Change Yourself
September 4, 2020 2:38 AM   Subscribe

How do people disguise or misrepresent themselves as another race or identity and get away with it for so long? NOT looking for racial and identity conversations or discussions on cultural misappropriations or psychological reasons. Rather, I'm curious to know how people can get away with obvious lying, without anyone ratting them out. Is it really that easy to change your identity?

There's a lot of press recently about Jessica Krug misrepresenting herself as black. I'm NOT looking for the why or discussion or context.

Rather, I'm looking for how she has gotten away with this for so long? Did she not have friends who saw her Linkedin profile picture and was like .... what? Did she not have old college friends who would have written an anonymous tip to the press or the university board?

How can you get away with misrepresenting yourself in this day and age of the Internet without being exposed far earlier? Did she disown all her previous friends and community? I mean, her lying would be immediately obvious to anyone who had known her -- can't hide your face.

Anecdotes about people whom you know who have done something similar, links to other case studies are welcomed, or books are welcomed.
posted by moiraine to Grab Bag (33 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
I went into such a Twitter rabbit hole yesterday with this case and I have the same questions you do. I think there are a few things that had to happen for her to have been (kinda, mostly) successful (because I've heard from some colleagues that they never bought her story or/and that they always felt uncomfortable with her racial self-description):

(1) I agree that she must have disowned/made herself very much a lone wolf. One of my acquaintances told a story about how their friendship got blown up, basically because JK made it a very imbalanced friendship.
(2) She also took advantage of the ways structural racism and white supremacy work, because Black and Latinx scholars tend to take peoples' self-identifications (and their stories about them) at face value, because *who would want to give up whiteness*?
(3) In relationship to (2) and (3), I've also read lots of testimonials about how JK would *put down others* for not being *authentically Black or Latinx enough.* In other words, she attacked others' racial identities before she could be attacked or undermined.

I still have *tons* of questions about how she started this charade and when she dug into it... from Twitter timelines, I get the sense that in grad school she hadn't yet assumed Blackness or Latinx identities, so that it was post grad school (first job?) that she did it.

And, sorry, I don't personally know of other stories like this one, but passing as White is a fairly common historical strategy and there are a number of stories [you can just look up "passing as white history" on google and get a number of articles about it; or check out Nella Larsen's fabulous novel, *Passing.*]
posted by correcaminos at 3:18 AM on September 4, 2020 [6 favorites]

People mind their own business and might not see the point, purpose or advantage of 'outing' someone. Someone looking to pose as a different race, would take advantage of that undefined aspect of social convention.

George Harriman (who wrote 'Krazy Kat') was black: certainly by the definition of the times - though he was not particularly dark skinned and kept his hair short and/or under a hat, his birth certificate categorized his as 'colored'. He never took on that 'identity though and when a fellow cartoonist called him "the Greek"he went with that - letting people believe he was of Turkish/Greek/ Southern European heritage. Why he went about it is a different thing than the Ms. Krug - obviously - but after he made the initial lie and said he was 'white,' he mostly left it up to the people around him to come up with a reason for themselves as to why he was darker-skinned. (It really shows how stupid, how thin and... worthless (as a way of defining people) the concept of race is.)
posted by From Bklyn at 3:22 AM on September 4, 2020 [8 favorites]

First, there is an assumption in this question that race is always obvious. It isn't.

In this way, it's exploiting a very polite thing that people do, which is not question self reported identity. It's exploitive of systems that people have worked hard to put into place, to not minimize who someone is, to ask, not assume race.

She could have simply lied to people in her past that she was adopted. I don't know. But, this isn't something that someone would just question. In addition, being adamant someone is lying about race when they aren't would have high social consequences as well, and most people don't want to be in the middle of that fight.
posted by AlexiaSky at 3:27 AM on September 4, 2020 [41 favorites]

I didn't realise that the singer Halsey was Black until I saw it mentioned somewhere online. When you see her with her father who she looks very much like, it becomes clear, but if you just saw a photo of her on her own, especially when she wears her hair longer and straight, you probably wouldn't guess that she is Black.

I personally know a couple of people who are definitely Black but favour their white parent enough that I would assume they were white if I met them in passing and out of the context of their family and community - like, in line at the bank, or whatever. So, when I see someone who presents themselves as Black either through the cultural and contextual spaces they inhabit, even if they are fair with straight hair and European features, I'm not going to question that, because I know actual Black people with Black parents who I have met who are fair with straight or wavy hair and European features. So before you even start to factor in the social factors around politeness, believing people are who they say they are, etc - just at an appearance level, Blackness covers a LOT of ground and the appearance of this woman, in particular, is not out of the realm of possibility of what an actually Black woman could look like, and unless all these people who worked with her or saw her LinkedIn profile knew both of her parents, who would they be to say she didn't decide to 'pass' until she decided not to anymore?
posted by cilantro at 3:31 AM on September 4, 2020 [16 favorites]

Actually, people apparently *did* know or at least strongly suspect she was lying about it -- her outlandish stories of origin about growing up in "El Barrio" didn't add up, and she affected a ridiculous accent and acted bizarrely -- and were questioning her for years. Students and colleagues were aware she was probably being dishonest if several reports I've read are correct. It appears things escalated to the point that someone in her life threatened to "out" her, which is why she preemptively published the mercy-seeking Medium article. I imagine people were on to Rachel Dolezal throughout too.

I guess it's more an issue about *why* people would want to come forward, and why. Why would a colleague or student want to out her and cause strife in their professional lives? What's the incentive? What professional code of conduct was she even violating? I for one cannot imagine reporting anyone for posing as another race to a Graduate Chair or Dean.
posted by shaademaan at 3:48 AM on September 4, 2020 [7 favorites]

I don’t know the specifics of this case, but I’m surprised stuff like this doesn’t happen more often. The “system” is easy to take advantage of, if you could call it taking advantage. There’s a pretty strong taboo against questioning someone else’s racial authenticity. “Not *really* black” is one of the most inflammatory statements you can make about someone. You’d better be 100% certain that the person is faking before even saying something like that publicly. Otherwise, it’ll reflect quite badly on you.

As for people from her past, well, I don’t know all that much about my high school or college acquaintances, either. I know some of them have Ph.D.s, and I even know what some of them study and where they teach. But I don’t know details, and I know very little about their self-presentation. Even close friends, I don’t know how they present themselves to co-workers or friends from other contexts. Just seeing someone on social media and thinking they’re different than when we were in high school isn’t nearly enough to make that sort of allegation, because everyone’s different than they were in high school.
posted by kevinbelt at 4:09 AM on September 4, 2020 [4 favorites]

People are afraid to say something, even if they suspect it, because of the repercussions if they are mistaken.

I mean, her lying would be immediately obvious to anyone who had known her -- can't hide your face.

This strikes me as a problematic perspective, actually. Many Black people are light-skinned and white passing (i.e., they are genuinely what Krug was purporting to be). Krug was lying, and that is abjectly horrible. But I think you should be careful about assuming that this lie should be "immediately obvious," because that is harmful to Black people with complexions similar to Krug's.

Full disclosure: I'm white and still learning about this topic.
posted by shb at 5:56 AM on September 4, 2020 [15 favorites]

I don't know too much about the specifics of the Krug situation, but I think you have to factor in that not everyone maintains social media ties to their previous life, either. You can easily drop an account, get a new email address, start again under a new name that only contains people who know you under your current identity. There are plenty of people I have actively looked for from my past, and they just aren't on social or if they are, they aren't on social under the names and identifying details I know them with.

Then, for old friends, If you were searching social media by name for old friends and saw someone who happened to have the same name as someone you knew as a white girl in Kansas, but her social media styled her as and said she was an afro-latina girl from Brooklyn, you probably wouldn't think 'oh, that's my friend and she's misrepresenting herself', you would think 'funny, there's another Jessica Krug who looks kinda like my old friend Jessica Krug!'
posted by jacquilynne at 6:24 AM on September 4, 2020 [7 favorites]

shb, it's "immediately obvious" specifically in the JK case because her appearances in the photos before and after she claimed a Black identity are completely different. I was specifically referring to her changes in appearance there, please do not misquote me and do not generalise my comment to being offensive to the racially-ambiguous.

For clarification, my question concerns itself with changes in appearances and the lack of confrontation from the people in her past, not solely on racial ambiguity.

Please, no more comments along the lines on "but sometimes people can look like the race that they do not identify with." I 100% agree with and have many personal experiences of (you do not need to POC-splain this to me). And more importantly, that is not the question I am asking.
posted by moiraine at 6:45 AM on September 4, 2020 [1 favorite]

ETA: Sorry, just saw your note. My response appears to be off topic, you can delete it.

Briefly, I'm black in the US (non Latino so I can't speak on that front, slave descended, in my 20s) and I only represent myself. I can't speak for other POC or other black people.

The face comment is basically useless. Blackness in the US is complicated and different than other countries or cultures from what I understand. I don't want to necessarily say it's... Political, but, hm. The societal and cultural significance of the one drop rule absolutely cannot be understated. Look up information and movies about passing to understand this in the other direction. (Here's some stuff I pulled off the first couple links on Google, including a custody case from 10 years ago by Halle Berry, a famous biracial actress that came up in a time where she was just seen as black. Her thoughts on blackness are completely unremarkable in my dad's generation, and they're around the same age.) Simply put, if you are at least partly black in the US, you are considered black by a lot of people above all else.

Things have been changing recently for younger generations on the identity front, but looking at prominent biracial politicians or celebrities like Colin Kaepernick, Meghan Markle, Barack Obama and Kamala Harris to see how quickly they are flattened into "black", for better or for worse. Having black ancestry overrides a lot of things in the US. If we just talk about appearance, Krug and Dolezal's curly hair and a bit of a tan could signal a lot for white people on their own since having kinky (curly) hair and some color was enough to be accused of being Black in racist, broader society.

My own great grandfather, for example, with a white father and a biracial (white and black) mother, still came out with 4b/4c hair that he had to wear under a hat at all times in order to pass at work. This was in the American South, 1910s-1930s. Otherwise he looked like a white dude with a big nose. But just that one feature was enough to jeopardize his livelihood. (Being seen as Jewish would have been just as "bad".) All that being said, if you asked him or his family what he was, he was black and nothing else.

We have a legacy of people who aren't necessarily majority African by genes or heritage but are still black in the US. Folks intermarry or are adopted, yes, but there's people (like my great granddad referenced above, and this isn't even uncommon in my extended family) who are biracial, multiracial, or MGM (people in the US who are mixed race on both sides of their immediate family for at least several generations) that a lot to wouldn't even consider black in first glance. But they'd definitely be offended if you said otherwise. Consider many older generations of prominent black folks like W. E. B. Dubois, Dorothy Dandridge, Josephine Baker, Eartha Kitt, Quincy Jones, etc. and look at their biographies or origin stories. Look at the complicated histories of paper bag tests, divides at historically black colleges or communities based on skin color, organizations like Jack n Jill. There's a lot and it really depends on where you come from even if you are black. Phenotype and genetics are an absolute crap shoot. With the rise of genetic testing like 23 and Me, I've seen friends who are of majority African ancestry that still have 15-25 percent white admixture. Friends who are white with a biracial partner and have kids that come out looking like a relative in the non-white side. People who only grew up with one parent that identify black for various personal reasons, even if they don't "look" it.

The problem in Krug's case has already been touched on. There's a lot of black academics across multiple cultures that clocked her and said so on Twitter, but the complicated intersections of racism, possibly class, and other factors made this a difficult and fractured reality to shatter. I think one of the biggest issues is just that they got shouted down by someone who knew a lot about the language and politics of whatever part of academia she was in - that includes the ignorance or apathy of her white peers, where her caricature of Afro Latino culture may have confirmed to their stereotypes, if they cared enough to have any. I'm sure she knew a lot about the complicated nature of blackness in the US, considering her field and the number of times she changed what culture she supposedly hailed from.
posted by Freeze Peach at 7:14 AM on September 4, 2020 [35 favorites]

Apparently, she’s estranged from her birth family, and she has distanced herself from degrees she earned previous to her PhD (2012).

She also seems to have very consciously lied (as opposed to having deluded herself), which makes it more likely that she was capable of taking practical, purposeful steps to protect her lie. And it sounds to me like she did just that.
posted by rue72 at 7:17 AM on September 4, 2020

[Hi everyone. This is a fraught topic, and it's good that people are trying to be mindful of the larger dynamics around "passing" and the discourse around passing and what one's "real race" is, and how that context was part of the mechanism of Krug's deception. I'm leaving Freeze Peach's detailed comment because I think it's useful to other people than the OP will be wondering about how this happened. BUT going forward in this thread, it sounds like OP's actual question isn't about identifying race from appearance, but rather about old acquaintances recognizing Krug as the same person over time and revealing her history -- so let's please focus on that side of it. Thanks.]
posted by LobsterMitten (staff) at 7:22 AM on September 4, 2020

I mean, her lying would be immediately obvious to anyone who had known her -- can't hide your face.

People who knew Krug in undergrad were surprised to learn that she was later representing herself as Black.

People who knew her as a graduate student report that she was slowly developing a weird, inconsistent back-story -- but it was slow-developing, and there was so many other things going on, and they chose their battles with her, and the battle of "but was your father really from North Africa???" wasn't on that list.

Later, when she's a professor with a published book, other folks in academia long suspected she was lying but didn't want to go through the headache of confronting her. (From the Twitter reactions by people who knew her in the wider circuit of academic conferences and publications, Krug was extremely combative -- if you're a fellow academic on a conference panel or a fellowship, why put yourself through an experience that you absolutely know will be hellish, just based on her widely known reputation, to question her about her origins?)
posted by toast the knowing at 7:56 AM on September 4, 2020 [10 favorites]

I don't know too much about the specifics of the Krug situation, but I think you have to factor in that not everyone maintains social media ties to their previous life, either.

This. Other than immediate family, I'm not in touch with anyone from high school or before -- not because I am trying to hide a fraud, but just because life happens and people move on. So unless someone proactively reached out, I wouldn't know if someone from the past had changed their identity.

And, even if I noticed an article about someone I had known and could see that they had invented a new identity, I might laugh about it, but I wouldn't write a letter to their employer or anything like that.

Lastly, I knew people in both college and grad school who were coming to terms with their identities, including "coming out" (for lack of a better term) publicly as a different racial identity than the one they had previously established. My experience is that people are accepting of this and willing to mostly take people at their word and roll with inconsistencies.
posted by Dip Flash at 8:00 AM on September 4, 2020 [12 favorites]

As the child of a pathological liar, I can attest that there's a big gray area between believing all the untruths you tell, and constant, conscious self-awareness that you are lying. Successful liars tend to operate in that gray area IME.
posted by aspersioncast at 8:14 AM on September 4, 2020 [8 favorites]

[Couple comments deleted. Sorry, the poster has clarified they're not actually asking about the dynamics around racial passing, they're asking something else, so let's please shift the focus, see note above. Thanks.]
posted by LobsterMitten (staff) at 9:00 AM on September 4, 2020

I saw a tweet from someone who knew her from the Chicago social dance scene many years ago, when she was still presenting as white, they even still had her contact info in their phone...

...and they have no idea white Jessica Krug researching bomba dance was now a professor of African studies at GWU/ on twitter as Jess Labomba. It feels like a small world but it's still possible to drop all of your connections and start a separate life, at least for a little while.

One smaller incident from my life: while getting his PhD my husband went through pretty intense cancer treatment. Everyone in his program knew. Then he got a post-doc in another state, a different but related field, and that was all in the past. He could choose who to disclose his lingering disabilities to, and when.
posted by muddgirl at 9:11 AM on September 4, 2020 [2 favorites]

...and back to this particular case, say a current colleague happens to talk to someone from her undergrad... AND Krug comes up as a topic of conversation... AND her race comes up as a topic of conversation... Well, as long as they're not like tracking down her allegedly estranged family, she can always say they were just assuming based on her appearance, or she wasn't comfortable with her heritage at the time, etc. etc.
posted by muddgirl at 9:18 AM on September 4, 2020 [1 favorite]

It is relatively normal in most peoples' lives to have some pivot points where your social circle disintegrates and people scatter to the winds to new lives. No deception or even drama necessary, people just move on. Lots of people use that upheaval to undergo identity shifts - again, nothing nefarious necessarily, just sometimes people grow up a little or decide to be closer to the kind of person they want to be, and that's a good time to do it, when you're not really surrounded by people invested in you staying the way you are, whether that's friends or family or coworkers or whatever. It's sometimes the only way people can escape their old selves (/habits/stale labels/expectations) to be better happier new selves. That's the only way some people can safely come out and live more authentic lives, is by quietly slipping away to another life with more amenable people.

That liminal space is fraught with bad possibilities too. It can be a really dangerous place for someone with depression or other mental health issues to flail without a support system, and I and people like me can tell some real horror stories about sometimes setting off the social bomb ourselves and getting in trouble there. Sometimes people do not make great decisions in that space. That's a place where some people get pulled into cults or conspiracy theories or bad behavior with money or laws, and it is also a really excellent place for con artists to shapeshift into their new arrangements.

I think lots of people pull off serious identity shifts in largely the same way Krug did, it's just that the stakes are generally much MUCH lower. We probably all know of (or are!) all kinds of people who were either the town fuckup or destined for greatness in high school or college who are now...completely not those things. The more you move around, the more ease you'll have making those shifts because they are mandatory as part of the starting-over process.

I don't believe that serious childhood trauma automatically makes you do something like this, but I do believe that people with serious childhood trauma end up with a lot more/harder work to do to build a stable adult life and identity well-distanced from that trauma. Is there more room and instability there to let some terrible decisions get in? I think there is. That doesn't make it okay, but if there is a hole in you where you did not get the care and attention and specialness that children deserve to feel, I can see where people end up craving to be in some kind of distinguished class, whether that's people who pass themselves off as doctors for years or pretend to be dying of cancer or claim some kind of persecution or pretend to be another race that they perceive to be somehow more or better or extra or deserving in some way they crave.

I think that's how most people get there, but again that's a choice that got made; most people who do it tend to invent a specialness that is not actually appropriation, often specifically designed to be vague in order to escape exactly this kind of denouement that is almost inevitable in a modern internet-enabled world.
posted by Lyn Never at 9:39 AM on September 4, 2020 [9 favorites]

There was a city councilmember in Stockton, California in the 1980s who decided at some point during the civil rights movement that he felt that he was black. His white parents were aware of this. It seems like an unusual case, but he apparently wasn't trying to cover it up. I do think even now it's still possible that someone could move, possibly change their last name, and drop old ties so that no one in their new life was aware of their old history.
posted by pinochiette at 9:44 AM on September 4, 2020 [1 favorite]

So, regarding lack of confrontation from the people in her past.

I grew up in a very white, very Republican school district that has had longstanding problems with racism and if someone told me something like "hey did you know [former classmate] was [specific race or biracial]?"  I would probably assume well, they must have downplayed their racial identity as a survival tactic, that makes sense, our hometown was awful. Unless they were an extremely close friend where I slept over at their house and chatted with their Aunt Sue at their grad party, saw their whole family at their wedding, etc. I don't actually know enough about most of my former classmates to confidently call them out if they were faking another race, and the consequences for being wrong about that are so steep that I'm not going to risk it. I had a casual friend from high school who was white "with some Cherokee blood" when I knew her, but in college was suddenly creating multiple Facebook profiles where she claimed a Cherokee and Puerto Rican identity under a new last name (like switching from "Anderson" to "Rivera"). But we also fell out of touch and I don't have anywhere near enough info to determine if she's exaggerating her ties to these cultures or not, and like I said, it would've been understandable for a young person in my backwards hometown to claim whiteness even if the reality was more complex.

If someone moved to another part of the country, and started a new Facebook profile from scratch or never joined, (and especially if they changed their last name, making them harder to search for)...I could see this deception being very possible.
posted by castlebravo at 11:05 AM on September 4, 2020 [8 favorites]

I doubt I would call somebody out publicly, even if I was 100% certain that they were lying about their background. Calling them out means I get pulled into the drama, and I may end up being attacked or harassed as the person attempts to regain their credibility. Not fun, and potentially dangerous.

I'd rather just cut the person out of my life, and promote positive alternatives.
posted by whisk(e)y neat at 11:23 AM on September 4, 2020 [5 favorites]

I think one has to define what it means to get away with it. Many people will know or suspect. If the person who is trying to pass is aggressive and combative they can keep people from publicly challenging. Most people would rather just avoid the person than pick a public fight. Getting proof is not easy too. Ultimately, JK did not get away with it. They were outed.
posted by AugustWest at 11:50 AM on September 4, 2020 [2 favorites]

The (in)famous director Tommy Wiseau is an example of doing this in a non-racial context -- he has pretty obviously lied about his background and age. It's likely he changed his name or goes by a different name than his legal one, which makes the process easier. But the people who know his true identity likely are far away and might not even speak English or have any idea that he has transformed himself, and if they do know, they probably have little incentive to upset him (e.g. family members who he might be financially supporting). And his claims about himself, while strange, are not really hurting anyone, so again, those who know the truth might very well wonder, why stir the pot?
posted by phoenixy at 1:02 PM on September 4, 2020 [1 favorite]

I have been the caller-outer on someone I knew both before and after they became a Pretendian, someone who claims Native ancestry.

This white woman I knew changed her name to something Native-sounding, dyed her hair black, wore Native jewelry and design, and ostensibly led (poorly) a chapter of Idle No More in my community. She was also very careful to not make her asserted Native identity explicitly to people who knew her before, but when someone, like the press, identified her as "Native American" she would never clarify the reality. And there were a few years between her living here under her real identity and when she returned with her new name and persona, so some people seemed to forget she was the same person.

I gotta tell you, being the caller-outer in this circumstance is pretty fraught. As a white woman, I was seen as somebody who was being "mean" and simply acting out of jealousy or racism. It was complicated by the fact that this woman was always consistently abusive, very litigious, and repeatedly claiming victimhood and discrimination put upon her by anyone who stood up against her for any reason whatsoever. She attempted to sue just about every person she ever dated, lived with, or worked with for abusing her. (Including my now-husband. Which complicated the issue, of course. Because she falsely claimed he abused her. So of course, I was just a dupe, I guess.) I believe she suffers from borderline personality disorder, but diagnosing her is inappropriate, I realize. In any case, her method of operating in the world made us afraid of her. She would sue, at the drop of a hat. She would claim we were abusing her. So I never said anything confrontative to her face, because i avoided contact with her at all costs.

At any rate, there was little except activist oriented credibility at stake. She made it her business to speak as a Native woman. She wrote opinion pieces for the local papers speaking as a Native woman. But as far as her gaining much in the way of money, her personal issues/possible mental illness made it so she never really got much out of it.

And it was when she publicly got credibility in this way that I made it my business to say something. And, as I said, it was a bit crazy making. I had a white newspaper editor ask me in writing, when I said she wasn't a Native person, and should not be labeled as such, why it should matter. He implied that I didn't really know. (Which actually made me go and do her genealogy, which made me feel bad and stalkery and like I was invading her privacy, but also validating what I knew to be true felt important to me. Feeling like I was being a mean person by insisting on the truth was keeping me up nights.) This same editor also tried to say that calling someone a "Native activist" was the same as saying "animal activist"--like we know they're not an animal, but only speaking for one. (WHAT--yeah, I explained to him the problematic nature of that one.)

She claimed in these same publications to have a degree I knew she didn't have. (We went to the same college.) I found out from local tribal members who'd been attacked by her the full breadth and length of her lies to them. And I validated their suspicions about her. But for a lot of my fellow white community members, I was just a mean, nosy white activist who was jealous of her for some reason. Some people, when I told them, they asked why it mattered, and I had to say, over and over again, that she was stealing the microphone from actual Native voices. But when she spoke or wrote well, we were all supposed to just nod our heads and be grateful white people were listening. Sigh.

After Standing Rock, she again claimed to speak for Native people, and I notified the press figure that interviewed her and inappropriately identified her as Native that she wasn't. Again, they were more suspicious of me than her. But soon after that, she left town. (I assume because she lost her housing, but also possibly because she felt her credibility was threatened.)

I still, even to this day, feel weirdly guilty for insisting on the truth with her. I still feel defensive with people who thought I was being "mean." Now if she actually had become a leader in the community, and was more together and able to gain funding based on that identity? If she'd had more clout? I'd still be the mean white lady inappropriately thinking I could call out a fraud when I shouldn't.

So yeah, in this present case, I'd say that it is often part of the Pretender's persona to be aggressively defensive toward those who might question. What right do we, after all, have to question someone's bald-faced claims? Calling someone a liar when you don't have evidence right there in hand leads people to think you're the liar. Because it's easier to believe the liar, especially when they're the type of person that is intimidating. I gotta say, I'm glad she left town, because it was exhausting.
posted by RedEmma at 1:28 PM on September 4, 2020 [15 favorites]

I should add that to some people this Pretendian claimed to be adopted, but I knew for sure it wasn't true because her ex (my now-husband) knew her parents and that she was their bio-child.
posted by RedEmma at 3:01 PM on September 4, 2020 [3 favorites]

How do people disguise or misrepresent themselves as another race or identity and get away with it for so long?

Earlier this year, the Cuban-American writer and university professor H.G. Carrillo, author of 2004's "Loosing My Espanish," passed away at age 59; his May Washington Post obituary (archive. org link), "Novelist H.G. Carrillo, who explored themes of cultural alienation, dies after developing covid-19," has a 5/23 Editor's note: After initial publication of this article on May 22, The Washington Post learned that key elements of H.G. Carrillo’s biography had been fabricated over many years, by Carrillo himself. The story below has been revised to include the correct background, how The Post learned of the fabrication and some reaction to it.

Wikipedia entry: "Carrillo was born Herman Glenn Carroll in 1960, in Detroit, to educator, African-American parents who had themselves been born and raised in Michigan. By the 1980s he had moved to Chicago, and after his partner died of complications related to AIDS in 1988, he began writing and devoted his life to it. During this period he began going by the name "Hermán G. Carrillo" and eventually "Hache" ("H" in Spanish); in his public persona he was supposedly born in Havana, Cuba in 1960, and emigrated with his family at the age of 7."

Carrillo kept his true identity hidden from even close acquaintances, including his husband, Dennis vanEngelsdorp, who was in a years-long relationship with Carrillo before marrying in 2015. The Post obituary added more details and context to the obituary, after Carrillo's mother and sister contacted the newspaper and vanEngelsdorp's interview after learning of Carrillo's past. (You can track these changes over the course of a couple days in May.) The Post's corrections to the original obituary offer some details as to how Carrillo went about changing his identity.
posted by Iris Gambol at 6:02 PM on September 4, 2020 [9 favorites]

As people have said calling out somebody's self-proclaimed identity is difficult and presents peril to the person doing it. This recently made the news, for example.
posted by sardonyx at 6:51 PM on September 4, 2020 [5 favorites]

I think some social psychology might come into play here as well. There's a lot of research in that field about how people look to each other for clues about how to act in various situations, and there can be a kind of self-perpetuating thing where nobody else is saying anything, so it seems like the right thing to do is not say anything? If people are feeling uncertain, they take their cues from other people's actions or lack thereof.

And there may be situations where everybody knows something, it's spoken of in small groups, but never publicly—the classic "open secret." It's a collective unstated conspiracy, basically—I'm thinking of a good friend of mine who was one of my high school teachers in the early 80s. She was a lesbian, everybody knew she was a lesbian, and as long as nobody ever said it out loud, everything was OK and she could keep her job.

Or a situation when I was in grad school 20 years ago in American Literature, and this visiting scholar came and gave a talk that was essentially gibberish—it was impossible to understand what her point was. I had a real "the Emperor's New Clothes" feeling during the talk, looking around at the faculty listening with apparent interest, and then asking questions in apparent good faith in the Q&A—and then, in every one of my classes that week, just absolutely savaging her. Of course nobody could say out loud, in the moment, that she was spouting nonsense. But afterward, it was clear that a great many people recognized it as such.

Add to these difficulties the low payoff involved in whistle-blowing on someone appropriating an identity like this, and it's not hard to understand how people are able to carry on for quite a long time.
posted by Orlop at 7:57 PM on September 4, 2020 [6 favorites]

The people who are most likely to recognize that someone is lying about their race are Black people, and within that umbrella, Black women, because due to the way racial privileges are afforded in our society, Black women are forced to be hyper-vigilant of all other races in order to stay safe.

Black women are also the most likely to be gaslit- both because Black people's experiences of racism and micro-aggressions are constantly denied and minimized, and because women's experiences of sexism and misogyny are constantly denied and minimized.

Plus, social (and physical) aggression against Black people is so normalized ("you have an attitude", "you're not a good fit here", "those kids are bringing down the neighbourhood", "if you weren't doing crimes cops would leave you alone", "if you just obeyed the cop you wouldn't get strangled to death") that retaliation against Black people doesn't even make most nonBlack people bat an eyelid. It aligns with people's existing biases so closely that it doesn't even register as unfair to them.

A girl in my high school lied about her race, pretending she was "Spanish" when she was 100% Punjabi. I had known her and her parents since primary school, before she ever lied. Their last name was Patel, for pete's sake. I pointed this out - and was gaslit and bullied in response, both by her and by uninvolved peers. Not a single person defended me, and the social ramifications were intense. It was because her proximity to whiteness exceeded mine, both in appearance and in false narrative, so her social power trumped mine, so her ridiculous claim was easily believed over my evidence-based claim.

In terms of evidence, watch this video and then try to assert that's the accent of an authentically Afro-Latina person from "El Barrio". It's nonsense.

Black people DID indeed say Krug was white. They knew. They knew. And then they were gaslit and shamed into silence and peer-pressured and made justifiably afraid to make noise.

Here's the thing about asserting Blackness. It doesn't work that way. Blackness asserts you. You cannot claim a Black experience. That experience is placed upon you.

If anyone would like to further observe this phenomenon, I believe the same situation is unfolding on a larger platform, in slow motion, and will eventually end similarly, so grab some popcorn (but ugh, don't follow him and increase his platform): Activist Sh aun King is given hundreds of thousands of dollars by white people. That money keeps slipping into oblivion. Black women have been saying, for decades, that that man is not Black, and then gaslit into silence. He has also demonstrably disappeared donated funds and thus, profited off of Black death. Hasn't stopped white people from embracing him. Stay tuned; I predict we'll see this exact story play out again.
posted by nouvelle-personne at 10:49 AM on September 5, 2020 [3 favorites]

PS, the person I mentioned above was indeed Punjabi, but her actual surname wasn't Patel. I picked a pseudonym that, oops, isn't Punjabi. Shoulda checked before publishing!
posted by nouvelle-personne at 11:34 AM on September 5, 2020

I think the issues around passing are a little relevant, here. Being white I had the luxury of being clueless about race as a kid; I knew about the one-drop-rule and was taught that it was part of racism but wasn’t taught about how it affects issues like who identifies as black and how and why.

I was in my twenties when I first knew someone who actually did decide to stop passing and discuss their not-entirely-White background; as a few other people above mentioned there are so many reasons a white-passing person might do this in a conservative location. Now more than twenty years past high school, there are a few people I know who claim their non-white identities much more strongly, or at all, than they did in school. I was clueless and had no idea and in one case was surprised (I knew the person and their family quite well and still didn’t get it) but, well, various things fit and and I would never have guessed but that’s on me for being totally unaware of issues about passing.

So I wouldn’t trust myself to be the judge of someone’s racial identity, because I have been absolutely wrong about it in the past. And as pointed out above, the people (here, especially black women) who *would* recognize the lies did. And sometimes pointed it out, but were shouted down or gaslit about it.
posted by nat at 1:13 PM on September 5, 2020 [1 favorite]

This is long before the age of the Internet, but you might find the story of Clarence King of interest.
posted by brianogilvie at 7:55 AM on September 6, 2020 [1 favorite]

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