- Muslim activist Raquel Saraswati has been exposed for lying about being of South Asian, Arabic and Latino descent, The Intercept reported.
- Other whites, such as Rachel Dolezal, have similarly attempted to misrepresent themselves as black.
- “Costuming,” as with other breeds, poses real dangers to actual communities of color, experts said.
In February, Raquel Evita Saraswati, a Muslim activist, was exposed for posing as a woman of color, The Intercept reported. Saraswati claimed to be of Arabic, South Asian, and Latino descent, and was the Chief Equity, Inclusion, and Culture Officer of the American Friends Service Committee, a peace and social justice organization.
But according to her friends and family, Saraswati was actually born Rachel Elizabeth Seidel, a woman of British, German, and Italian descent.
“I’m as white as snow and so is she,” her mother told the intercept.
Saraswati snagged the distinguished diversity position at the AFSC because “there seemed to be an element of lived experience and understanding of lived experience” of a “queer, Muslim, multi-ethnic woman,” said a human resources expert involved in her hiring was, opposite Intercept .
AFSC members released an anonymous letter on February 10, expressing concerns about Saraswati’s background and how her alleged misrepresentations are hurting marginalized people.
“Since 2015 there have been attempts to seek accountability for Saraswati’s cultural vulturism,” the letter said.
Saraswati resigned from the AFSC on Tuesday, the Daily Beast reported. She did not respond to a request for comment from Insider.
Saraswati is not the only person who has faked her race. In fact, she has been dubbed the “Rachel Dolezal” of the Muslim community, after the woman who for years falsely claimed to have black and Native American ancestry. Dolezal was chapter president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and later resigned amid controversy in 2015.
A History of Racial Misrepresentation
There’s no shortage of other examples of people who have misrepresented their race or ethnicity: Alec Baldwin’s wife, Hilaria Baldwin, has stirred controversy over claims that she misled people into believing she was Spanish in 2020. In the same year, actress and filmmaker Michelle Latimer was found to have falsely claimed Indigenous ancestry. And in 2021, British influencer Oli London claimed they had “switched” races from White to Korean.
In September 2020, Jessica Krug, a historian and former associate professor at George Washington University, was embroiled in a similar scandal after lying about being black throughout her career. Krug had written articles in Essence and the race-exploring website RaceBaitR, as well as a book on African American history and Latin America. She also received grants and financial support for her research on black culture.
In a Medium post published under her name, Krug was revealed to be white and had “lived under various assumed identities within a blackness I could not claim,” at times claiming to be of North African or Caribbean descent. and from the Bronx.
“I’m not a culture vulture. I’m a culture sucker,” Krug wrote.
A reversal of “white passing”
People of color have historically had to pass as white to survive or advance. Famed actress Merle Oberon hid her South Asian and Maori heritage to avoid prejudice, while sex symbol Raquel Welch grew up with a father who tried to fit in at all costs, even banning Spanish at home.
“I was told that if I wanted to be typed, I would go for it,” Welch told the New York Times BC in 2002. ‘They dyed my hair blonde.’
According to Whitney Pirtle, associate professor of sociology at the University of California Merced, passing was a matter of survival for people of color and provided them with privileges, resources, and opportunities normally available only to whites.
A white person who passes as another race is fundamentally different because they misunderstand the way race and racism work in the United States, experts told Insider.
“People like Rachel Dolezal and Raquel Saraswati have not experienced the structural barriers that women of color have faced. But if they become women of color, they can get certain jobs and become leaders of movements because they have taken a different path,” Pirtle said.
According to Maryann Erigha, associate professor of sociology at the university, there are possible reasons why someone who is white might want to pose as a person of color, ranging from family trauma to a desire to “take responsibility for white oppression of other racial groups.” to escape from Georgia.
Playing up racial ambiguity — which some celebrities like Ariana Grande, Iggy Azalea, and Kim Kardashian have been criticized for — can also be a means of commercializing “otherness,” Jonathan Rosa, associate professor of race and ethnicity at Stanford University, told Insider.
The dangers of “costuming up” racial identities
Racial misrepresentations not only occupy a space meant for genuine people of color — as Saraswati did when she assumed the diversity role at AFSC — but also undermine genuine efforts to represent communities and allocate resources, Erigha said.
“Costume” also encourages a misunderstanding of race as a social construct, indicating how racial categories shifted depending on the historical, political, social, and economic contexts of a given time. Pretending to be a person of color completely ignores the historical trauma and discrimination marginalized communities have experienced from what Pirtle called an “enhancement of white privilege.”
“A costume isn’t something you are; it’s something you can put on and then take off,” Pirtle said. “It’s detrimental to the people who don’t have that identity as a costume. Are you making a caricature of me, of my people? Are you gaining the resource you need at this time, but aren’t you dealing with the implications of what it means to truly live in our shoes?”