The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Raquel Evita Saraswati and the racial impostor problem

(Washington Post illustration; iStock)
7 min

Let’s talk about a literal impostor syndrome.

It seems as if every few years, the world learns about a White woman who spent at least a good portion of her career pretending to be someone from a different racial background.

The latest: a woman known as Raquel Evita Saraswati, who last month resigned from her position as chief equity, inclusion and culture officer of the American Friends Service Committee, an advocacy organization based in Philadelphia. Saraswati has been described as a Muslim activist and has encouraged people to believe that she was of Latina, South Asian and Arab descent.

*Cue Maury Povich voice* Well, it’s been determined … that seems to have been a lie.

An open letter posted on Medium on Feb. 10 by a “group of individuals who care deeply about AFSC” accused Saraswati of misrepresenting herself and offered a detailed history of her family lineage. Alice Speri of the Intercept then reported that Saraswati’s mother, Carol Perone, said Raquel had been born Rachel Elizabeth Seidel. “I don’t know why she’s doing what she’s doing,” Perone said, adding: “I’m as white as the driven snow and so is she.”

The Daily Mail published a gallery of photographs depicting the transformation of Saraswati’s appearance from childhood into adulthood. According to people I spoke with who were close to the situation, Saraswati had over the years represented herself as various versions of “Brown” ethnicities, including Pakistani, North African and Lebanese.

Given all of those details, I’ve gotta ask: What was this woman thinking?

I contacted Saraswati for comment on the record. “Regarding the allegations against me regarding my identity,” she wrote, “I am currently taking the time I need with loved ones, extended family, and professional counsel to ensure that this is addressed comprehensively while maintaining discretion and care for the personal lives of others. It is important that I take extraordinary care for those who are and will be impacted.”

This whole episode brings to mind the saga of another Rachel — Dolezal, the White woman who claimed to be a Black woman and, before she was outed, served as president of the Spokane, Wash., chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

It’s also reminiscent of the story of Jessica Krug, the former George Washington University professor (of African history, no less) who admitted to faking her identity multiple times as different types of Black women: North African Black, American Black, Bronx-by-way-of-the-Caribbean Black. In reality, “Jess La Bombalera,” as she was known, was a White Jewish girl from a suburb of Kansas City.

There’s much to interrogate about how and why White women deploy racial cosplay — and get away with it.

“Perhaps it is a twisted attempt to be seen and heard — even to misbehave — by defying expectations of ‘good’ white girls and women,” sociology professor Robyn Autry wrote in 2020.

Fundamentally, one reason White women can even think to do this is that non-White cultures, physical features and clothing styles are frequently seen as ripe for appropriation, things to be tried on and discarded as if they were costumes on sale at Party City. I’ve also written before about how colorism comes into play — how White, White-passing or ethnically ambiguous women ascend to positions of power more often than other, darker-skinned women.

Saraswati’s case, however, goes beyond one woman’s decision to misrepresent herself personally and professionally.

Saraswati appears to have exploited the political pendulum swing from the rampant Islamophobia of the post-9/11 era into the late 2010s, to the progressive diversity and inclusion wave of today.

There’s no doubt she was part of the Islamophobia machine. She made public appearances on right-wing platforms including Fox News and Newsmax, as a “moderate” Muslim urging people to be critical of Islam. She also appeared as a hijab-wearing Muslim activist in “Honor Diaries,” a documentary that painted Islam as responsible for violence against women. The film was made by the Clarion Project, an organization the Southern Poverty Law Center has called “anti-Muslim.”

That Saraswati seems to have shifted from being a token Muslim of color in right-wing spaces to a token Muslim of color in left-wing spaces is proof of just how much White power structures blindly rely on superficial “representation.” Ever since colonial times, White people have embraced individual members of oppressed groups willing to validate the beliefs and policies that prop up White power structures.

On the right, for instance, White structures have used public-facing Muslims to help justify racial profiling, surveillance and even the invasions of Muslim countries.

In progressive organizations, such as the AFSC, whose supposed missions are to combat oppression, discrimination and inequity, tokenization in the name of internal “diversity” often serves as little more than window-dressing for White-led organizations that refuse to structurally reform.

On both sides, the voices and concerns of marginalized communities don’t matter as much as the White organizations’ attempts to gain power and win credibility by trotting out people who appear to “tick all the boxes.”

When I reached Saraswati, she vigorously defended her progressive bona fides and said any suggestion that she had “infiltrated” the AFSC was “harmful, dangerous, and represents a willful misrepresentation of my work. My career did not begin in the ‘right-wing.’”

Unfortunately for Saraswati, all her work is now fair game for questioning. AFSC’s embarrassing blunder is a lesson for us all about the perils of mindless box-ticking in the name of diversity representation.

Home Front: For the Oscars, rooting for Ruth Carter

Speaking of race and costumes, let’s make a positive(ish) pivot. The Oscars!

I’m keen on seeing who’ll take home the Academy Award for best costume design this year. One of those up for the honor is Ruth E. Carter, the designer behind the costumes for “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever.” Carter, who has been nominated four times, took home the statue in 2019 for her amazing work on the first “Black Panther” — making her the first Black person to win the award. She also did costume work for iconic films including “Do the Right Thing,” “Malcolm X,” “Amistad” and “Selma.”

If you need a refresher on her work, here’s a look at her gorgeous Afrofuturistic looks from “Wakanda Forever.”

Carter’s breathtaking costuming helps the film communicate vital information: It signals the cultural identities of the various tribes, the ferocity of the Dora Milaje warriors, the characters’ grief for the deceased King T’Challa — and of course the thrill of Princess Shuri taking up the suit of the Black Panther.

I hope Carter wins, of course. If she does, she’ll make history again — though not the kind any institution should be proud of in 2023. According to Variety, if Carter takes home the award, she’ll be “the first Black woman to win more than one statuette in any category. This a stunning statistic considering how many artists have multiple Oscars. More than 3,100 Oscar statuettes have been handed out in the past 95 years. Of those, only 18 were awarded to Black women.”

Given how much Black women have contributed to culture, this is absolutely pathetic and sad. It’s why waiting for institutions to validate Black creativity is a bit of a fool’s errand. Regardless, I hope Carter gets all her flowers on Sunday.

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