Many of us are familiar with people of color trying to “pass” as white people perhaps to indulge in some White Privilege that they have heard so much about or maybe because being a person of color was a death sentence. Whatever the reason ethnic imposters have been around for hundreds of years.
During slavery times a light-skinned African American was envied because of one’s ability to move about the country more freely. During the Holocaust many Jewish people whom had Aryan features had their lives spared as they were able to study Christianity and “pass” as a non-Jew. My own mother, and her siblings, although Native in appearance, were able to “pass” as white people simply by lowering their blood quantum and practicing dominant culture ways of living.
Although much has been written about “passing” as a white person there are also instances of people moving in the other direction, away from whiteness. A reasonable person would need to ask themselves why a privileged person would want to experience the oppression of an ethnic identity. The answer lies in their ability to re enter the world they have left only temporarily.
Asa Earl Carter used the pseudonym, Forrest Carter to write the novel The Education of Little Treepurportedly about his experience being raised by his Cherokee grandparents in the 1920’s. The book was published in 1976 and was later revealed to be a literary hoax and Asa Earl Carter was revealed as a White supremacist and a member of the KKK in Alabama.
In the 1930’s, Archie Bellamy, assumed the Native American identity of Grey Owl, to carry on a conservation message. It is said that his work saved the Canadian beaver from extinction. His British origins, his subsequent migration to Canada and his career move from trapper to conservationist were discovered upon his death.
In 1948, Ray Sprigle, a journalist disguised himself as an African American man and wrote a series of articles entitled I was a Negro in the South for 30 Days.
Black Like Me is a book written by the journalist John Howard Griffin and published in 1961. In the book he describes his experience traveling throughout the racially segregated south of the 50’s and passing as an African American man.
For decades, Iron Eyes Cody, portrayed Native Americans on film and on television, claiming to be of Cree-Cherokee heritage. Even after it was revealed that he was an Italian immigrant named Espira DiCorti he continued the ruse until his death.
Ethnic imposters have evolved over the years and it is no longer politically correct for a White person to impersonate an African American person. However it does seem to go unchallenged and accepted for a White person to impersonate a Native American. New Age “spiritual” Native Americans, shamanism, and cultural appropriation are just a few examples of modern ethnic imposters. There is an obvious monetary gain for those that exploit Native culture in this way.
There is another, more sinister, type of imposter. In many communities ethnic imposters are often mentally ill people who have borderline personality traits that adopt values, habits and attitudes of the Native people that they spend time with. There may or may not be a monetary value in this practice but there is something else to be gained by these ethnic imposters. These individuals have a significant and persistent unstable self-image or sense of self and present as righteous avengers of past mistreatment. Nobody has been more mistreated then Native Americans (in the individuals thinking) and so these individuals take on the persona, often change their name to something Native sounding and reinvent themselves. Soon the individuals are assuming leadership roles in the political or activist realm which takes away from legitimate Native voices which are often ignored or silenced by the media.
Traditionally Native American people don’t challenge others’ claim to be Native as it is thought to be harmless but it is important that ethnic imposters be challenged on cultural appropriation on all levels because culture is the only thing remaining after colonization has stripped everything else away.
Donna Ennis is employed in the Behavioral Health Program and is a Tribal Elder at Fond du Lac Reservation. She is on the Board of Directors for the Minnesota Board of Social Work. She is also on the Approved Continuing Education Committee for the Association of Social Work Boards.