripheries, Dolezal discusses positions “transracialism” as a revolutionary new social justice movement. “You know, for kids we say: It’s okay to be different, think for yourself, be free, don’t let anybody bully you, be yourself, follow your heart,” she says. “We don’t tell kids, like, follow your body. We say follow your heart, right? And then, when kids become adults, it seems like on social media and just in society, we kind of cheer on the bullies and insist that everybody has to conform to categories and boxes or face this cancel culture or social punishment, jokes, shaming and that kind of thing. And I think that as a society and a human race, we really need to kind of decide: Which one is it? Are we going to cheer on the unique individuals who dare not to fit into a mold and are going to pioneer their own path or are we going to cheer on the bullies who punish them for deviating from what others think they should be?”

It’s clear that Dolezal sees herself as one of those persecuted pioneers. Peripheries has a Patreon with multiple levels of subscribership, and the rewards for signing up include receiving an “exclusive Peripheries mug, with logo painted by Rachel Dolezal” and a printed poster of one of Dolezal’s drawings for the podcast. So far, there are only 11 subscribers, contributing just $88 per month to her bank account. Despite her fame (or perhaps notoriety), it’s clear hers is not a majority view.

In episode nine of Peripheries, Dolezal makes mention of White Girl Within, a controversial book by the Black academic Ronnie Gladden who identifies as a transgender woman and “transracially” white. On Gladden’s website, the book is described as telling the true-to-life and improbable story of a black man named Ronnie who is struggling with an internalized (and nameless) ‘White Girl’ identity,” later adding that “the nuanced tapestry of the manuscript is firmly and consistently centered on this fundamental question: What will it take for Ronnie, the Black man, to transition to better approximate and present his repressed white female identity?” Dolezal describes Gladden’s work as something that “encourages us to expand our concept of acceptance and inclusion.” Others feel, quite simply, that Gladden is faking it all for attention.

Recent history is littered with people who have been outed as “race fakers”. Some of them were outed by their own family — such as Native American icon Sacheen Littlefeather, whose sisters outed her as white after her death; or Muslim activist Raquel Saraswati, born Rachel Seidel, whose mother told The Intercept that her daughter is white rather than Arab, South Asian or Latin American, as she variously claimed — and others were outed by groups or organizations. A number of political reporters and publications were able to establish fairly quickly that Republican representative George Santos is not actually Jewish, for instance (Santos has since tried to walk back his claims and says he is “Jew-ish”, which is also under question.) And it was the Native American-run organization Tribal Alliance Against Frauds that recently outed the author Erika Wurth, the Queens University professor Robert Lovelace, and the academic Sami Chen. Their methods include complex genealogical investigation conducted mostly by tribal volunteers. In Wurth’s case, that included the construction of a family tree going back six generations.

Jacqueline Keeler is a Native American journalist who has been helping to expose “Pretendians” since 2015. Indeed, she was the reporter who Sacheen Littlefeather’s sisters contacted after her death to refute Littlefeather’s claims about a Native identity. In 2021, Keeler released the “Alleged Pretendians List”: a Google doc of people who are either suspected or proven to have passed themselves off fraudulently as Native. Everyone included has publicly claimed in interviews, books or in Congress that they are Native American. And the list is not without its controversies. “Rather than raising her people or doing anything useful she is engaging in toxic identity politics in which many real Natives are caught in the crossfire,” wrote one poster on the Native American subreddit. “I am just confused about her motivations for putting out a hit list for supposed ‘Pretendians’,” another concurred. “…Identity is nothing if not super complicated. Her work seems to be very divisive and very hurtful to a lot of innocent people.”

Criticism of Keeler’s work always takes a similar view: “Pretendianism” isn’t a pervasive problem, surely, so why laser-focus on it so much? Surely it’s not worth all the negativity? On a Zoom call from her home, Keeler says that she herself started out assuming the same thing. She was asked to write a couple of articles for The Daily Beast in 2015, she says, and “frankly, before that, I didn’t think it was much of an issue. The way I understood it, there was occasionally a Pretendian who would pop up every 20 years, and that would be a problem. But I didn’t realize it was so extensive, so pervasive. And that’s why I released the Alleged Pretendians List — to kind of just show how the landscape is populated by fraud and also how they became gatekeepers.”

Gatekeeping is a term that comes up again and again when you talk about racial identity; in The Rachel Divide, Rachel Dolezal asks: “Who are the gatekeepers of Blackness?” Others within and without the Native community claim that gatekeeping is a useless pursuit, and that if people want to embrace Lakota or Cherokee culture because they recently found out they have a great-grandparent who comes from that tribe, it essentially harms nobody. Keeler disagrees. Her work is important, she says, because too many Pretendians seek to become gatekeepers themselves, “particularly leading Native departments in universities, deciding what grad students can study and what they cannot study, and who gets ahead and who doesn’t.”

“It was really interviewing Native professors” that convinced her of this, she says. She would often be writing a completely separate story for a newspaper and would contact such academics for their professional opinion. But then, during the conversation, they’d tell her a tale that became familiar: “They would tell me: By the way, my department has just hired a Pretendian fraud, and we tried to stop it but the administration wouldn’t listen to us. And in fact, one professor told me that he was told by his dean that because he had questioned a Pretendian — just asking them very mild questions, like, ‘Oh, so who’s your family? What community are you from?’ — which is normal, you want to connect, but no, that’s very intimidating to frauds — he was told he was racist. And so he was told by the dean of a major university in the Midwest that he was not fit to lead a Native Studies department because he was racist against white-presenting Native people.” In other instances, Pretendians in college departments became outright sinister when questioned. “Another professor, in the Great Plains region, she was actually threatened physically by a Pretendian who would carry a knife around the department… She basically stopped teaching in person because of the violent threats.”

Keeler maintains that for every person hurt by their inclusion on her list, there are hundreds of Native Americans put at a disadvantage by frauds and con artists pushing them out of their rightful places. Pretendians claim scholarships intended for true Natives, rise through the ranks of academic institutions, and lead conversations about subjects they don’t understand in Hollywood and politics. “The main issue is that as long as frauds are speaking for us, our voices are not heard,” she says. “It also messes with the data. Like, if everyone can self-identify — and the US census actually relies on self-identification — it’s hard to get good data on how Native people are really doing. Because it’s all mixed in with all these people who are self-identifying.”

She first realized this was a problem when the Washington Post conducted research around whether Native people found the name of the Washington Redskins offensive. “I looked at the data around the polling, and one of the things that became very clear to me was that it was strange that a huge portion of the respondents were from Arkansas,” Keeler says. “And they were men over 50, like I would say it was like 30 percent of the respondents. And I’m like, well, first of all, Native men have very short lifespans. By the time my dad was 55, he told me he was the only Native man still alive from his high school class. So you wouldn’t have a randomized sample of Native people in the country that would include 30 percent men over 50. I mean, it’d be more like if it was representative, truly, it would be like 2 percent.”

Additionally, Keeler knew that Arkansas was one of the “removal states”, where Native Americans were driven out en masse and where numbers are incredibly low. It didn’t make any sense that the random telephone polling done by the newspaper would have found so many people of Native descent. “What does appear was happening is that they relied on self-identification when they did the phone calls for the survey. And basically, you know, some white guy in Arkansas is like: Well, I like the Redskins. I’m gonna put my thumb on the scale and I’m gonna say I’m Indian. I think I have Indian ancestry, so I’m gonna answer the question, you know?”

Skewed samples like these are irritating, says Keeler, but they pale in comparison to what other Pretendians can end up damaging through their willful ignorance or fraud. She knows of at least one instance where someone presented themselves as Native to enter an experimental medical research study for cancer, without thinking about how that could affect the data on cancer outcomes for Native Americans for future generations. That, Keeler adds, is in her opinion “basically criminal”.

And then there are the “box-checkers”, the people who claim scholarships and bursaries intended for disadvantaged Native students. Those people might never rise through the ranks and become prominent professors in Native American Studies, she says, but they still vastly outnumber the small amount of genuinely Native people left in the US and they drain resources not meant for them. “And you have to understand the Native community is so poor,” Keeler adds. “If one of our family members has a PhD and can make a six-figure salary, that helps the entire family on the reservation, you know? My parents were professionals living off the reservation but if my grandparents needed a new windmill to feed their cattle, we all had to chip in $5,000 to make that happen. So these tentpole positions are crucial in helping to lift Native families out of poverty. But then you deny them those positions because Pretendians are holding their space, right? And it creates a situation of intimidation and further marginalization and impoverishment of Native people.”

Keeler intends to continue her work — which she sometimes does with the aid of the Tribal Alliance Against Frauds — because she sees no sign that the Pretendian wave is abating. She mentions fake tribes populated entirely by white people who have gone so far as to claim the remains of Native ancestors who have nothing to do with them. She cites New York Times op-eds advising Deb Haaland, the Native American secretary of the interior, on what to do next in Joe Biden’s administration — written by a Pretendian. She knows of celebrities whose Native ancestry has been investigated by tribal genealogists and Mexican genealogists, and who have been shown to be entirely Mexican.

Keeler accepts that some people, especially adoptees, might have made genuine mistakes about their own identities. But, when she contacts them to let them know they’re not the Natives they think they are, they often double down, Dolezal-style. Once, she showed a woman genealogical charts and immigration papers going back for generations that proved her family came over to the US from Ireland in the early 1900s. The woman responded that the papers must have all been a clever ruse by her family to avoid racism by presenting themselves as Irish. She still claims that she is Native to this day. What causes such behavior, I ask? Keeler shakes her head. She says she can only speculate, and that it seems like a “personality disorder, really akin to narcissism”.

For Keeler, outing Pretendians is a necessary part of a wider crusade for racial justice. “These are our homelands that are under occupation by the most powerful government in the world,” she says. “And so we have things that we want to work on and to talk about to the government. And we don’t need a Pretendian going and speaking for us at a Congressional hearing. We need real Native people to do these things because we are the only ones that have an actual stake in the game, in the outcomes.”

She adds that she doesn’t expect full-blooded purity from anyone; she only expects honesty. Keeler herself is “not a typical Navajo”: Her paternal grandmother is of mixed ancestry, whereas 90 percent of Navajo are full-blooded Native. “I don’t present my dad’s mom as a full-blooded Lakota traditional,” she says. “I represent her for what she was — an Episcopalian Dakota church lady. I try to be accurate about myself.” She smiles a somewhat strained smile. “And that’s all I ask of other people.”

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