Ethics of Inquiry, Philosophy and Current Issues

The Importance (or Otherwise) of ‘Authentic’ Race

I recently read two stories about anti-racism activists who confessed that they were not, as they had previously claimed, African-American. One of the stories can be found here. The activist in question now says, “I have taken up space as a Black person while knowing I am white. I have used Blackness when it was not mine to use.”

An academic who was disappointed by the revelation remarks, “Every person who has come into contact with this advocate did so with the understanding that she had lived and experienced her life as a Black woman, and she has broken that trust with the community.”

As this is a blog for philosophy rather than gossip, it would be inappropriate to delve further into the uncomfortable details of this particular case, or into the details of the specific people involved. But some of the general philosophical issues here are worth thinking through. Perhaps some readers might like to help sort them out in the comments.

To begin with, what answers do you give to the following three questions?

1. Imagine two equally 30-year-old committed pro-African-American activists, Mary and Carrie, who look similar enough that the two of them could be mistaken for each other on the street if they lived in the same city. Both of them do similar work, have a similar education, and have similar incomes, and were raised by single mothers with similar educations and similar incomes. Neither of them ever met their fathers, but Mary’s father was (by some plausible standard) African-American, while Carrie’s was not. They both heard correct information about the race of their fathers when they were nine years old, when their mothers mentioned it. Does it follow from this that Mary has ‘lived and experienced her life as a Black woman’ while Carrie has not, and that Mary has knowledge about what it’s like to be African-American that Carrie lacks?

2. Sherry is another 30-year-old committed pro-African-American activist, living in another city. She is similar to Mary and Carrie in all the ways Mary and Carrie are similar to each other. When she was nine years old, her mother told her that her father was African-American, but in fact he was not. Carrie discovers this at age 30. She does not have any reason to believe that any of her mother’s ancestors were African-American. Does it follow from this that Sherry has not ‘lived and experienced her life as a Black woman’ after all?

3. Terry is yet another 30-year-old committed pro-African-American activist, similar to the other three in the same ways they are all similar to each other. Like Carrie, she understood from age nine that she had no known African-American ancestors; but unlike Carrie, who always told people that she was white, Terry has told people for years that she’s African-American. According to Cole, it is wrong to ‘take up space as a Black person’ if you knowingly belong to a different race, as Terry now does. According to Okamoto, it is important for those coming into contact with an African-American advocate to know whether the advocate has ‘lived and experienced her life as a Black woman’.

What do you think about Carrie, Sherry, and Terry? Which ones can have lived and experienced their lives as African-Americans? And which ones, if any, should now step down from their positions as African-American advocates?


  1. Anonymous

    heres what i dont get, what does it mean to take up space as a black person to begin with? do black and white people take up space differently?

  2. Wonderful views on that!