It Probably Isn't A Good Sign That This Keeps Happening
What we (don't) talk about when another White person is caught trying to pull off a racial hoax
So many people are registering for Barnraisers fall cohorts! It’s very exciting! But there’s also more time if you haven’t yet. Everything you need to know (including the understandable question “what are you talking about, Garrett?” can be found here).
This might just be me, but the end of the year/beginning of the year is a relatively slow period in terms of folks supporting this work (which you can do either by subscribing to The White Pages or donating to Barnraisers). That’s completely understandable— this was a really expensive holiday season for so many of us. If, however, this project is one you value and you are in a financial position to toss in for a subscription (either for you or a donated one- the latter of which helps me to be able to be generous about comping subscriptions), know that it is profoundly appreciated.
This is coming later in the day than I’d like; thanks for your patience. I was sick this weekend (something flu-ish that isn’t Covid; you know the drill) and though I’m through the worst of it (and I’m tired enough of being in bed that I legitimately wanted to write), I’m still pretty sluggish. Shout out to everybody else fighting something right now.
UPDATE: After finishing this essay, I discovered that Allure had just published an interview with the very famous (and very White) pop star Gwen Stefani, where she repeatedly claims to be Japanese because she loves Japanese culture so much. My commentary on that story: Gwen, truly, you didn’t need to prove this essay’s thesis!
It was so easy to make fun of Rachel Dolezal. You remember Rachel, right? We don’t forget our shared pariahs. She was, of course, the White woman from rural Montana who built her career by pretending to be Black. Her multi-year public hoax and/or private delusion was revealed in 2015. There were so many jokes! Jokes about her hair and her spray tan. Jokes about her clumsy interviews, where she stumbled over what should have been simple questions about her parents’ racial identity. Joke about her claims to be “transracial,” which of course is a made up thing that does not exist. Jokes about the Spokane of it all— of course she had been able to pull off the con in such an overwhelmingly White place.
Back in 2015, Dolezal mockery was a rare ecumenical sport. For conservatives, she was a particularly wacky example of batty liberal extremism. She wasn’t the exception that proved the rule, but the exception that somehow was the rule. If she was lying about transracialism, then the logic went, then all those transgender people must also be lying. For liberals, she was a clear example of a White person who had Made A Mistake, and goodness knows that we love our collective sin-eaters. For White social justice acolytes, it was clear what she had done wrong, which makes for terrific chest pouting and grand statement making. For people of color, she was a cartoon, one only a few steps beyond the thirsty cultural appropriation that, well, a whole lot of us White people dabble in whenever our favorite rapper says that word we’re not supposed to say.
The jokes were easy. Everybody could agree. Dolezal was in the wrong. We were all in the right for noticing she was in the wrong.
She wasn’t the first, though. There have been a steady stream of race liars throughout American history, each one a wild story. There was the abolitionist Martha Griffith Browne, who published the Autobiography of a Female Slave in 1857, which would have been a powerful book if not for the fact that it was made up— Browne was a White former slave-owner, not a Black former slave. There was Mezz Mezzrow, a cool cat jazz musician and prodigious marijuana trafficker who claimed to have evolved so far from his Midwestern Jewish roots that he had become, in his words, a “voluntary Negro.” Far out, Mezz! And of course, there was former Klan member and George Wallace speechwriter Asa Earl Carter, whose faux-autobiography about growing up Cherokee— the Education of Little Tree— fooled millions (even Oprah!) and was adapted into a movie. What did Little Tree learn? The same thing millions of others of White people have learned over the years… that we can all be Cherokee if we just claim it hard enough.
The trend hasn’t ended with Dolezal either. Over the past couple of years, Madison, Wisconsin— a place so central to American Whiteness that it has single-handedly kept House of Pain’s legacy alive— has been America’s undisputed capitol for White people lying about their race.It was in Madison that Jessica Krug-- a White woman from an affluent Kansas family-- first started referring to herself as a person of color (she would eventually identify as “Jess La Bombalera,” the Bronx-born child of a drug-addicted, physically abusive Puerto Rican mother, which should win an award for the most tired and dangerous cultural stereotypes packed into a single fib). Krug’s deception was unearthed in 2020, the same year that the Black Co-President of UW-Madison’s formidable Teacher’s Assistant Association-- CV Vitolo-Haddad-- was revealed to actually not be Black at all but Italian American.
Last week, another well-known Madison activist, nibiiwakamigkwe— who claimed to be Two-Spirit, Métis, Oneida, Anishinaabe, Haudenosaunee, Cuban and Jewish— was outed as a White person from a Milwaukee exurb named Kay LeClaire. In the few years that LeClaire identified as nibiiwakamigkwe, they co-founded a Queer Indigenous tattoo and art studio, received multiple civic and campus grants, were featured in a number of publications and launched a successful campaign to get a music venue called The Winnebago to change its name. In an editorial after the campaign had concluded, LeClaire (as nibiiwakamigkwe) wrote accusingly about how the name change had only come about “in response to their anger and the potential loss of white people’s money rather than misrepresentation of and education from Indigenous peoples” adding, “once again, white folks’ emotions, labor, and intentions carry more weight than ours.”
LeClaire was correct about that part at least. White emotions, labors and intentions do carry more weight. We do generally get what we want, in just about any setting and scenario. And usually, what we want is fairly predictable— we want to maintain power. If there’s a line, we want to be at the front of it. If there’s a need for change or sacrifice, we’d like to avoid it, thank you very much.
So why is it that one of the things we consistently and frequently want is to run from Whiteness?
As I write this, the most popular movie worldwide is the second installment in a blockbuster series about how (mostly White) humans go to another planet, meet an Indigenous tribe of tall blue aliens, and do a whole lot of murdering and colonizing.The hero of those films is a White guy who first pretends to be a tall blue alien for selfish purposes but then falls in love (with both their culture and the Chief’s daughter) and-- through the magic of cinema-- literally becomes a blue alien before saving his new tribe from destruction. While virtually all the other humans are craven, money-grubbing murderers, by abandoning his race/species, our hero’s sins are cleansed and he gets to ride on flying dragons and super cool dolphins, commune with his new species’ benevolent tree Goddess, and even make love using his new tail and eventually become the patriarch of a tall, blue family! That's even further out than my man Mezz Mezzrow ever went. Our hero lives the dream, pulling off the transition from Whiteness and never having to issue a desultory apology or resign from his position with the TA Association.
Meanwhile, the most popular television program in the U.S. is a show about a very particular (imagined) version of the American West where both a fictional tribe and intensely brooding White ranchers are equally threatened by Californian developers.At one point in that show’s third season, a Native character who has been established as one of that program’s voices of Authentic Indigenous Wisdom (she teaches an anti-colonial American History course at the local university) has a heart-to-heart with her father-in-law, the show’s Rugged White Cowboy Protagonist. Reflecting on how hard the rancher has had to fight to keep his land, the theoretically radical Professor offers him the ultimate absolution for his various White sins.
“When this land belonged to my people a hundred and fifty years ago, children were stolen, men were killed, families herded away like cattle, and nothin's changed except you're the Indian now.”
Those are two immensely honest pop culture institutions right there. The ultimate goal of both isn’t to oppose colonization, land theft and genocide— be it on a fictional planet or in the valleys of Big Sky Country. The goal isn’t to have empathy for and to support the cause of communities who’ve borne the brunt of colonialism and White supremacy. It’s to eventually be either so empathetic or put-upon yourself that you literally become them.
I understand this impulse. I really do. Obviously, its a close cousin to trends I’ve covered in previous issues— cultural appropriation, the invention of “Black friends,” the desperate attempt to claim identity markers that others may view as being more interesting or sympathetic than generic Whiteness. The same impulse that leads us to cheer on James Cameron’s Avatar protagonist when he “goes Native” or to nod knowingly when Yellowstone’s Indigenous characters offer their White rancher neighbors their begrudging respect also leads millions of White people to seek absolution in our love of Lizzo and Beyoncé or our ability to order food “Thai spicy” or our claim that our great great grandma was a real Cherokee princess, actually.
It’s an impulse borne of understandable guilt. It is the ache of a phantom limb that remembers, however unconsciously, that we too one had a shared ethnic identity, but that our ancestors traded some or all of it for assimilation and a few notches up on the racial caste system. It is our jealousy of communities of color or Indigenous nations for their (real or perceived) social solidarity. It is so many things, all of them understandable, but none of them necessarily helpful politically.
I learned about Kay LeClaire and her identity deception from an article in Madison365, a publication focused on that city’s communities of color. The article stood out from others I’ve read about Dolezal or Krug or other racial imposters, in that it gave particular voice to Indigenous Madisonians who were impacted by LeClaire’s lies. There’s a lot of hurt in their quotes, understandably so. Beyond the individual betrayal, White people who invent Indigenous identities for themselves further muck up an incredibly complicated evolving conversation within Native communities about what constitutes Native identity and how to move past problematic and colonialist blood quantum systems. There are layers of hurt, anger and betrayal here.
There’s also deep insight, not just as to why LeClaire might have perpetuated her hoax, but why a town like Madison— an archetypal bastion of alternatingly smug and guilt-ridden White progressivism— keeps falling for deceptions like hers. One of the article’s most powerful lines comes from Kristi Goforth, a Sault Chippewa politician in the Madison area who had mentored LeClaire.
“There’s this appetite in Madison to just really want (diversity) and want to believe it so badly,” she said. “It’s like a craving for it. We’re craving culture here. And so then when someone like Kay comes forward, dressed as she did, and, you know, really being a loud voice for Native issues, it was fully consumed.”
This is what we collectively missed when we all just mocked Rachel Dolezal seven years ago. Race imposters aren’t as anomalous as we like to believe, because whenever they pop up, they have a willing White audience desperate for a Black, Brown or Indigenous truth teller who talks directly to us, who berates our racism and privilege, but who also has a seemingly endless well of energy for us and our institutions. We want somebody who will tell us we’re wrong but who keeps showing up at our White events and applying for our White grants and maybe, just maybe, befriending our White selves.
Who better to square that circle for us than somebody who has lived a life of unrestricted access to White institutions, power and social dynamics? Their specific grift is in pretending to be somebody they’re not. Our collective grift, though, is in hoping that if we just attach ourselves to a wise Black, Brown or Indigenous activist— be they real or fabricated— we too may be delivered onto a salvation beyond Whiteness. It’s a symbiotic relationship, one that serves a wide variety of White emotions, but that has no positive impact on the world. It would be much more helpful if we all were willing to say “well, we’re White, and we feel all sorts of ways about it, but how can we be useful?” But so often— when White people are thinking racially— efficacy or helpfulness isn’t at the forefront of our mind. We just want to make a bad feeling go away so that we can go back to our lives.
Rachel Dolezal couldn’t will herself to be Black, no matter how well she learned how to braid hair or how many African American Studies courses she took. Kay LeClaire couldn’t will themselves to be Anishinaabe, no matter how many times they appeared in public in full regalia. So too can’t any of us outswim the waves (the emptiness, the guilt, the isolation) of Whiteness by ourselves. This boat we’re in may be completely fabricated, it may be built on lies told by silver-tongued imperialists and capitalists, but we’re in it together and we don’t have any hope of turning it around if we keep trying to swim to shore alone.
Song of the week:
I was thinking about choosing a Madison band for the song of the week (justice for Rainer Maria!), but I made that off-hand reference to House of Pain up above and now I can’t stop thinking about everybody’s favorite ‘90s Irish rap lunkheads. House of Pain is fascinating in a broader consideration of racial cosplay because they were Irish Americans from Los Angeles who cosplayed as… Irish Americans from South Boston and New York! That’s worth unpacking, I think! What did or didn’t constitute an unassimilated Irish identity in 1990s America? Anyway, here’s a music video that begins with Denis Leary telling you how to be a real Irish dude.
White Pages Subscriber Discussion Of The Week:
In further preparation for my upcoming article about Yellowstone, I want to hear about how your “home” (or a community you care about) has been depicted in media: What you’ve appreciated about it, what you hate about it, what you’re torn about. I’m particularly curious if any of us have had the experience of “Oh wow, that artist really got my home RIGHT!” (I have, by the way! Which is saying a lot because I come from a place— the American West— which is so often poorly and problematically depicted. I’ll share it tomorrow!) but I’m also here for shared commiseration on all the ways that our homes have been depicted unhelpfully.
That drops tomorrow for paid subscribers (and as always, if you would like to be part of the fun but can’t afford a subscription, just email me at firstname.lastname@example.org).
First off, I’ve lived in Madison so I am allowed to make cheap Madison jokes (and also, that was a benign one!). But seriously, Madison is one of the most fascinating places to study and understand Whiteness. A rich text! Shout out to one of my favorite sociologists of all time, who did study Whiteness in Madison (and yes I’m being coy because they anonymize the city in their research, but trust me, it is fascinating). Also its lakes are lovely, the burger at the Weary Traveler remains great and Badger volleyball and hockey rules.
You have likely heard that there are specific voices in Indigenous communities who have criticized (and even called for a boycott) of Avatar for a number of reasons (lack of Indigenous representation in the cast, some ham-fisted comments about the Lakota that James Cameron made, etc.). Sounds like very valid criticisms, and good reasons to not want anything to do with that movie! I also think that White people loudly saying “well I hate Avatar!” are probably doing more for their social justice ego than anything else (which is OK, I do a lot of things for my social justice ego). If you boycotted Avatar, that’s totally cool. I just hope that it’s not the only political action you plan on taking this year.
Would you like many, many more words on Yellowstone from a guy whose roots and family are in Montana and who avoided watching it for a bunch of years because most Montanans are pretty grumpy about it, but who just binged it in a fever and also read a half dozen Taylor Sheridan profiles? Stay tuned! Oh, and in case it wasn’t clear, it’s me, hi, I’m the guy who watched a bunch of Yellowstone and has a lot of thoughts, it’s me.