The events that lead up to—and the fallout from—a UW-Madison grad student’s outing for an extensive history of falsely identifying as a person of color.
I met CV Vitolo-Haddad in the summer of 2018 at OutReach LGBTQ+ Community Center. We were both attending an event that followed the last OutReach Pride parade, featuring HRC National Press Secretary and current Delaware candidate for State Senate Sarah McBride. McBride was taking questions from a small group of trans folks about HRC and their problematic past in regards to trans advocacy. CV and I spoke briefly at the event about academic interests and shared our trans coming out stories, which was memorable to me at the time, as I hadn’t met a lot of other trans non-binary folks that used they/them pronouns in Madison.
CV and I didn’t become close friends, but we shared some close friends, social circles, social media circles, and activist groups. We were never close enough for me to learn CV’s backstory or to have an opinion of them outside of what I saw on social media. Their social media image told a story of interactions with academics, queer leftist activists, mutual aid networks, and gun advocates, as well as with Proud Boys and other white supremacists. Their professed intentions with befriending Proud Boys and white supremacists were framed as research as well as an attempt to expose the fallacies in misogynistic, white supremacist thinking. CV seemed to simultaneously exude both altruism and arrogance, a combination that is not uncommon in both academia and leftist activist circles. I expected to hear people question and challenge CV, their many identities, their politics, and their principles, their controversial platforming of Proud Boys and white supremacists; however, I never thought to question their claims of African and Cuban ancestry. That is until I read the compelling anonymous claims made in a Medium blog entitled, “CV Vitolo ‘Haddad’: Another Academic Racial Fraud?” and the fallout that ensued on September 4, 2020.
Outing and fallout
The first response I saw from CV about these allegations was in a post denying their racial fraudulence on their Facebook page—which has since been deactivated. The response from the activist community was as confusing as the fraudulent racial claims, with white folks and Black, Brown, Indigenous, and People of Color (BBIPOC) defending and attacking CV, and one another. Friends came to CV’s defense with a ferocity that was matched by those who were ready to pounce on any claim that brought CV down, those who were suspicious of CV’s claims, and those who were destroyed by the realization that their friend, TA, confidant, partner, fellow activist, comrade, street medic, fundraiser, and role model had built their racial identity on lies and racial and rhetorical ambiguity. CV’s responses went from arrogance and indignation, to awkward and elusive half-apologies. It is no surprise that an academic champion of rhetoric has an answer for every question and deflection of any accountability for the questions that remain.
It was quite the disaster to watch in real time, as it was painfully obvious that CV had built many parts of their academic and activist identities on twisted rhetoric, while folks were reckoning with the fact that CV had forged deep relationships through their altruistic work with the Dane County Community Defense Fund and Covid Mutual Aid efforts, as well as helping as a street medic in local and regional protests in support of the Movement for Black Lives. Our community had to reckon with the question of how could someone so seemingly dedicated to the cause—and by all appearances so giving to others—be exploiting racial and rhetorical ambiguity for their own personal and professional gain?
Other recent stories
I was not entirely surprised by CV’s racial fraudulence considering the stories of Rachel Dolezal—an academic and artist who was working at the NAACP when it was uncovered that Dolezal had lied about her racial identity—and Jessica Krug—UW-Madison alum, academic, and activist who admitted to fabricating her North African/Caribbean racial identity which she had used to advance her career and to secure funding for her research. And while there has been plenty written about CV, Jessica Krug, and Rachel Dolezal, what their motivations were and what they gained from claiming to be Black, their stories are more complex than their personal actions, especially when considering that they used what they learned from being white to protect and insulate themselves from questions about their racial identity. They used what they knew about white fragility and racial politics to use their fraudulent racial identity as a weapon of manipulation that was impenetrable due to the complexities of how BBIPOC experience racial identity politics, both personally and systematically, as well as the very real and credible assertion that white folks cannot question the legitimacy of a BBIPOC’s racial identity.
CV undoubtedly benefited from the assumption, presumption, and posturing that they were not white, effectively taking attention and resources away from BBIPOC folks. They weaponized their racial lie to silence and delegitimize actual BBIPOC folks, while claiming to uphold a politic rooted in racial justice. CV’s research that focused on Proud Boys and other alt-right white supremacist groups in an effort to expose the fallacies in their beliefs, as well as attempt to convert them to antiracists, has been brought up a lot in the context of their fraudulent racial claims, both in the terms of giving space and credibility to white supremacist rhetoric as well as through questionable actions such as dressing up as a Nazi avatar for Halloween and shouting down BBIPOC who challenged or disagreed with them. This should have been an indicator of their whiteness as they were hoping to save the white supremacists from whiteness, from themselves. It begs the question, was CV’s research an attempt to absolve themselves of the guilt of pushing a false racial narrative?
Or was it a misguided attempt to undermine the construct of race through rhetorical gymnastics and performative racial ambiguity? An attempt that would really only serve to uphold white supremacy and reinforce the notion of colorblindness rather than the recognition of the fallacy of race as a construct that was created by white men in order to hold power over others they deemed less-than, and to rationalize the subjugation of those with dark skin and/or who were not deemed white.
How many people protected CV and actively hid the truth? How can we hold our community members accountable if they are held to such esteem that the only way to expose their fraud is through an anonymous Medium post? We must also consider the disparity in fallout between white folks fraudulently claiming to be BBIPOC, who are impacted by losing material and social standings, and BBIPOC who pass as white who face violence and death if they are found to be BBIPOC. The stakes are higher because of white privilege, because although white privilege doesn’t shield someone from losing their job, their community, and their livelihood, it can protect them from immediate physical harm and violence.
At the core of these incidents of racial fraud is whiteness, because only whiteness can benefit from racial fraud. Whiteness lays the foundation. Whiteness gives the language. Whiteness allows the ambiguous manipulation. Whiteness protects whiteness. And whiteness is at the center of both the questions and the answers to this phenomenon of betrayal, of racial fraudulence, and of centering individual identity politics over collective justice.
The role of whiteness
Only in the system of white supremacy can white folks use racial ambiguity to their advantage, because when a person who claims to be Black is really white, they are insulated by the safety of whiteness, whereas when a BBIPOC person is caught passing for white, the punishment is the violence of whiteness. Violence which cannot be overlooked in the context of BBIPOC and the atrocity of colonization, enslavement, genocide, and miscegenation that BBIPOC have experienced in the history of the U.S., the American continents, the legacy of the British empire, and globally—especially in the context of racial politics where colorism has been a tool of whiteness that shifts blame away from whiteness and onto “white passing” and light-skinned BBIPOC. This shift in blame from whiteness places “white passing” and light-skinned BBIPOC in the position of not being white enough while also giving them opportunities that their dark-skinned community members are not given. And while some “white passing” and light-skinned BBIPOC have been able to use their racial ambiguity to expose and exploit white supremacy in the name of antiracism and racial justice, it has also come at the cost of erasure, loss of agency, exploitation, and imposter syndrome.
Historic & current impacts of racial fraud
The depth of the harm that racial fraud causes, especially with white folks pretending to be light-skinned Black folks, needs to be recognized and named for what it is as it has historically and currently impacts BBIPOC and how BBIPOC are treated. We must consider actions such as the paper bag tests, skin bleaching, Westernization plastic surgery, fetishization of “exoticness,” hair straightening and rules prohibiting natural hairstyles, and frankly, too many forms of dehumanization that is normalized in white supremacy socialization. We must also consider the historical roots in terms of laws that determine personhood: Blood quantums and the one drop rule were used to oppress even “white-passing” folks through ethnic/racialized genetic ancestry, deepening the false narrative of racialization that fed a white supremacist racial hierarchy; racialization that white folks have used to exploit cultures that they do not belong to, to co-opt racial oppression that they have not experienced, and to absolve themselves of the guilt and shame of whiteness; and a perverse interpersonal neocolonialism, an extreme form of cultural appropriation, appropriating oppression.
CV claimed ancestry and culture that was not theirs to claim: Black, Cuban, Habesha, Latinx, as well as possibly claiming other racial/cultural identities. CV continues to refer to themselves as Italian/Southern Italian instead of referring to themself as white. It is surprising that their racial/ethnic claims were not publicly brought into question considering a dossier entitled “A Third Step,” released shortly after their racial fraudulence was exposed, was able to easily trace back all four sets of CV’s great grandparents using census data, showing that they are ¾ Italian descent, ¼ Austrian descent, and that all four sets of great grandparents identified as white. And while it is necessary as white folks to believe that anyone claiming to identify as BBIPOC is who they say they are, we know that white folks are quick to look into BBIPOC’s past and ancestry to attack their credibility. Whether this is through the “birtherism” that BBIPOC political candidates face, or whether it is through CCAP and looking up criminal records, the default for whiteness is to question the authority and credibility of BBIPOC who dare to enter white-dominated spaces. This is not to say that BBIPOC people need to take the lead in outing folks who are claiming to be a member of their community, as we know that whiteness and white supremacy defends itself, and that whiteness will take any BBIPOC intercommunity turmoil and use it against that community in the name of white supremacy. Rather, the question is, how do we deal with issues of racial fraudulence within our communities without furthering a narrative of suspicion of BBIPOC, while also recognizing that BBIPOC cannot necessarily trust white folks to have their best interests in mind when calling suspicion to someone’s claims of racial identity?
Only white people get to have ancestry work both ways, where they can sit in the comfort of whiteness, while claiming oppression through ancestry. This is not to erase the historical trauma that many ethnic white folks have experienced in the past, however, ethnic white genocide has been perpetrated by white people who decided that a certain ethnic identity was, for lack of better words, not white enough. But this is 2020, and in the U.S., white folks, regardless of their ethnic backgrounds, have white privilege, which doesn’t mean that life is easy for all white folks, but rather that our racial/ethnic identity isn’t making our lives more difficult. This should go without saying, but considering the current political regime, and the recent Executive Order prohibiting the use of federal funds for antiracism and antisexism training that names the socio-political mechanisms of current and historical discrimination, and names such trainings “unpatriotic,” it is imperative that white folks, and cisgender men, use their privilege to understand, recognize, and fight oppressive systems at the cost of our own unearned privilege.
While the impact that this uncovering has had on CV has been inarguably devastating, and it is unlikely they can regain credibility in academia, much less their community, it is possible for them to choose to move on, move away, reinvent themselves and leave this mess behind. They’ve already worked on concealing and protecting themselves through deactivating their social media accounts. Of course, they can’t leave this incident completely behind as the evidence exists even when social media pages are deleted and even when the person moves on, but they could find a way through this that doesn’t require accountability and transformative justice.
However, I hope that they choose to travel a path of accountability and transform the harm they have caused. I hope that they can look at the pain that they have caused themselves and others. I hope that they take full responsibility for the active role they played in their own undoing and really face the totality of their actions. And even though they can choose a path of leaving it all behind and moving on without giving the community closure, I hope they can choose to truly transform the harm they’ve caused by de-centering themselves, de-platforming themselves, and using every ounce of privilege that they have to uplift the BBIPOC who deserved every opportunity that CV was given through their racial fraudulence.
But before we can discuss what that looks like, CV is going to have to admit to their loved ones, community, and most importantly themselves what they did, why they did it, and how they can transform the harm they caused without looking for absolution. It will be hard work but if they truly center a politic of justice, it is the just way to try to repair the harm that they inflicted—hard work that I authentically hope they take on, and take on selflessly.
Additionally, it is necessary for all of us to reflect on what part we all play and continue to play in upholding white supremacy, racialization, and systems of oppression, especially within the greater LGBTQ+ community, and particularly in the activist community in Madison. We need to continue to ask ourselves, and really honestly answer: “Who am I centering in my antiracism efforts? How am I benefitting from what I am willing to tolerate in defense of whiteness? What do I really have to lose in speaking out against white supremacy? And how do I move closer to antiracism rooted in collective liberation?”
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