March 16, 2023 - 4:00pm

This week, Vianne Timmons, the president of the Memorial University of Newfoundland, announced that she was taking a leave of absence after the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation raised doubts over her purported indigenous ancestry. 

Timmons, whose claims of Native American heritage are redolent of Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren’s long-time but ultimately disproven assertion of a similar background, is but the latest in a long line of racial identity fraudsters, of whom there seem to be more being exposed on a daily basis. Prior to Timmons’s admission that she “sincerely regrets any hurt or confusion” from her outright deception, Raquel Saraswati — a self-proclaimed “Muslim progressive activist” and equity, inclusion, and culture officer for the Quaker nonprofit American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) — was outed as Rachel Seidel, a white woman of Western European descent. 

Saraswati, whose mother described her as being “as white as the driven snow”, resigned from her role in response to the revelation. Her story, unlike Timmons’s or Warren’s more measured deceit, is one of the lifelong clout chaser who “identity-frauded” her way into a privileged field. Saraswati claimed to have converted to Islam as a student at a private high school in Troy, New York, after which she emerged in the 2000s looking noticeably different from her adolescent self. To fit the part, she now boasts visibly bronzed skin, darker and thicker eyebrows, and an ever-present head covering (early in her racial transition, she previously described herself as a “Catholic Latina” with Arab ancestry).

Both Timmons and Saraswati clearly saw value in escaping their whiteness, and seem to have been done so for some kind of career advancement.  Saraswati’s deception led her into the DEI space, a lucrative career path for which organisations created over 100,000 positions in June 2020 alone. Timmons, meanwhile, earned the presitigious position of university president.

Given the mercenary nature of Saraswati’s conversion — she was on national TV shows as soon as she could get there — her profit-motivated story is not interchangeable with that of, say, disgraced “transracial” NAACP official Rachel Dolezal, whose biography reveals a deep, albeit deeply troubled, commitment to the cause of social justice. Likewise, Timmons, similar to Elizabeth Warren, appears to have been repeating fabricated history largely to appear more interesting to Left-leaning friends.

Yet both their stories also show how this kind of deception, when coupled with out-of-control narcissism, can drive at least temporary career success, particularly at a time when a market for “underrepresented identities” is booming. Timmons’s ascent through university administration was a long process, most likely fuelled by some degree of competence; Saraswati was in charge of DEI — an executive-level role — for a small but significant American nonprofit almost entirely due to her fabricated persona. Here, her career success is more closely analogous to the upward trajectory of Jewish-born “Caribbean-rooted Bronx black Latina” Jessica “Jess La Bombalera” Krug, whose widely-praised book Fugitive Modernities landed her a coveted tenured position in George Washington University’s history department before revelations about her own identity prompted her resignation. 

Revelations about the fraudulent pasts of Timmons, Saraswati, and all the rest of these fakers raise an interesting question: given the haste with which companies have rushed to hire “diverse” candidates over the past three years, how many of these new employees were lying not just about their work histories — as is depressingly common — but also their racial and ethnic identities? 

If anything, we can expect more of these frauds to surface in the coming years. Arguably, the most successful will be those who perpetrate the deception their entire lives, like supposedly Cuban-born novelist H.G. Carrillo (who, upon his death, was revealed to be a black man from Detroit named Herman Carroll). For now, Timmons and Saraswati are just more white-collar workers exposed for who they really were. However, in advance of a major recession, they may prove to be canaries in the coal mine. Stiffening competition among applicants could lead to more detailed HR investigations of spurious racial and ethnic identities, and the conveyor belt of future Vianne Timmonses and Raquel Saraswatis may yet be slowed.

Oliver Bateman is a historian and journalist based in Pittsburgh. He blogs, vlogs, and podcasts at his Substack, Oliver Bateman Does the Work