The Politics of Ethnic Fraud

Guest post by Avigail Eisenberg

When I was growing up, my best friend and I would play what I now recognize to be a kind of ‘Jewish identity game’. We would identify different celebrities and historical figures who were Jewish or partly Jewish. My friend was much better than I at this game. She told me that Goldie Hawn was Jewish as was Sigmund Freud, and Bob Dylan. It wasn’t all good news – she claimed Hitler was partly Jewish as was Stalin (no idea where she got this). But there was lots of compensation for these stains in people like Karl Marx and Sammy Davis Jr! She had a book about Jewish communities all over the world, with pictures of the Chinese Jewish community, Indian Jews, Ethiopian Jews, and many more that I’m forgetting. There was no winning or losing this game (no fact checking or challenging). It was about impressing ourselves about our shared identity by creating a sense that so many people (and especially celebrities like Goldie Hawn!) were part of our tribe.

The game had a nice ethic about it especially in contrast to how our sniffy Jewish community treated some of its members. Half-breeds, including those who ‘nobody knew where they were really from’, were recognized as such, even by us 10 year olds. As I grew older, I realized they included people like me whose mother was a convert. Despite my father’s efforts to give me a name that sealed my fate identity-wise, my friends likely talked about my questionable lineage and sometimes parroted what they probably heard their parents whispering about my family. I have never had misgivings about my name or who I am. In fact, it’s been a useful touchstone in my scholarship. Nonetheless, I made sure to give my son a different kind of name so that he can feel part of a different kind of community than the one I grew up in (which had its virtues, though inclusion was not one of them).

I reflect on this part of my childhood as I read about Joseph Boyden and Andrea Smith, two authors whose work I admire – Boyden for his wonderful historical novels about First Nations in Canada and Smith for her searing analysis of sexual assault and colonialism. Both authors were thought to be part of the broader Indigenous communities in North America, both represented themselves as such (or allowed themselves to be represented as such) and both have been recently outed as having no connection to any of these communities at all. They are, as Hayden King recently described them,  ‘playing Indian’. And as King suggests, there is lots wrong with this form of ‘ethnic fraud’. It misrepresents Indigenous peoples; it takes resources away from them, (such as grants and awards for their work), it alienates those struggling to find their identities and it sabotages what King calls “the necessary work of rebuilding Indigenous nations.”

There are very few similarities between my experience, growing up in a wealthy, white Jewish community in Canada in the 1960s ad 70s, and the experiences of Indigenous peoples in Canada today (or back then) except that what is going on with respect to Boyden, Smith and others reminded me of my experience growing up and how suffocating I found the politics of authenticity in my community. But that’s hardly the whole story.

As King suggests, within some communities, losing sight of who is a member can be the source of real problems. This is especially true for communities that have suffered terrible historical injustices and now are seeking (and gaining) recognition and restitution. In Canada today, ongoing and contested claims about the historical injustices that Indigenous peoples have suffered are reported daily, including unresolved land claims and abrogated treaty rights, skepticism about the actual intentions behind government-led programs of coercive assimilation, policies that led to starvation, and residential schools. In order for such claims to be acknowledged and settled, there has to be a survivor – someone, some community, some group – whose circumstances might be used to track the effects of these injustices and to whom restitution for injustice is due. If a survivor no longer exists or if the survivors and perpetrators are now part of the same ‘mixed’ community then who is owed or owes restitution? Owing restitution to no one or owing it to everyone amounts to the same thing as far as historical injustice goes. It amounts to owing nothing. And as for ‘posers’, well, in such circumstances, an ethical disposition to include all those who self-identify as members may have the benefit of extending the reach, scope and influence of the community, as people from all walks of life and all over the world become imagined kin. But it also blurs the lines between insiders and outsiders. It makes it more difficult to identify who has suffered and this can be experienced as a real loss for the community that struggles to survive. The peril of drawing the line using an ethic of self-identification is that we lose sight of who is a survivor.

The more alive and real are the politics of reconciliation and restitution, the more we can expect contestation about authenticity and accusations of ‘ethnic fraud’. This isn’t a pretty kind of politics but it is understandable when something important is still contested and at stake. In contrast with Indigenous communities in Canada today, not much was at stake for the Jewish community in which I grew up. Herein lies one of the drawbacks of this kind of identity politics. The peril of drawing the line using an ethic of authenticity is that this can become part of a community’s identity even where grievances are mild. It can be suffocating.

Communities choose whether to welcome those who self-identify or not. It’s not an easy choice. Not to welcome self-identifiers can protect religious and ethnic authenticity and help collective self-preservation. But self-preservation has a nasty side. It can keep communities together or turn people away from communities they identify with. It can create its own kind of ‘poser’ as members grapple to demonstrate that they are not frauds. And it can lead some people, who can’t be bothered with this kind of community politics, to seek more inclusive communities if they can or help their children belong to such a broader community.


The Politics of Ethnic Fraud — 2 Comments

  1. Eisenberg makes a number of assumptions here that I don’t believe are all that relevant. Firstly, she frames the issue as one of “inclusion” vs. “exclusion” (i.e., whether communities should include self-identifiers or exclude them). Eisenberg even goes as far as to define “inclusion” as a question of “membership” by dedicating a whole paragraph to a discussion of restitution (i.e., restitution in most forms would require the ability to identify the individuals who would receive it). Eisenberg concludes that there are pros and cons inherent when communities try to define what is authentic.

    This completely misses the point of the current controversy.

    As a number of Indigenous writers wrote in response to Andrea Smith’s misrepresentation of herself, the REAL issue is not about the “punitive or the exclusionary”, but the “profound need for transparency and responsibility in light of the traumatic histories of colonization, slavery, and genocide that shape the present”. The actions of Andrea Smith (and similarly Boyden) “undermines the integrity and vibrancy of Cherokee cultural and political survival. Her lack of clarity and consistency in her self-presentation adds to the vulnerability of the communities and constituents she purports to represent, including students and activists she mentors and who cite and engage her work” (

    I don’t see anything “suffocating” about calling Andrea Smith, or Joseph Boyden, out for this. There is no drawback to calling out someone for a lack of accountability and transparency.

    • Thanks for your comment and for the url about Andrea Smith. I hadn’t seen this.

      It seems to me there are two issues. One is the issue I address directly about inclusion and membership or who can call themselves ‘one of us’ (whoever the ‘us’ happens to be). This issue often involves criteria for who counts as an authentic member. The criteria can be official and imposed by governments or it can be informal and imposed by communities. The concerns I raise, about membership and exclusion, are at the centre of the current controversy and are also centrally important to the authors of the letter you cite. On one hand, they state that amongst their concerns, are “the Cherokee Nation’s disenfranchisement of the Freedmen” and “efforts to expunge the rolls of entire families in indigenous nations across this continent.” Disenfranchisement and expunging the rolls of entire families are two forms of exclusion and two ways in which groups of people were historically denied membership. On the other hand, they also argue that “playing Indian is enabled by and supports the dominant narrative that indigenous peoples are vanishing or already vanished.” As I understand it, their argument here is similar to mine, namely that if everyone counts as Indigenous then Indigenous people are everywhere and restitution is owed to no one.

      A second issue, which you point to, is the issue of lying or lacking transparency about one’s identity. I agree with you entirely that this is also part of the current controversy, and nothing in my post was intended to deny it. But beyond calling Boyden out, I’m curious about why people are not transparent about their origins and identity. In the case of Boyden, he is accused of misrepresenting his identity for personal gain, but there are many reasons why people dissemble about who they are and where they’re from. Audra Simpson, one of the authors cited in the letter you post, has an interesting discussion of this in her recent book, Mohawk Interruptus, about being questioned by customs agents about who she is and where she’s from while crossing the US-Canadian border. Her account is striking in revealing some of the complexities about how we represent our identity. My sense is that people are often manipulated by the many incentives around them to represent themselves as part of this group or that and to represent others as outside this group or that. As in the case at hand, these incentives are often established by the dominant group which, after all, has a huge stake in controlling the membership of peoples they have subjugated and oppressed. That’s also part of the politics of ethnic fraud.

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