The Elizabeth Hoover case exposes our fallacies about identity

Outrage at cases of falsely claimed Native identities is fuelled by the conflation of positionality with academic merit, says Jonathan Zimmerman

June 9, 2023
A native American head dress
Source: iStock

Did you hear the one about the white anthropologist who falsely identified as a Native American? It sounds like a joke, I know, but it’s deadly serious and far from an isolated case. And it speaks volumes about the confused state of academia these days, especially when it comes to questions of race.

In an apology published on her website last month, University of California, Berkeley professor Elizabeth Hoover wrote that she had long identified as “a woman of Mohawk and Mi’kmaq descent” but had failed to confirm, as an adult, that her “ancestors were who [she] was told they were” as a child.

She has now discovered that she doesn’t have the Native heritage she had claimed. So she has pledged to shed any vestiges of it. She will give away her Native moccasins, jewellery, and clothing “to people who will wear them better”. Most of all, she will “gear future research towards supporting people and communities with whom [she has] an authentic relationship”.

That hasn’t assuaged her critics, who have called on Berkeley to fire her.

No matter what happens to Hoover, however, the episode should make us question the worst fallacy of our age: that identity is destiny. We are all products of our race and gender, the story goes, which in turn determine how we think and act.

Let’s be clear: it’s wrong for scholars to misrepresent themselves – either knowingly or unknowingly – in competitions for jobs, grants and fellowships. If Hoover won any of these prizes or positions by making unsubstantiated claims about her background, that’s unfair to other candidates who told the truth.

She’s hardly the only scholar to fabricate an identity. In 2020, Jessica Krug resigned from a professorship at George Washington University after admitting she lied in calling herself Black. And earlier this year, University of Wisconsin artist and activist Kay LeClaire quit her post as a community leader in residence after critics said that she, like Hoover, incorrectly identified as Native.

Then comes the outrage. We are like jilted lovers, condemning these scholars for violating a sacred trust. But it’s worth asking why we admired them so much in the first place, and why we are so angry now.

Perhaps we lowered our standards for Elizabeth Hoover, praising her work about Native food sovereignty and environmental activism not because it was original or imaginative but because we thought she was Native.

That’s what I call racist anti-racism. It’s every bit as wrong to judge a book by its author's race as it is by its cover. And if you give a pass to a weak piece of work because it is produced by a scholar of colour, well, you don’t think very highly of scholars of colour. Period.

Or maybe we assume that that members of a given group have more insight into it. Now that we know that Hoover is not a member of Native groups, we feel forced to revise downwards our appraisal of her work. We resent her for having fooled us into thinking that she had important perceptions to convey. That denigrates minority scholars, too, by imagining that they don’t have to work as hard as the rest of us do.

I once heard a prominent African American historian declare that his race didn’t give him any more entrée into his subject of study – Black protest in the 19th and 20th centuries – than a non-Black scholar possessed. To understand the past, he said, he had to do what every other historian does: painstakingly collect thousands of pieces of evidence and construct a convincing narrative around them. His race had nothing to do with it.

But these distortions are all around us. Consider “positionality statements”. These have become commonplace in grant applications and even in some journal submissions. Candidates are encouraged to divulge their racial, ethnic, or gender background, and then explain how it influences their perspectives.

If Elizabeth Hoover submitted positionality statements, I would imagine that they emphasised how her Native heritage affected her choice of topics, research methods and theoretical framework. But that demonstrates the fundamental fraudulence of positionality, which biases our judgment by injecting race into it. If Hoover had something important to say when she was presenting herself as Native, it should remain every bit as important now that she isn’t. Her positionality is – or should be – irrelevant.

Let me repeat: Elizabeth Hoover should not have misrepresented her race. I will not defend her, because what she did was indefensible.

But this sorry tale says as much about us as it does about Hoover. We found out that she was not what she seemed. Yet she found us out, too, by inadvertently exposing our fallacies around identity. We will never forgive her for that.

Jonathan Zimmerman teaches education and history at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of Whose America? Culture Wars in the Public Schools, published last year in a revised 20th-anniversary edition by University of Chicago Press.

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Reader's comments (3)

Bang on! Couldn't agree more!
Just so. This is why anyone who has the temerity to ask me what "Race" I am gets told I'm a human being. I refuse to identify by skin colour or heritage, and this includes employment applications/records, the census, medical records, etc. In younger days I sometimes whimsically said "1500 metres", like the apocraphal fellow who presented with the question "Sex?" wrote "Yes, please", but I'm a bit past running these days. I am baffled, to be honest, why anyone puts so much store on things that we have no control over. Ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation... we don't get to choose, that's how we come into this world. Judge people, if you insist on judging them at all, by what they say and what they do - the stuff they have control over, stuff you can debate with them, maybe even convince them to change if you think they're wrong and you're persuasive enough. No amout of argument, however persuasive, can turn a Native American into a Chinese person. So why does it matter if one person happens to be Native American and another one Chinese?
What is Zimmerman's point? There is no logic here whatsoever..... Other, possibly, than sexism. Can anyone explain?


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