While I was still living in my childhood home, unemployed after college, daytime talk and game shows were my security blanket. With a little weed and a lot of time, I’d roll into a block of hours between late morning and mid-afternoon that featured the best bad television, and sleepwalk with munchies to the mindless blue hum of a clapping audience. Of the game shows I refused to miss, To Tell the Truth roused me the most. The show, which premiered in 1961, dared a panel of celebrity guests to determine which one out of three people featured was the holder of some insane claim, impossible job, or minor world record. The other two contestants were deliberate liars, masking and misdirecting (often poorly). Until now, I hadn’t remembered watching To Tell the Truth or why I insisted on scheduling it daily. Maybe because the show was simplistic and more than a little dumb, it managed to surprise me. For a half-hour, the inclination to judge books by their covers was a decided weakness, a bug in our prehistoric software. And I’d always found fascination in T.V. imposter stories. Fraudsters who scammed people out of a fortune in credit cards and seduction artists who married for wealth and took off delighted me. I learned that hiding in plain sight would always be the best option should I ever need a Great Escape. To Tell the Truth also contained a catchy hook that later provided source material for an Eminem song:
“Will the real [person in question] please stand up?”
In 2015, a woman who had been the head of the NAACP in Spokane, Washington, was confronted by a querulous reporter on a mission. That woman—who became a national laughingstock and social media meme—was, in fact, a pioneer of a yet-unseen wave of racial imposters. Rachel Dolezal appeared on morning talk, nightly news, and eventually a documentary focused on her origins, courtesy of Netflix and people’s unexpired curiosity. The question most of us asked was: why would anyone pretend to be Black? The crude fact underlying the question is that Blackness has been deemed so undesirable and so life-threatening for so long, it would require an illogical mortal risk to choose it. You’d have to be crazy. Black folks who took pride in their heritage were nonetheless shocked by her brand of voodoo because she sported frizzy wigs, bronzer, kente cloth prints and all. Even if Dolezal wanted to gain the fringe benefits of Black enmeshment (like braiding Black hair, like entering the Ivory Tower as a “culture expert,” like taking Black partners) none of these seemed richer than the promise of a mediocre white life. And she didn’t need to pretend to be a Black woman to do any of that. We have seen mediocre white lives ascend to the top of society in every era of Western civilization and 2015 was no different. She could’ve had her cornbread and ate her kale too.