I was sitting in the airport, waiting for a long-delayed flight to D.C. when I got an email from my department chair asking me to stop by his office. The request was then followed by a list of some 10 blocks of time he’d be available over the course of the day.
“Well,” I thought to myself, “that’s not good.”
And it wasn’t.
I called him immediately. Was I familiar, he asked, with a particular article on a particular white supremacist website?
“Oh, my god,” I said, “Yes. But I didn’t write it.”
Six months earlier I’d received an email from someone asking if I was the Rosemary Pennington who wrote this same article for the site.
No, I’d replied, I am not. I went on to describe who I am and the work I do and how the group’s views and motives are antithetical to my own. I heard nothing back. I’d meant to talk to my chair about it, but the email had come at the end of a busy spring semester and, once summer began, I’d forgotten all about it.
Now, someone had found the article and was passing it around, alerting others to it. I know this, because a woman had contacted my university, wondering how a white woman could be allowed to teach students of color when she held such racist views.
First, I’m not white. I’m multiracial. My father was a person of color. The issue of passing has been one I’ve struggled with my whole life.
Second, I don’t. I’m not a white supremacist. I’ve never held white supremacist views. I’ve never worked with white supremacist organizations.
Between conversations with my chair, the university’s communication officer, and the university lawyer I was able to find a way to convince the woman I was not the author of the article.
I took a breath and hoped the whole thing would pass.
Off and on since, I’ve received emails or social media messages asking me if I was the author of this article. More recently, I received an inflammatory screed that left my face scalding, not asking if I was the author, just assuming I was.
Here’s the thing: I hate writing about this and talking about it. I don’t want any spotlight on me, but on my work. I know there are marginalized people who suffer terrible discrimination and prejudice every single day and talking about someone misusing my name seems so small in comparison to their struggles.
However, my name and the reputation that goes with it is all I have.
Before becoming an academic, I was a journalist. A job I loved, that I was good at; a job where my name became my calling card.
I’m still early in my career as an academic, but I’ve been publishing and presenting since I was a graduate student. I also served as the managing editor of a social media project – Muslim Voices – that has worked since 2008 to help increase understanding of Muslims and Islam.
My name is all I have.
After first learning this was happening I visited the white supremacist website in question and discovered that not just one, but multiple articles had been published there which used my name as a byline.
On top of that, many of these articles have some tangential connection to the work I do; so, it began to seem as though I had been specifically targeted because of who I am. The problem is that there is no link to my university website or any other type of connection to my academic identity beyond the use of my name and that topical link to the work I do.
It’s hard to sue for defamation if you can’t prove that kind of direct connection.
I’ve reached out to an organization that researches hate groups about this. The person I emailed with said they were aware of the issue, but they weren’t sure what kind of help they could really offer me. I’ve tried reaching out to the Ohio ACLU, but haven’t heard anything. I don’t expect to; or, if I do, I expect to hear more of the same – that they can’t really help because the white supremacists are just using my name, they aren’t tying anything specifically to me, to my identity.
That is, until two summers ago.
I travel frequently to Germany. I have been doing so since late in 2000. During my first trip, as a 21-year-old college student, I visited Buchenwald – a Nazi prison camp just outside Weimar.
That trip profoundly changed me.
No matter how much you’ve read, how much you think you know, nothing can prepare you for the sorrow, unease, and anger that fills you as you walk through the camp gates or as you walk along the gravel where barracks once stood.
You are surrounded by death, by the ghosts of the dead, and by the ghosts of those who did nothing.
Fifteen years later I went to another camp – this one Sachsenhausen outside Berlin – because I felt like it was my duty to see it, to witness it as it stands now.
I had a panic attack at Sachsenhausen.
Walking through the “infirmary,” I saw a wilting rose lying on a tiled table where countless horrors were committed and I began to sob and ran outside as fast as I could, overcome with sorrow and grief and the need to vomit.
I will never understand the violence hatred and bigotry can lead to. And I don’t want to.
It was shocking, you might imagine, to discover a column claiming to be written by me, a column linking back to my Miami University identity, that could be construed as – if not Holocaust denying in nature, then at the very least skeptical of the Holocaust.
This time, because they tied my real identity to the post, I had something to fight with. I emailed the university police department about it. I never heard from the police, but a search of the site now turns up nothing related to me – no biography and no Holocaust denying post.
It’s a small victory, but it’s a victory all the same.
My grandmother was a small woman. I’m not sure she stood 5 feet tall, but that might be me misremembering. She was kind and sweet and loved pink and flowers and smelled of roses.
I remember once, after telling her I’d gotten into a fight with a girl who had been picking on one of my brothers, her looking up at me and saying, “Good.”
“Good,” she said. “You can’t let bullies win.”
She then told me the story of how, when my mother was in grade school, she made her go out and fight a boy who had been picking on her because he was just going to keep doing it if my mom didn’t stand up for herself.
“That little asshole left your mother alone after that,” my grandmother cackled.
I remember this quote exactly because it was the first time I’d heard my grandmother curse. She then told me that if she ever found out I was letting someone pick on me and didn’t stand up for myself that I’d have her to reckon with.
Looking at that creampuff of a woman I realized any bully’s taunts and possible black-eyes were worth avoiding that little woman’s anger.
“You can’t let bullies win.”
The people who do this sort of thing – who steal the identities of people and trade on them as they spout their bigotry and hate speech (I’m not the only person this has happened to) – depend upon the silence of those they malign.
Who wants to kick up a fuss and bring attention to hateful writings? Who wants people, even those who know you would never in a million years think of writing such things, to see that connection between your name and everything you’ve spent your career as a journalist and now an academic fighting against?
I’ve tried to counter this by taking to social media – Twitter and Facebook – to point out I’m not the one writing these things without linking to them because that would bring more attention to them and clicks to the websites of these hatemongers.
At a panel discussion at my university about difficult topics, an attorney said of distasteful speech that the best way to counter it is “with more speech.” I’ve tried, and will continue trying, speech. I don't know what else to do. Writing, communicating, is what I'm good at. Though, I will say, it sometimes feels as though none of it matters, nothing will change.
Sometimes I just want to give up. But then I think of my grandmother, her hug and her words.
You can’t let bullies win.
My name belongs to me. My ideas belong to me. My intellectual life belongs to me. I will not let anyone take those things away from me.