The White Business Of Cosplaying As Black and Latine Is A Violent American Tradition

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Long before Rachel Dolezal and Jessica A. Krug turned prominent scholars and leaders by pretending to be Black American and Black Puerto Rican, respectively, women in my family were frying our hair straight and “brightening” our skin in the name of assimilation. Our imaginations accepted the ugly distortions — the assigned caricatures of our own beauty and originality, and we learned to vilify many of the same aesthetics Dolezal and Krug appropriated as props to be taken seriously in their professions and among the communities they alleged to represent and to have produced them.
It’s bad enough that these women reduced Black and Latine people to braids, tans, and trash accents at the expense of real Black and Latine women’s scholarship, work, and lived experiences, but the real-life implications of such violence is profound and lasting. The latest known culprit and follower of this persistent trend, someone who changed her name from Rachel Elizabeth Seidel to Raquel Evita Saraswati as part of her performance, is a triggering reminder of this.
In February, Saraswati, who was the chief equity, inclusion, and culture officer of social justice organization the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), was publicly called into question by the AFSC staff and supporters, citing Saraswati’s controversial and suspicious hiring and leadership. The open letter states that Saraswati, who has not responded to nor denied the claims, alleged she presented as having Arab, Latine, and South Asian heritage.
Pretending to be an authority on Black and Brown struggles as a white person, and to assume our identities to then “teach” us about it, is among the highest orders of violation and hypocrisy. And it happens all the time in various fields. In the early history of the film industry, segregation (and the lie that said white actors are stronger suited for mass appeal) resulted in white actors playing the role of Black, Indigenous, and other disenfranchised people, often as exaggerated caricatures at that, including going to the extent of skin-darkening.
Casting white actors as Black and Brown figures still happens today, irresponsibly so when race/ethnicity is essential to the character’s narrative. Catherine Zeta-Jones has a long, controversial history of playing Latine characters like Eléna Montero (The Mask of Zorro), Helena Ayala (Traffic), and more recently the infamous Colombian drug lord Griselda Blanco in Cocaine Godmother. While Zeta-Jones has tried to defend her decisions, it’s important to underscore that actual Colombian and other Latine performers are robbed of work that would otherwise yield upward mobility and inclusion in an industry that continues to exploit or ostracize them. This scandal of cosplaying as another race doesn’t stop at Hollywood and has become economically integral for many across industries — not unlike the notoriously gatekept halls of academia.

Pretending to be an authority on Black and Brown struggles as a white person, and to assume our identities to then “teach” us about it, is among the highest orders of violation and hypocrisy.

Black and Indigenous communities are historically and remain underrepresented at the university level and throughout popular discourse. Actual Black and Latine women and educators have to fight tooth-and-nail everyday for their work to be taken seriously — for our humanity and existence to be validated in and out of the classroom. As an Afro-Caribbean writer and storyteller of Dominican descent, who’s struggled to break into sponsored higher-ed teaching and research facilitation, knowing that these same people have published books as women of color, is abysmally offensive.
How they continually shrug off any responsibilities is equally as harmful. “When doing so is the very epitome of violence, of thievery, of the myriad ways in which non-Black people continue to use and abuse Black identities and cultures,” wrote Krug in her carefully crafted confession of sorts in 2020. On the other hand, Dolezal sang from the hills of transracialism, telling The Guardian, “I wasn’t identifying as Black in order to make people happy or make people upset or whatever. I wasn’t seeking fame. I was being me.”
While Saraswati so far remains publicly silent about her made-up identity, her case and lack of racial ethics in the academic space point to larger concerns regarding the U.S. census. The Pew Research Center reported that in fall 2017, 6% of faculty members were Black compared with 14% of Black undergraduates, while 5% of faculty members were Hispanic, compared with 20% of undergraduates, underscoring a dearth of Black and Latine professors and disparity between staff and student body representation. Alarmingly, Hispanic in this case does not indicate race, nor does this study attempt to account for Black Hispanic or Latino members. 
The federal Office of Management and Budget (OMB) in January announced proposed changes that would make Hispanic/Latino ethnicity and race analytically the same, despite the fact that Hispanic/Latino has never been a race. It is nothing short of perilous that this proposition hearkens back to the myth of Latines being a combination of the alleged “tres razas” heritage and that this mythic mix is spread and experienced similarly, effectively contributing to the erasure of the multitude of Black and Indigenous communities throughout the continent, and around the world.
“Imagine that most Hispanics will check the box and even write in a detailed origin (e.g., Puerto Rican, Mexican, Honduran, etc.), but nothing else about their race? Are we to assume that they all occupy the same racial status for civil rights enforcement?” pleaded Afro-Latino Forum following the news. “This potential change in our data infrastructure could have far-reaching, enduring and damaging consequences on our ability to document and eliminate anti-Blackness in Latino/a communities across a variety of policy domains.”
In laypeople’s terms, conflating Hispanic/Latino ethnicity and race will only reinforce the propaganda that promotes Latin America as a monolith and further heighten racial disparities in health, employment, housing, education, and — as climate change progresses — access to basic environmental resources, like clean water. 
Before Krug concluded her cringe-y statement to the public, she admitted to shamefully claiming to belong with “living people and ancestors” to whom her person is always a threat at best “and a death sentence at worst.” 

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