While I was still living in my childhood home, unemployed after college, daytime talk and game shows were my security blanket. With a little weed and a lot of time, I’d roll into a block of hours between late morning and mid-afternoon that featured the best bad television, and sleepwalk with munchies to the mindless blue hum of a clapping audience. Of the game shows I refused to miss, To Tell the Truth roused me the most. The show, which premiered in 1961, dared a panel of celebrity guests to determine which one out of three people featured was the holder of some insane claim, impossible job, or minor world record. The other two contestants were deliberate liars, masking and misdirecting (often poorly). Until now, I hadn’t remembered watching To Tell the Truth or why I insisted on scheduling it daily. Maybe because the show was simplistic and more than a little dumb, it managed to surprise me. For a half-hour, the inclination to judge books by their covers was a decided weakness, a bug in our prehistoric software. And I’d always found fascination in T.V. imposter stories. Fraudsters who scammed people out of a fortune in credit cards and seduction artists who married for wealth and took off delighted me. I learned that hiding in plain sight would always be the best option should I ever need a Great Escape. To Tell the Truth also contained a catchy hook that later provided source material for an Eminem song:
“Will the real [person in question] please stand up?”
In 2015, a woman who had been the head of the NAACP in Spokane, Washington, was confronted by a querulous reporter on a mission. That woman—who became a national laughingstock and social media meme—was, in fact, a pioneer of a yet-unseen wave of racial imposters. Rachel Dolezal appeared on morning talk, nightly news, and eventually a documentary focused on her origins, courtesy of Netflix and people’s unexpired curiosity. The question most of us asked was: why would anyone pretend to be Black? The crude fact underlying the question is that Blackness has been deemed so undesirable and so life-threatening for so long, it would require an illogical mortal risk to choose it. You’d have to be crazy. Black folks who took pride in their heritage were nonetheless shocked by her brand of voodoo because she sported frizzy wigs, bronzer, kente cloth prints and all. Even if Dolezal wanted to gain the fringe benefits of Black enmeshment (like braiding Black hair, like entering the Ivory Tower as a “culture expert,” like taking Black partners) none of these seemed richer than the promise of a mediocre white life. And she didn’t need to pretend to be a Black woman to do any of that. We have seen mediocre white lives ascend to the top of society in every era of Western civilization and 2015 was no different. She could’ve had her cornbread and ate her kale too.
Still, the irony of her performance was too fraught not to investigate. Had Dolezal appeared on To Tell the Truth, she might’ve complicated the panel: “Hi, I’m Rachel Dolezal and I’m not a Black person… but I play one in real life.”
How would they have cast her doppelgangers? Should white actors with dark hair play the part? Or fair-skinned Black women who could pass for white women? The protocol confounds.
Dolezal gave the zeitgeist an irksome, if apparently singular, case of reverse passing. Now, she has company. Take “Jess La Bombera” as Exhibit B. The associate professor of African studies at George Washington University shocked her students, colleagues, and the news cycle with an opaque post on the blogging platform Medium when she confessed she was a white woman pretending to be Black. She barely admits to wrongdoing in her long essay; it is bogged down with social justice jargon and leaden platitudes. Its title, “The Truth and Anti-Black Violence of My Lies,” typifies her convoluted style as her chunky, flat prose does everything but apologize. Some friends in my first-degree circle actually apologized more to their audiences for subjecting supporters to Jess’s frequent and contentious commentary. The centerpiece of her rage? She policed who was “Black enough” or “down enough” to engage with one subject or another. The professor and activist could not sustain her own disguise, though, struggling to recreate a Bronx accent meant to parrot New York Latino inflection. As pictures of Jessica Krug, Bombera’s given name, poured in, a feeling of Dolezal déjà vu crested. Not only had another white woman infiltrated social circles with poseur bravura, she’d only recused herself from the newfound identity on threat of exposure.
Indiana’s Satchuel Cole, née Jennifer Lynn Benton, confessed to her white identity a few weeks later. What started as a local story about Indianapolis politics graduated to the Associated Press wire in two days. Benton wrote a winding post on social media under the Facebook handle “Satch Paige,” using the name of a Negro League baseball star. Her post owes a debt to Krug’s, weaving the argot of social equity into a yarn of deceit: “My deception and lies have hurt those I care most about. I have taken up space as a Black person while knowing I am white. I have used Blackness when it was not mine to use. I have asked for support and energy as a Black person.”
The phrase “taken up space” feels violent, indeed, as airy syllables take up more space than the substance does. In their confessions, the imposters are sure to stir in dashes of “harming” and “healing” to smooth the edges of what used to be plain old lying. While the confession-to-apology performances have established a rhythm, they don’t answer the main question of the Dolezal Dilemma: Why fake Black?
There must be some intrinsic and, yes, monetary value to the switch. If three cases swirled around social media feeds over five years, what’s to say there aren’t dozens more? The case of Dr. Kelly Kean Sharp, an academic activist, broke as I was writing the final paragraphs about the first two. Common to these scams is a willful displacement of Black people in positions of visibility, influence, and power.
Krug, Benton and Sharp compound the dangerous history of erasure to bank more personal profit. Their preferred method has changed complexion a bit, but the harm they enact is old hat. Tenured professorships are the 401K and pension jobs of the 21st century. With odds-defying hard work, Black women have made hay in the academy and, sure enough, a counter-wave of imposters is trying to benefit.