As groveling apologies go, Elizabeth Hoover’s gets a seven out of 10. In her plea for forgiveness, she used the term “harm” 14 times, “hurt” eight times, and “pain” twice. She clearly believes she is guilty of an egregious sin and so do her critics.
Hoover is an associate professor of Anthropology at UC Berkeley, and she wrote her apology after she discovered that her ethnic background was not what she believed it to be. She is, she explained, a “white person who has incorrectly identified as Native [her] whole life,” and she apologized for hurting “Native people who have been [her] friends, colleagues, students, and family, both directly through fractured trust and through activating historical harms.”
I have no reason to think that Hoover is being disingenuous. So, when I say I’m puzzled by her apology, I’m not disputing her sincerity. It’s simply not clear why her behavior requires such extravagant remorse in the first place. She says that, when she was growing up, she was told that her family lineage could be traced back to the Mohawk and Mi’kmaq peoples. It seems likely that this identity shaped her life in significant ways, and that it played a role in her decision to research food sovereignty and social justice, particularly in Native American communities. It is probably safe to assume, therefore, that this controversy has caused Hoover great personal and psychological distress and confusion.
Her critics, however, appear unsympathetic. They have issued a statement demanding that she “acknowledge harm and apologise,” “stop performing Indigeneity,” “come out as white,” and “plan and enact a path to repair.” They are also demanding that she “relinquish paid positions acquired from false Indigeneity”:
By claiming a false identity on grant and job applications, Hoover robbed Indigenous scholars of these opportunities; moreover, her scholarship and research have been founded on this misrepresentation, rendering them ethically fraudulent. We demand that Elizabeth Hoover resign from her position as Associate Professor of Environmental Science, Policy, and Management (ESPM) and leave UC Berkeley. We also demand that she remove herself from all positions on boards and advisory committees and all grants, speaking engagements, and other paid opportunities she obtained with her false identity. [bold in original]
The row now engulfing Hoover’s life and livelihood most obviously brings to mind the Rachel Dolezal scandal from a few years ago. Dolezal worked for the NAACP and was elected president of its Spokane chapter in 2014. She resigned a year later when it emerged that she is a white woman who had claimed to be black. As philosophy professor Rebecca Tuvel pointed out in a controversial paper about the affair, this episode raised interesting and important questions about authenticity and the limits of self-identification. As Tuvel learned the hard way, many people find this discussion profoundly uncomfortable.
But a critical difference between Hoover and Dolezal is that Dolezal knew she was white and had therefore engaged in deliberate deception. Had Dolezal really believed herself to be black, just as Hoover believed herself to be indigenous, her assumption, although mistaken, would no longer have been a matter of deceit. As NAACP national president Cornell Brooks told the LA Times, “racial identity is not a qualifying or disqualifying characteristic for leadership or membership within the NAACP. It’s just not something that’s a criterion.” Asked by CNN if Dolezal “would have risen to chapter president” had she not misrepresented herself, Brooks was categorical: “Absolutely.” At issue was not Dolezal’s skin color, but her dishonesty.
As far as we know, Elizabeth Hoover has not been dishonest, she was simply misinformed. Under the circumstances, demanding her resignation for being wrong about her family background is a steep penalty. But part of the anger Hoover has provoked results from a suspicion that her misrepresentations, intentional or not, enabled her to enjoy professional opportunities properly intended for others. If she did, then her Native American identity was not simply a matter of personal integrity but a professionalqualification.
There are two possible justifications for using identity in this way. The first is an assumption that the meritocratic allocation of resources—the grants, talks, and board positions to which Hoover’s critics have pointed—doesn’t work. Resource allocation therefore requires the corrective assistance of racial preferences. The second justification is an assumption that the cultural inheritance of minority scholars confers unique authority to speak about identity-related issues.
Many people, perhaps most, would probably be willing to acknowledge that the American meritocracy isn’t perfect. Good work is not always rewarded, and shabby work sometimes is. It would also be difficult to argue that racial discrimination never occurs. But neither stipulation leads to the conclusion that the work of minority scholars is systematically devalued becauseof their identity. Ultimately, assessing the costs and benefits of affirmative action is complicated and sometimes paradoxical.
If, on the other hand, Hoover’s ethnicity was presumed to confer special knowledge that she does not in fact possess, another troubling implication emerges—that Hoover’s knowledge about Native culture and issues is less useful or reliable now that we know she is not Native herself. This suggests that the value of scholarship cannot be assessed independent of certain knowledge about the ethnicity of its author. When Hoover was believed to be Native American, there was no need to worry about this because her identity and her scholarship were aligned. Presumably, this is the world in which Hoover’s colleagues—and, given her family lore, Hoover herself—thought they lived.
So what happens now that Hoover’s identity as a white woman has been revealed to everyone, apparently including to Hoover herself? Her critics argue that any claim to expertise or authority she might previously have enjoyed is now effectively obsolete. “If Hoover has no Native relatives,” they ask, “how did she learn to be Indigenous? Settler projections are incomplete and do not even approach the richness, beauty, or complexity of Native lifeways, let alone our colonial and racialized trauma.”
Are we to understand that deep anthropological understanding cannot be attained through years of dedicated and conscientious study and cultural immersion if the academic in question is an outsider by birth? The implication of Hoover’s colleagues seems to be that the absence of a genetic pedigree is disqualifying on its own. According to this logic, an Asian-American studies class could not be taught well by a black woman because the knowledge conferred by personal experience is generally considered superior to knowledge absorbed from the available literature and/or personal field research.
Belief in the idea of special cultural authority lands Hoover at the center of a broader argument going on in academia. A recent paper for the Journal of Controversial Ideas criticizes the ways in which identity is widely thought to confer standing, authority, and expertise on research. “[T]ruth claims,” the authors write, “cannot be less valid by virtue of the claimant’s membership in any particular group … since the validity of a truth claim cannot be evaluated by knowing the claimants’ tribal or demographic affiliations.”
In other words, the paper’s authors argue, the scholarship of an academic like Hoover must stand or fall on the strengths and weaknesses of its arguments. At a minimum, this seems like an open question. Which leaves me to wonder what exactly Elizabeth Hoover is apologizing for. So long as her scholarship met the standards expected of her by Berkeley, it is not clear to me that she’s done anything wrong. If Native American communities (not to mention the wider anthropological academic community) have benefited from her work, regardless of her ethnicity, then presumably they will continue to do so. A rejection of that claim presupposes that anthropologists cannot study, write about, or even communicate with those who don’t belong to the same identity group.
The question of whether or not identity confers special knowledge is at once important and divisive. Are we prepared to say that the culture or identity in which we grow up is irrelevant in every way? Conversely, are we prepared to say that it perfectly and completely defines who we are? Thankfully, we do not have to choose between these two extremes. It should be enough to acknowledge that this is a complex matter. And if Hoover is not found to have engaged in deliberate fraud or deception, she should be permitted to take her apology down several notches and continue with her work.