Hello, you early adopters! (and people who clicked by accident). Welcome to my experiment with an online newsletter.
I'm going to lay out what I hope to do here. I’ll talk a little bit about projects I'm working on, and write more about some other things that I'm not able to write about for various magazines or other venues.
For today, I want to write about my piece on identity fraud and social media in academia that just came out on ArcDigi.
These cases, particularly that of Bethann McLaughlin, fit into a much longer history of “playing Indian”, or white people in settler societies coopting an indigenous identity.
Years ago, I wrote my Masters thesis on the notion of "going native" and cultural perceptions in colonial settings of the Pacific. It was and is a theme that resonates through popular culture, with stories of a white person (usually a man), adapting and assimilating into a different culture.
This story has been scripted into “true” stories, which were adjusted in retelling to fit particular archetypes. Various versions of it are repeated through literature and film, one of the most famous being Dances with Wolves. This film pretty clearly encapsulates all the tropes of the genre.
The protagonist is a disillusioned Civil War veteran who takes an army posting to a remote fort. The only people for hundreds of miles are some nearby Sioux. Despite initially wariness, he eventually starts spending time with them. Before long, he adopts Sioux dress and participates in hunts and battles with the tribe. As Shari Huhndorf described it: ‘In this way, he fulfils his (heretofore unknown) “true” identity: “As I heard my Sioux name being called over and over, I knew for the first time who I really was.”’
This idea that tribal identities are somehow more authentic than European identities – even for people who are ethnically European - is something I kept thinking about with the current wave of academic fakers. Is it possible that people who spend years studying a culture feel connected to it, feel somehow entitled to that connection? No doubt. And for a generation of women who have been told to lean in, I can see how some might lean into grabbing the mic by centering themselves in the narrative.
Of course this narrative of claiming an indigenous identity serves other psychological needs. For those inclined to feel bad, or at least ambivalent, about their inherited responsibility for settler colonialism, deciding to be “native” is a great guilt-laundering technique. Europeans in North America – and by extension other New World conquest territories, such as Australia – can claim affinity and respect for the ‘traditional owners’ of the land, simultaneously absolving themselves of any guilt for their dispossession. In the US, claiming black heritage can serve a parallel role, offering absolution for participating in a racially unequal society. I doubt any of the identity grifters recognise this on a conscious level.
But there’s a way that the current range of fakers also fit into the traditional “going native” tale. In many such narratives, the white man who "goes native", or joins the local Africans/Native Americans/Whomever (these stories follow such a predictable path that the Other groups are interchangeable ciphers), doesn't just join the group, and live humbly in their community. He of course becomes their king.
Shari Huhndorf noted in Going Native:
“Not only does this white character retain centre stage in the drama, he soon proves himself superior to his Native counterparts. Although he has just recently attained the status of Sioux warrior, the entire tribe depends upon him for their welfare because he is the most skilful buffalo hunter and warrior.”
Of course he is. He’s white, so he should be in charge. We see the same instinct when these members of the dominant group adopt the identity of the historically oppressed - they are not satisfied to simply go quietly about their lives as a "black" or "Native American" person. They assume leadership roles in advocacy groups, and appoint themselves spokespeople for the group whose identity they've appropriated.
They have the audacity to claim they are even better at being people of color than actual people of color. While always having an exit plan. As John Dunbar in Dances with Wolves, despite his claims of affinity and belonging to the Sioux, when push comes to shove is still white. He can return to white society any time he likes (and at the end, he does). All these posers have the escape option in their back pocket, for when their “identity” ceases to be politcally or socially expedient. A rip cord they can pull, saying “oh yeah, I’m white”.