Thursday, October 29, 2020

Who are these people? A reflection on the academy and race pretenders

There have been now four academics in the past few weeks who’ve been outed as having spent a significant part of their lives pretending to be Latinx or African American (see links below).  What’s happening here?  Being a person of color in the U.S. evidently had some self-perceived value to these folks.  Now since they didn’t grow up with my family memories or the lessons that my parents taught me, that can’t be the value.  It can’t be memories of backyard barbecues or sitting in Syd’s barbershop listening to stories.  It can’t be going to the AME church with Aunt Ethel and listening to the organist on the B-3 set the undertones to music that would make anyone consider salvation.  These pretenders never had those experiences, so whatever value they got from their charade isn’t from their past.  It has to come from their perception of Blackness or Brownness.

I won’t try to define the complexity of what it means to be a person of color in this country.  I can and did define my experience as an African American male who has been around since the 1950s, but I’m certain that I can’t generalize that to everyone.  But something that I do know is that while often denigrating us, the majority society has often appropriated our external characteristics – clothing trends, music, language, the list is long.  That’s not something new.  The country and western music that’s often popular in places where Black and Brown folks aren’t sometimes welcomed has its roots in African melodies and rhythms.  Many of the foods that are American comfort foods have their origins in Africa and Latin America.  And if it weren’t for Latinx and Black dances, White teens would be shuffling along with some version of the foxtrot.  So maybe these pretenders’ adoptions of racial identity are just extreme cases of cultural appropriation.  That seems unlikely, though, because you can go to a club and dance, or listen to music, or eat food all day and night without changing your identity.  

So why would someone forsake their own identity for another?  It can’t be for the benefits that new identity brings.  It’s not been my experience, as a brown-skinned man, that people are eager to go out of their way to give me preferential treatment.  In fact, I experience the opposite as I have to take precautions that my White counterparts never have to consider.  I recently wrote, for example, that I can’t show any anger in professional circumstances because that gets immediately defined as threatening.  There’s really not a societal status that my brown skin gives me that someone would aspire to having.  There are rich cultural groundings that my race and ethnic heritage give me, but unless you’ve had that background, you have no way of even knowing its value.  So, still, we need to explain the pretenders.

It seems to me that a thread that ties the four recent cases together is that they’re all academics.  Three have earned doctorates and the fourth is in the process of earning hers.  I don’t think that’s accidental.  I’ve spent a good part of my life as an academic, and I’ve watched academics from somewhat of an insider’s perspective.  What I’ve seen is that far too many of them see people of color as exotic objects of study, as people in need of the guidance that an academic can provide, as folks who need the kind pity that their superiors can offer.  Many academics have little connection to communities of color, aside from studying them or attempting to save them as missionaries do.  Communities of color aren’t Aunt Ethel or Cousin Jeannie to them.  These communities are an abstraction, a concept.  It’s in those perspectives that I believe the origins of pretenders’ need to be someone else lies.  It’s within this idealization of people they don’t really understand that someone can look and desire to be “the other.”  I don’t think I can fully understand what internally drives someone to repudiate their own heritage and pretend to be another, but it seems to me that a view that fantasizes whole groups has to precede that decision.  As academics, we’re taught to look for patterns that allow us to categorize and analyze people.  

I can only imagine how these pretenders have idealized the Black or Brown experience.  Remember just how educated they are.  They read histories or novels about the experiences of oppression and pain.  They may even have conducted some formal studies into communities of color, or worked within those communities.  There are also the ones who declaim their activist roots marching for civil rights.  Then they decide that they need to identify with what they see that experience being and emulate it by assuming it.  In their idealized sense of Blackness or Brownness, they perceive that they can mimic it by changing their hairstyle, picking up some linguistic cues, and fabricating a story.  What their education missed, however, is that doing so is abhorrent.  They clearly don’t see how their actions perpetuate stereotypes and caricatures.  The four recent people felt comfortable enough to carry their charade for years.  These aren’t deranged or misguided people as much as they are symptomatic of the larger intent to demote the Black and Brown experience to the margins.

Let’s be clear:  My cultural heritage is not for someone’s adoption.  I understand that people can appreciate and learn from aspects of that culture, just as I can from many cultures.  But no one can pretend themselves into more than an observation of it, anymore than I could eat lutefisk and pretend to be Nordic.  In my culture’s case, because of the many attempts to steal, marginalize, or destroy that culture over centuries, a pretended appropriation is a lot more serious than simply eating a food, changing clothes, or mimicking speech patterns.  It’s actually another attack.  And this one comes from academics who are supposedly among the keepers of knowledge in this society.  

The pretenders are symptoms of a much larger problem of people, academics especially, who maintain a distant and fantasized version of the Black or Brown experience.  Academics who maintain a missionary stance toward communities of color are every bit as offensive and destructive as their 18th century, pith-helmeted counterparts’ invasion of Africa, Asia, and South America.  Moreover, those academics who see communities of color as a petri dish from which to extract lessons about human pathologies are equally offensive.  That perspective identifies communities’ strengths as weakness and misses those strengths because they are different from anticipated norms – norms based on biases and ignorance.

How do people become this blind to people not like them?  In the case of academics, you don’t have to go further for an explanation than how higher education functions.  The current system of higher education is modeled on a Medieval idea of knowledge as a sacrosanct virtue that is held within the academy, only to be accessed by a select few who meet certain standards and, thus, show their worthiness to receive it.  It’s the perfect model of elitism, power and control that lends itself well to people who succeed in it and, therefore, see themselves as unique and above others.  Are all academics that way?  I’d like to think that’s not the case, and there are certainly many of my colleagues in the academy who aren’t.  But the system of higher education rewards elitism that separates academics from the world around them.  So it isn’t surprising that some can develop a savior complex or others see communities of color as objects of study.  It’s not surprising to me that there are people who, for whatever personal reasons, transform that pity and objectification into a desire to be part of those groups they really don’t understand from an insider’s point of view.  If you’re rootless, you look for roots.  

I understand that my charge of elitism may sound a little like the critique that right wing politicians and commentators take when they denounce academics.  But what I’m offering is an assessment that’s more subtle than I’ve heard from the right.  Both my analysis and those I’ve heard from the right concern the elitism within the academy.  But that’s the only place where these ideas converge.  I actually see conservative and progressive academics exhibit the same pathology.  They both live in their closed circles of thought where as soon they establish their reputation, they’re obliged to defend it for the remainder of their careers.  It’s a reification of perspectives, actually, both on the right and the left.  That reification is compounded by the social groups where they interact, where they live, and even what they do with their free time.  Such a culture breeds indifference to the real needs of real people outside of that culture.  It reinforces the separateness of the academy.  

Within the academic cloister are people seeking something else – in the case of the people who assume another cultural identity, they seek to be someone else.  There’s little or no thought of the consequences of those actions or how that theft of cultural identity represents the oppression of generations of forebearers – just as researchers will go into a community to offer an intervention and when the grant funding is done, leave the community as it was prior to the intervention.  These pretenders continue traditions that hearken back to the Tuskegee syphilis experiments or the appropriation of Henrietta Lacks’ cells.  Hyperbole?  I don’t think so because it all comes from the same superiority that allows some to take from others for their own gain.  It’s within the academy that such behavior has been normal, and it’s within the academy that these four pretenders found the germinating seeds of their deception.  

Here are the links to the original articles that sparked this essay: