White male professor caught posing as Black woman on Twitter is just the latest in a bizarre trend: 'Identity tourism'

Kamilah Newton
·8 mins read
The cultural trend of white people posing as Black, either online or in real life, continues. (Photo: Getty Images)
The cultural trend of white people posing as Black, either online or in real life, continues. (Getty Images)

After three prominent individuals made headlines in September alone for falsely identifying as Black, a fourth has now joined the lineup: Craig Chapman, a white male University of New Hampshire professor who was called out for being fake after posing as a Black woman on Twitter.

Calling himself “the Science Femme, Woman in STEM,” Chapman hid behind his false identity as “an immigrant woman of color who grew up in poverty” while bragging about how he shut down an effort by his department to issue a statement denouncing racism and white supremacy.

After Twitter users noticed an uncanny resemblance between tweets from the Science Femme and Chapman’s personal account, an internal email from UNH’s chemistry chair, Glen Miller, confirmed that “the fake Twitter account was in fact set up and run by” Chapman.

“There were a large number of things written by Craig that ranged from unfortunate to hurtful to deeply offensive. These statements do not represent me, nor the collegial, collaborative, accepting department in which I have had the privilege to work for the past 25 years… I reject those statements and their intent, wholeheartedly. But even so, I do not reject Craig. I am not giving up on Craig,” wrote Miller, who added he was “hoping” the scandal wouldn’t end Chapman’s academic career.

Chapman’s curious behavior echoes that of many before him — including, most recently, Jessica Krug, an activist and George Washington University professor of African American history who, like Rachel Dolezal, passed as Black for years; Satchuel Paigelyn Cole (aka Jennifer Benton), a prominent member of Indiana’s “Activists of Color” who falsely identified as Black; and CV Vitolo-Haddad, a University of Madison-Wisconsin graduate student and teacher who passed as Black, eventually apologizing and resigning as an instructor.

As for Chapman’s stunt, that “was about getting one over on the feminists,” sociologist and professor Jessie Daniels, author of “White Lies and Cyber Racism,” tells Yahoo Life. She compares it to trolling and the right-wing concept of “owning the libs,” calling it “pathological,” “stupid” and “asinine.”

But she also explains that this sort of “identity tourism” is “very old in terms of the internet phenomenon.”

In her 2002 book Cybertypes: Race, Ethnicity, and Identity on the Internet, University of Michigan professor Lisa Nakamura described online “theatrical and discursive spaces where identity is performed, swapped, bought, and sold in both textual and graphic media,” thus creating the “opportunity” for “identity tourism” to arise, noting that “tourists operate from a position of privilege and entitlement,” as they “possess mobility, access, and the capital to satisfy curiosities about ‘native’ life.”

Says Daniels, “One of the first things that people did when the internet first started was ‘change’ their identity. That was just a routine thing people used to do and it was very easy to do in the days of text only internet,” noting that this became less common as the internet became more visual. On top of that, she calls the “recent change in the political landscape” a “game changer,” as she says it has encouraged attacks against marginalized communities and “anybody to the left-of-center on the internet,” while emboldening people on the right.

But what about when the trickery happens in real life?

Lauren Michele Jackson, an assistant professor of English at Northwestern University and the author of White Negroes: When Cornrows Were in Vogue… and Other Thoughts on Cultural Appropriation, writes about Krug in the New Yorker, calling out “advisers and committee members and editors and colleagues” who “failed to recognize the gap… between something thrown-on and something lived-in,” calling that popular shortcoming “Krug’s escape hatch.”

Further, Jackson calls out academia, where so much of this fakery seems to live: “But then there is another story that helps account for how someone who looks like Krug can blend in, so to speak: the story of how the lightest among us have a way of perpetuating their lightness over generations, prizing it as it is prized by the institutions they move within. This presents an odd paradox among the scholars presumably best poised to confront white supremacy from inside the university: all of this light skin is not incidental to how Black studies sees itself — to who is promoted, professionally and ideologically, within the field, and to who is extended, as Krug was extended, so much benefit of the doubt.”

In addition to the examples of those posing as Black come others in which white people falsely claim other marginalized identities. In August, for example, BethAnn McLaughlin, a former assistant professor at Vanderbilt University, was found to be behind a fake Twitter account through which she pretended to be a Native American science professor at Arizona State University — who then caught COVID-19 and died. She’d used the fake account to promote a petition that was pushing to get her actual self tenured at Vanderbilt.

Last year, Sen. Elizabeth Warren publicly apologized for years of identifying herself as Cherokee, removing the DNA test results from her website that she initially felt proved the claim. And in 2015, Andrea Smith, an academic and activist, was denounced by five Cherokee scholars for claiming to be part of the tribe — but doubled down, maintaining that her "enrollment status [did] not impact [her] Cherokee identity.” Still, David Cornsilk, a Cherokee genealogist, confirmed that Smith had no ties to any documented Cherokee relatives.

Back in 2011, a widely-cited blog, Gay Girl in Damascus, which was to have been about the experiences of a young lesbian from Syria, turned out to be penned by a middle-aged American grad student named Tom McMaster, who was living in Scotland at the time. Further, the creator of a website called Lez Get Real, which published McMaster’s tall tales, identified as a white lesbian deaf mother of twins —but turned out to be 51-year-old Bill Graber.

Roots of such appropriation run deep

In 2017’s Black for a Day: White Fantasies of Race and Empathy, Florida State University professor Alisha Gaines explores this trend. It looks back at 1948, when white journalist Ray Sprigle attempted to live as a Black man for a month, and to 1961, when author John Howard Griffin also tried his hand at “becoming” Black, even writing a book about it — Black Like Me. Griffin then inspired and gave his blessing to a white woman named Grace Halsell, who wrote 1969’s Soul Sister, about her own experience pretending to be Black. Afterwards, she went on to do a book about life as a Native American and another about life as a Mexican immigrant, despite being a part of neither community.

Despite these writers' claims to be well-intentioned and only in search of understanding, Gaines argues “that there was, and still is, a faulty cultural logic that places enormous faith in the idea that empathy is all that white Americans need to make a significant difference in how to racially navigate our society.”

Both Daniels and activist El Jones say the root of such appropriation lies in the “construction of whiteness,” as author David Roediger called it. Jones recently explained to Yahoo Life that many groups currently considered to be white weren't considered to be so until the late 19th century. “As America committed genocide against indigenous people, while simultaneously waging war in the Philippines, whiteness became consolidated in response to colonial violence — because they needed all hands on deck for whiteness,” she said.

Jones further explained that within this construct, “whiteness [became] known as a ‘civilized’ identity and in doing that, white people also feel that they’ve lost something.” She added that white people began to see Black people as noble savages which, she said, fuels a “nostalgia,” yet causes them disgust — a concept discussed by Graduate Center historian and professor Eric Lott in his book Love & Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class. Because of this, Daniels says, there is “no beating heart or center to whiteness, so when people sort of started to come to terms with that, they started looking for other cultures to take from.”

Daniels adds that Black culture has always been a popular target of appropriation because of how “fabulous” it is. “It's so generative and there's so much music, fashion, art, films and books that come out of Black culture, it seems there would be an aesthetic appeal” for those looking to “steal” a culture. However, she notes, “Like Greg Tate says, they want ‘everything but the burden.’”

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