Today, I want to talk about the harmful effects of misrepresenting one's identity, particularly in the diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) space, and talk through the recent news of a DEI professional who is facing allegations that she misrepresented herself as a mixed-race woman.
Specifically, we'll be discussing Raquel Evita Saraswati, who for years presented herself as a queer Muslim activist of Latina, South Asian, and Arab descent. Her mother recently came forward, speaking to The Intercept (I’ll link the article), sharing that Saraswati’s birth name is Rachel Elizabeth Seidel and that she is of British, German, and Italian descent.
It's worth noting that misrepresenting one's race or identity is not a new issue, and there have been similar cases like this in the past, such as Rachel Dolezal, a white woman who pretended to be Black and worked as a prominent activist and leader of the NAACP.
The harm caused by misrepresentation is significant, particularly in the DEI space where authenticity and lived experiences are crucial to effectively support and advocate for marginalized communities.
In the case of Saraswati, as I mentioned, she allegedly misrepresented herself as being of Latina, South Asian, and Arab descent, which directly undermines the unique experiences and voices of those who actually were born into those identities. This is especially problematic because she worked in the DEI space as a "professional,” with her most recent role being Chief Equity, Inclusion and Culture Officer at AFSC, American Friends Service Committee—which as The Intercept states in the article, is “a prominent Quaker organization known for its progressive values and social justice advocacy in the U.S. and abroad.” She’s also co-founded the Muslim Alliance for Sexual and Gender Diversity (MASGD), as well as a group called Sacred Justice, which, again to quote “The Intercept” is “a coalition of faith leaders dedicated to racial and social justice.” And she also served as chair of the Philadelphia Mayor’s Commission on LGBTQ+ Affairs. As a quick side bar, she has since resigned from the AFSC, but it doesn’t appear that she’s responded to an open letter from her peers, nor has she offered any explanation or apology.
Authenticity and trust are foundational when it comes to DEI. When someone working int he DEI space pretends to be someone they are not, especially someone belonging to a marginalize group, it undermines the trust of those who rely on that person for guidance and expertise, while also failing to bring any authentic representation of themselves into the DEI space. And that authenticity piece matters, even for white women working in this space, because we all need to be aware of the power and privilege that we carry.
Misrepresenting oneself also harms the organizations that you’re working with, as it erodes trust and undermines the DEI work that has been done. When organizations hire DEI professionals, they are looking for individuals with a deep understanding of the issues and a genuine commitment to creating change. By hiring someone who is lying about their identity, an organization cannot benefit from the expertise of a qualified DEI professional. It also causes credibility to be loss for DEI in general. And makes it hard for those who are honest to rebuild trust for the work itself.
Cultural appropriation, which occurs when individuals from a dominant culture take elements from a marginalized culture without proper understanding, respect, or permission, is another issue that has real-world consequences. The cases of Saraswati and Dolezal are just two examples of a much larger issue of people co-opting and profiting from the experiences of marginalized communities. We see it all the time with white celebrities and influencers, who take on different aspects of marginalized cultures and identities, use it to their advantage (often for financial gain) and then, when they get tired of it, or it’s no longer benefiting them, they drop the act and return to their true identities.
In the case of Saraswati I saw a number of theories as to why she chose to misrepresent her race - some highlighted that it could have been politically driven (which I won’t get into, but that’s highlighted in The Intercept article). In a USA Today article (also linked) they highlight that it could be due to feeling guilty about white colonialism, or that it could have been career-driven (she maybe wanted to be perceived as a”minority,” is what they wrote).
Whatever the reason, the misrepresentation and cultural appropriation reinforces the power imbalance between dominant and marginalized cultures, and it normalizes the idea that a white person can simply claim an identity that is not their own and then have the choice to go back to who they really are, while the folks born into marginalized identities, have no choice and continue to fight through oppressive experiences, systems, processes, etc.
So to wrap it up for today, misrepresenting one's race or identity is a serious issue, especially when it happens in the DEI space. It's not just a matter of authenticity and respect, but also about the power dynamics that exist between cultures. It's imperative that we continue to have conversations about the harm caused by misrepresentation, to ensure that it does not become widely acceptable.
Drop a comment on YouTube and let me know what you think. Check out my workbook, The Inclusive Leadership Journal, and let me know what you think, and I’ll see you back here tomorrow!