Recently it was revealed that a Spokane NAACP officer and Africana Studies professor named Rachel Dolezal has been pretending to be black for nearly a decade, according to her Caucasian birth parents. It’s an unusual and polarizing story, but not one without precedent. On a number of occasions in American history, dating back to before the Civil War, individuals of a number of races have claimed or implied that they were actually of another race. And there’s an even longer history of individuals of differing races altering their names, skin color, and hair to succeed in America. The individuals that preceded Dolezal in “passing” have done so for a variety of reasons. Some have done it to prove a point, some did it to get jobs, and at least one of them was just really into jazz. We’ve collected the most interesting stories of people pretending to be another race on this list to hopefully shine some more light on the subject.
The story about Dolezal pretending to be black for the last 10 years has created a massive outpouring of spite and confusion from people across the racial spectrum. Most people are just trying to understand why someone would be so deceptive. No one knows whether Dolezal’s alleged “passing,” which may have included false claims of having been racially harassed, was done in good faith or whether, like some of her predecessors in scandal, she decided to falsify an identity to advance her own interests.
Read on to learn more about these people who pretended to be other races. Included below are Dolezal, a white Texas politician who pretended to be black to gain votes, Mindy Kaling’s brother (yes, really!), and the American Indian Chief who probably first inspired you to recycle
C. B. Cebulski became Editor-in-Chief of Marvel Comics on November 27, 2017. One day later, Bleeding Cool published a piece revealing how Cebulski had written comics for Marvel for years, under the assumed name Akira Yoshida.
People had suspected Yoshida was a pseudonym for a while, though Cebulski always said he was a real person when asked. According to the stories, Yoshida was Japanese, but became involved in the world of American comics after going to fan conventions. Apparently Yoshida was devised as a way for Cebulski to write comics for his employer while simultaneously working as an editor, a practice outlawed by Marvel.
In 1990, out of work Vietnam Vet Ward Churchill was hired by the University of Colorado as a diversity hire, due to his claim of being a member of a tribe called the United Keetoowah Band. It turns out this a tribe that gives out membership to many non-native celebs, including Bill Clinton. In fact, the University fast-tracked Churchill to a Ph.D., and, in turn, fast-tracked themselves into looking like dummies.
Everyone who grew up in the ’80s remembers the series of PSAs starring “Chief” Iron Eyes Cody. By trashing the environment you brought a sad, single tear to the old Chief’s eyes, or did you?
Born Espera de Corti, the son of Sicilian immigrants, he went into acting at an early age but couldn’t break onto the big screen. Iron Eyes married an American Indian woman and adopted two American Indian sons. Cody stuck by his lie, even when a New Orleans newspaper ran a full story exposing his non-native background.
One of the defining silver screen sex symbols, Rita Hayworth was born with the much less American-sounding name, Margarita Carmen Cansino. Raised in a Spanish dance family (which is a thing?), she moved to California at age 16 where upon signing with Columbia Pictures she underwent several painful surgeries to visually erase her heritage. The procedures included hairline electrolysis and skin lightening. She also changed her name. However, she did get to marry a prince, so there’s that.
Milton “Mezz” Mezzrow
A musician who played with some of the early greats of jazz, Mezzrow married a black woman, lived in Harlem, and called himself a “voluntary Negro.” Unlike some of the others on this list, he doesn’t appear to have tried to hide the fact that he wasn’t “actually” black -except for the time he was imprisoned after being caught with marijuana at the 1940 World’s Fair in Queens.
In his autobiography, Really the Blues, he recounts being arraigned his imprisonment, ” ‘Mr. Slattery,’ I said, ‘I’m colored, even if I don’t look it, and I don’t think I’d get along in the white blocks, and besides, there might be some friends of mine in Block Six and they’d keep me out of trouble’. Mr. Slattery jumped back, astounded, and studied my features real hard. He seemed a little relieved when he saw my nappy head. ‘I guess we can arrange that,’ he said.”
Wilson, described in this local news story as a “gleeful political troublemaker” and anti-gay activist, ran for a spot on the Houston Community College board in a predominately black district in 2013. His campaign materials featured stock photos of black individuals emblazoned with the words “Please vote for our friend and neighbor Dave Wilson.”
Wilson proudly announced his deception after winning the election – and is serving his term.
In the December 1969 issue of Ebony magazine, Halsell, a journalist and writer, recounts how she lived for six months as a black woman. Born and raised in Fort Worth, TX, to a family that owned slaves, Halsell was inspired to embark on the experiment by John Howard Griffin’s book, Black Like Me. She took pills that were used to alleviate pigmentation problems, supplemented by extensive tanning sessions, to cross the color barrier.
Jesús Ángel García
“Jesús,” who didn’t mention their real name in their statement, claims they couldn’t bear to put their real name on their novel because their book was so transgressive. Their thinking followed that if, “the provocative content of this book is ever associated with my birth name, I might not only lose my livelihood but harm a lot of people I care about.” But “Jesús” didn’t stop with a pen name. They began to make personal appearances where their cultural appropriation took on its final form.
During personal appearances, this writer (who remains anonymous) would allow people to refer to them as their pen name, all the while knowing they were committing cultural appropriation for the sake of keeping a readership. “The first few times, when folks would ask if it was Jesús or Jesus, I would give them the Jesús pronunciation, since that was the name on the spine of the book. Soon, though, I found myself playing preacher: “Whatever makes you happy, my child.”Let’s have fun with blasphemy! I never meant to hurt or disrespect anyone (other than True Believers, perhaps, if they happened to get caught in the crossfire).”
This middle aged, white poet who taught at a university in Illinois lived a double (and kind of triple) life as the revered, deceased, Japanese poet Araki Yasusada, whose work focused on his solitary life after surviving the bombing of Hiroshima. While putting together a book of his work featuring sparse diary entires, drawings, and scraps of paper with various translations, it was discovered that Araki Yasusada was actually a Japanese translator named Tosa Motokiyu. Except there was no Tosa Motokiyu, there was only Kent Johnson.
Michael Derrick Hudson
Michael Derrick Hudson is a white middle aged poet from Indiana whose work has been rejected from publication so many times that he actually created they nom de plume “Yi-Fen Chou” in order to get his poetry into circulation. His cultural appropriation came to light after the publication of a poem titled “The Bees, the Flowers, Jesus, Ancient Tigers, Poseidon, Adam and Eve” in the 2015 edition of The Best American Poetry.
Hudson admits that whenever one of his pieces is passed over he uses his Chinese-sounding pseudonym and sends the work back to the publishers. Hudson claims that the whole thing (the “thing” being cultural appropriation) is an allusion to the Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa, who wrote under imaginary identities, or “heteronyms.” It’s been argued that Hudson’s appropriation of an Asian-sounding name is crass Orientalism, while some people in the literary community believe it to be an artistic stunt meant to draw a closer look at our investment in diversity.