If you had told us twenty years ago that people would start faking their heritage and posing as people of color to secure leadership positions, we would have laughed out loud. However, today’s reality far outstrips fiction, by far.

Rachel Evita Saraswati — née Rachel Elizabeth Seidel — has been passing herself off as Arab, Latina, Muslim, and queer, all the way up to the position of chief equity, inclusion, and culture officer at the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) in Philadelphia.

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The progressive Quaker organization, which advocates for social justice nationally and internationally, has been in the news spotlight for the past few days after Seidel’s mother, Carol Perone, told The Intercept that her daughter is “as white as the driven snow.”

“I call her Rachel,” Perone told The Intercept when reached by telephone. “I don’t know why she’s doing what she’s doing.”

According to her mother, Seidel is of British, German, and Italian descent, not Latina, South Asian, or Arab, as she has assured AFSC and anyone else who might listen about her fake heritage.

Perone shared photos of her daughter that show Seidel’s forced tan over the past few years and her Ancestry.com profile.

However, she is at a loss to explain why her daughter, as a teenager, converted to Islam and felt “the need to portray herself as having a different ethnic identity.”

“I’m German and British, and her father was Calabrese Italian,” her mother added. “She’s chosen to live a lie, and I find that very, very sad.”

Fake heritage and a multimillion-dollar disguise

Sadly, the activist is not alone in assuming a false ethnic identity or heritage to make her way in an increasingly lucrative professional world — that of diversity and equity.

In the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement protests of 2020, investor interest in diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) has only escalated.

The Principles for Responsible Investment (PRI), the world’s leading advocate for responsible investing, has focused efforts on investors integrating DEI into investment and ownership decisions.

“There is a lot of interest from investors on this topic, but while we all know that diversity is good for business, it still isn’t common practice,” says Elena Espinoza, co-author of the latest PRI paper, to Forbes. “The concept definitely has universal appeal, even though there are regional aspects to consider, such as makeup of population.”

“If investors want to keep up with the world or enter new markets, they need to think about DEI — it has a big connection to business performance,” she added.

In 2015, Rachel Dolezal, a white woman posing as an African-American and who reinvented her whole heritage in her resume, served as the NAACP’s leader until photos from her youth surfaced and demonstrated her cultural and racial appropriation.

Now, the case of Rachel Elizabeth Seidel brings the issue back to the forefront.

Oskar Pierre Castro, a human resources professional on the search committee to fill Seidel’s position, told The Intercept that she had presented herself as a “queer, Muslim, multi-ethnic woman.”

“It really touched all the points,” said Castro, who works for Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, a Quaker group that frequently partners with the AFSC and who was involved in the search along with AFSC staff members. 

Castro added that he had been impressed by Saraswati’s credentials and charm and that he thought she would be a good fit for the diversity and inclusion role because “it seemed that there was an element of lived experience and understanding because of the lived experience, not just the academic and extra training that come with being in a position where you are an equity and inclusion practitioner.”

Although AFSC issued a statement maintaining its endorsement of Seidel, the reality is that open spaces for people of color remain at risk in an increasingly progressive world.

Although Rep. George Santos might say, the ploy doesn’t always work out.