Every white person in this country—and I do not care what he or she says—knows one thing. They may not know, as they put it, “what I want,” but they know they would not like to be black here. If they know that, then they know everything they need to know, and whatever else they say is a lie.
James Baldwin, On Language, Race and the Black Writer (Los Angeles Times, 1979)
I have these very deep feelings that white people who want to join black organizations are really just taking the escapist way to salve their consciences. By visibly hovering near us, they are “proving” they are “with us.”
Malcolm X, “What Can a Sincere White Person Do?”
I grew up among oafish racists in my white family and community. This was upstate South Carolina in the 1960s and 1970s.
As a teenager, I stood in the pro shop of the golf course where I worked while one of the grounds crew carefully explained to me that once Cain was banished from the Garden of Eden, he mated with apes and that’s how we have Black people.
This horrific moment aside, one of the most stark lessons I learned living among people with grossly simplistic views of race was that any person’s relationship with race is incredibly complicated.
Each summer as a teenager, I moved from working in the pro shop to working as an attendant and then a lifeguard at the country club’s pool. There, white Southern women arrived daily, many with unnaturally bleached-blond hair piled high, and rubbed themselves down with baby oil to sun bath from midmorning until mid-afternoon.
These women were as blatantly racist as their husbands routinely were on the golf course—a white person’s sanctuary that explicitly banned Black people from joining.
I have a very vivid memory of one woman, a wife of a long-time employee of the golf course. She had the most cartoonish bleached hair, maybe the tallest, but she also was tanned to beyond brown; with the lathering of baby oil, her stomach glistened black.
And my mother often joined these women. She also sunbathed in our yard when not at the pool. Like her father who sat outside barefoot in only cut-off blue jean shorts any sunny day, she was olive complexioned and tanned deeply.
What compelled these white women who so openly loathed Black and brown people to render themselves dark every summer?
This, I think, is the complexity of anyone’s relationship with race—especially when white and especially when trapped in baseless, simplistic views of race that serve the interests of white people.
In the first six years of my life, before we moved to the golf course, I remember vividly that my mother often suggested she had some Indian heritage; with hindsight, I suspect she spoke with something like a garbled romantic longing because she had exoticized the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina from briefly living in Lumberton, North Carolina growing up.
My mother also adored Cher, whose own jumbled heritage and flourishes of cultural appropriation helped fuel the very worst aspects of my mother’s racism.
These white women tanning and my mother’s fantasy of having Lumbee blood somewhere in her veins are my first experiences with white women imposters, who are increasingly being exposed in higher education:
Whereas Chapman and McLaughlin impersonated women of color online only, Krug and Vitolo-Haddad wove their false ethnicities into their personal and professional identities day in and day out. This kind of living a lie is perhaps most infamously exemplified by Rachel Dolezal, former head of the NAACP in Tacoma, Wash., and part-time professor of African American studies at Eastern Washington University. Dolezal identified herself as Black but was revealed to be white in 2015.
White women passing as not white has become a multi-layered offensive whitewashing of “by any means necessary,” since this act of being an imposter seems designed to manipulate a genuine problem in academia, the lack of diversity.
The paradoxical aspect of these layers includes that women are one of the areas of need in many universities dedicated to increasing diversity and inclusion and that white women suffer the negative consequences of being women even as that is tempered by their proximity to white men’s privilege (something that we have abundant evidence a majority of white women will cultivate, notably that more white women voted for Trump in 2016 than for a white woman, Hillary Clinton).
White imposters of race who are women are not only doing harm by taking away the very small spaces afforded Black and brown faculty candidates, but by spitting in the face of the very real and very harmful effects of imposter syndrome often experienced by minoritized people.
As a faculty member on our presidential committee for diversity and inclusion, I have spent many years specifically serving on and chairing a committee that participates in the hiring process so that the university implements best practice to increase diversity among our faculty (which is deeply underrepresented by race as well as gender).
Since my university has now faced a recently hired faculty member accused of being a race imposter, I am witnessing in proximity (as I did with my mother) that this deception has many negative consequences, mostly suffered by the people this event has impacted directly (the department, students, etc.) and indirectly (candidates not hired), but also impacting the process of recruiting and hiring diverse faculty.
Academia is a complicated environment, even culture, in which many things must not be spoken while other things are discussed to the point of no return (with no action).
Legal restrictions and tradition have created circumstances whereby universities seeking diverse faculty can discuss diversity needs and set up policies and practices aimed at increasing diversity, but not explicitly address any candidate’s race, culture, gender, etc.
There are also spaces in academia (not all of them) where everything works under a veil of good faith, but the sort of good faith that has existed forever among the privileged, the sort of wink-wink-nod-nod that existed among the all-white members of the golf course of my youth.
Higher education is not the world of Leftist indoctrination imagined by conservatives, but it is populated by progressives with good intentions who are more than counter-balanced by a willful naivete that comes with being the white progressives Martin Luther King Jr. warned about.
As I mentioned above, academia can often be more words than action. I do not doubt that many who speak often and eloquently about the need for diversity and inclusion are genuine in their rhetoric and their intellectual commitment; but I also know for a fact that most who offer the rhetoric balk at taking any actual steps on the road to equity.
Don’t want to step on any of the wrong toes.
There are few places where “talk is cheap” (and safe) is more telling and complicated than higher ed.
Academia, then, is ripe for deception by those who are willing to whitewash “by any means necessary” even at the expense of people who have no choice but to live lives tinted every moment with racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, etc.
My life has transitioned from the oafish racism of my childhood—good country people—to the elegant racism of higher education—well-educated people with good intentions.
Each faculty member unmasked for being a race imposter sends me back in time to my mother playing Cher records or sun bathing with the regulars at the golf course pool.
I have been reminded in recent days that people with grossly simplistic views of race reveal that any person’s relationship with race is incredibly complicated—and ultimately dangerous.