Progressive Group Roiled by Accusations Diversity Leader Misrepresented Her Ethnic Background

The controversy at the American Friends Service Committee puts a spotlight on the “diversity and equity” industry’s shortcomings.

Raquel Evita Saraswati on Fox News, on May, 17, 2014. Screenshot: The Intercept/YouTube

Members of the American Friends Service Committee, a prominent Quaker organization known for its progressive values and social justice advocacy in the U.S. and abroad, have raised an alarm about a woman holding a leadership position within the organization who they say has misrepresented her ethnic background for years and who they fear may be working on behalf of groups seeking to undermine their organization.

Raquel Evita Saraswati, a Muslim activist who for years has encouraged people to believe that she is a woman of color, including Latina as well as of South Asian and Arab descent, is the AFSC’s chief equity, inclusion, and culture officer, a senior position that gives her access to the files of dozens of the organization’s staff and volunteers. But Saraswati, who was born Rachel Elizabeth Seidel, is not a person of color, according to her mother, Carol Perone.

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

Saraswati, her mother added, is of British, German, and Italian descent — not Latina, South Asian, or Arab. “I’m as white as the driven snow and so is she,” added Perone, who also shared with The Intercept photos of Saraswati as a child. In the photos, which the mother asked not be published, Saraswati’s complexion is significantly lighter than the bronzed look in more recent photographs. Perone also shared with The Intercept her profile and a photo of Saraswati’s biological father, who is deceased. Another relative who asked not to be identified confirmed that Saraswati is white.

Perone noted that her daughter converted to Islam in high school and that at some point she seemed to have 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.”

Oskar Pierre Castro, a human resources professional who participated in the search committee to fill Saraswati’s position, told The Intercept that she had presented herself as a “queer, Muslim, multiethnic 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. He 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.”

Castro added, “In my mind it was, ‘Great, a person of color, a queer person of color, who happens to be a Muslim, it’s a woman, all these things, and someone who seemed to get it. I definitely feel conned. … I feel deceived.”

The revelation that Saraswati appears to have created a false impression about her ethnic background has roiled the AFSC.

Saraswati did not respond to requests for comment sent to her by email, phone, and on social media. Layne Mullett, a spokesperson for the AFSC, conveyed a statement from the organization’s leadership team that said, “We are in receipt of the documentation alleging that our Chief Equity, Inclusion, and Culture Officer, Raquel Saraswati, has been misrepresenting her identity. AFSC has given Raquel the opportunity to address the allegations against her, and Raquel stands by her identity. Raquel also assures us that she remains loyal to AFSC’s mission, which we firmly believe.” The statement added that “AFSC does not require any employee to ‘prove’ their heritage as a condition of their employment, or in order to be valued as a member of our team.”

On Thursday, nearly a week before the allegations first surfaced and after The Intercept reached out for comment, the organization sent a similar statement internally.

Hidden Political Views

There is a history of white people posing as persons of color or claiming ethnic backgrounds they do not have. In 2015, a national controversy erupted following the revelation that Rachel Dolezal, a white woman, had for years posed as Black before becoming president of an NAACP chapter in Spokane, Washington. Others have claimed roots they don’t have; more recently, Rep. George Santos, R-N.Y., falsely claimed Jewish descent, among a host of other lies.

The concerns about Saraswati include what some AFSC members and supporters regard as a possible hidden political agenda. In an anonymous letter posted on Medium that The Intercept has confirmed is from AFSC members, they noted that after 9/11 she appeared in conservative and Islamophobic spaces, including right-wing TV shows, where she was presented as a “moderate” Muslim critical of Islamic extremism. While a change in political views is not unheard of, Saraswati has not publicly addressed her work from those years, and much of it appears to have been scrubbed from the internet.

In the Medium letter posted last week, the group of AFSC members and supporters detailed what they allege to be Saraswati’s history of misrepresenting her identity as well as some of her connections to conservative groups earlier in her career.

“We hope that this will catalyze further truth-telling and accountability,” the group wrote. They called on the AFSC to investigate the matter and whether there are “external entities with whom Saraswati is collaborating.” They also called on Saraswati herself to apologize and step down from her role.

“People are concerned,” a member of AFSC’s leadership told The Intercept, requesting anonymity to avoid retaliation. “There’s a fear that she could be an agent, because she started her career right-wing. She was a token Muslim voice in that milieu. She never publicly apologized.”

The AFSC, the organization leader noted, has a history of being infiltrated by the FBI and has frequently been attacked by pro-Israel groups for its work in solidarity with Palestinians. In 2021, another leading civil rights group, the Council on American-Islamic Relations, was hit by scandal when the executive and legal director of its Ohio chapter was revealed to be covertly working with an anti-Muslim group, the Investigative Project on Terrorism, and sharing confidential information with them. Incidents like that, as well as a long history of law enforcement infiltrating racial justice and activist spaces, have left AFSC members shaken.

“Imagine the trauma of people who confided in her, trusted her, and shared sensitive information about their work and about their lives, thinking that she’s a fellow person of color,” the AFSC leader said, referring to Saraswati. “And now all of a sudden, it’s a white woman with a right-wing history. It’s scary.”

Diversity Industry

It’s unclear whether the AFSC was aware, when Saraswati was hired, of the concerns about her background and past work. But last week was not the first time that her ethnic background has been publicly questioned. When the Dolezal scandal erupted, some activists and writers noted Saraswati’s name change from Seidel and suggested that she was the “Raquel Dolezal” of the Muslim community, as Sana Saeed, a media critic at Al Jazeera, wrote on Twitter at the time.

By that point, Saraswati had built a public profile as a Muslim woman, often wearing a hijab and frequently making media appearances to discuss Islam. In 2007, Saraswati appeared on CNN with conservative commentator Glenn Beck, and also appeared on Fox News and the far-right channel Newsmax. In 2013, she also appeared in a film produced by the Clarion Project, an organization the Southern Poverty Law Center said specialized in “rabidly anti-Muslim films.” And she worked with the American Islamic Forum for Democracy, another group that has been accused of promoting Islamophobia.

Yet despite her association with right-wing groups raising the suspicions of fellow Muslim writers and activists, Saraswati was later able to cast herself as a progressive activist, launching a career with organizations working on LGBTQ+ rights and more recently working with the Philadelphia mayor’s office, where she chaired the commission on LGBT affairs until she joined the AFSC in June 2021.

Saraswati has received a number of awards for her activism in recent years, including a “liaison for the marginalized” award, according to her LinkedIn page. She has also worked as a consultant on diversity and inclusion issues, a field that has grown exponentially in recent years in response to the national debate on racial justice issues that followed a number of high-profile police killings of Black people.

Many organizations have responded to the national reckoning on racism and criticism of their lack of representation and equity by hiring consultants and experts to advise them. That rush has helped elevate those claiming expertise even when their credentials — and in Saraswati’s case, her very ethnic background — are in question.

“DEI is becoming a multibillion-dollar industry: corporations, companies, nonprofits,” the AFSC leader told The Intercept. “The data shows a tiny percentage of the directors are Black. And now you have white people in brown face getting into DEI positions, with its salary, resources, and power.”

Saeed told The Intercept in an email that the Saraswati controversy is an indictment of the diversity, equity, and inclusion industry’s shortcomings and “puts a sharp, bright light on … the DEI industry itself — did AFSC not vet their candidates, like Raquel?”

She added, “There’s long been a critique that companies & organizations use DEI as a shield against criticism of structural issues that continue to persist in the workplace; the people often hired in these positions are not qualified and will usually hurt, more than help, in redressing problems around inequities and exclusion. For the AFSC — known for its progressive values and history — to have hired such an individual is also a damning indictment of how superficial and detrimental, to safe and inclusive workplaces, DEI can often be.”

Update: February 27, 2023
A week after this story was published, Raquel Saraswati announced that she would leave the AFSC. In an email to colleagues, she did not directly address the revelations but wrote, “I want AFSC to move forward in the work in a way that creates the most ease for you. Therefore, I have let my colleagues in leadership know of my intention to separate from the organization.”

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