The chief inclusion officer at a Philadelphia-based Quaker group has been ‘outed’ by her mother, who said she has no idea why her daughter claims to be of Latina, South Asian and Arab descent when she is ‘as white as the driven snow’.
Raquel Saraswati’s colleagues at the American Friends Service Committee are now asking whether she is in fact an infiltrator, actively undermining their work.
‘I definitely feel conned. I feel deceived,’ said Oskar Pierre Castro, a human resources professional who participated in the search committee to fill Saraswati’s position, who spoke to The Intercept.
An open letter from ‘a group of individuals who care deeply about AFSC’ provided an in-depth analysis of her ancestry and her work, and expressed concern about her role.
They accused the 39-year-old – who converted to Islam in high school, and has since come out as gay – of ‘cultural vulturism’, and noted ‘the shades of bronzer she applies to her face have become darker over time’.
Raquel Saraswati, hired by a Philadelphia-based Quaker group as their Chief Equity, Inclusion and Culture Officer, has claimed to be of Arab, Latina and South Asian descent. Her mother says she is in fact of white European origin, saying: ‘She’s chosen to live a lie’
Saraswati appears to have begun claiming Indian ancestry around 2005. She is pictured celebrating the election of Kamala Harris, the first Indian American vice president
The authors called on AFSC to investigate ‘why a member of its most senior leadership has so profoundly eroded trust among people of color’.
They noted her appearance on conservative-hosted shows, and asked: ‘Are there external entities with whom Saraswati is collaborating?’
Saraswati’s case is being likened to that of Rachel Dolezal, a white woman, who in 2015 was exposed as having posed for years as black, rising to become president of an NAACP chapter in Spokane, Washington.
Mark Graham, AFSC’s chief marketing and communications officer, said the organization ‘has given Raquel the opportunity to address the allegations against her, and Raquel stands by her identity.’
He added: ‘Raquel also assures us that she remains loyal to AFSC’s mission, which we firmly believe.’
Saraswati’s identity was first questioned by media commentator Sana Saeed, who tweeted in 2015: ‘Can we talk about ‘Raquel Dolezal’ in the Muslim community. Y’all know who I mean.’
Saraswati’s identity was first questioned in 2015, when a cultural commentator referred to her as ‘the ‘Raquel Dolezal’ in the Muslim community’
The allegations were given fresh impetus this month: On February 10, the letter was published on Medium, and on February 16 The Intercept spoke to Saraswati’s mother, Carol Perone, who confirmed her daughter was not a person of color.
‘I call her Rachel,’ said Perone.
‘I don’t know why she’s doing what she’s doing.’
Perone said her daughter 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,’ she said.
Perone told the site that her daughter converted to Islam in high school, which likely informed her decision to present herself as another ethnicity.
‘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.’
Saraswati herself, in 2007, told conservative media host Glenn Beck she was ‘estranged’ from her family, ‘for other reasons that I can’t get into.’
Saraswati posted this image to her Facebook profile in January, in a t-shirt captioned: ‘I’m rooting for everybody black and trans’
The 39-year-old is seen visiting the pyramids in Giza, Egypt. She has claimed to be of Arab origin
Saraswati has claimed Arab descent, but her mother said that is not true
Saraswati is seen addressing a panel in her role as a representative of the LGBTQ community in Philadelphia
Perone was adopted by Carl and Winifred Seidel, who ran a guesthouse in the Catskill mountains, in Windham, New York.
Perone’s biological parents were Ed Newman and Myrtle Burkhardt – an alcoholic of Alliance, Ohio, who had 18 children, and put most of them up for adoption, according to a 1988 newspaper report found by the authors of the letter.
Perone said Saraswati’s father is now dead. She had a relationship with him before marrying Flory Perone, who died in 2006.
Saraswati was born in Paterson, New Jersey and spend large amounts of time in Windham, where she attended school before being sent to boarding school in Troy, New York.
Saraswati studied at Simmons University in Boston, settling in Massachusetts and marrying her girlfriend, Anh Dao Kolbe in 2005.
In 2004, the couple was mentioned in a Boston Globe feature, in which Saraswati went by the name Seidel and said she was of Arab and Latin descent.
‘Raquel Evita Seidel, 20, of Brookline, said she and her girlfriend, Anh Dao Kolbe, have been together nine months,’ the author wrote.
‘While they are confident they want to marry, they also want to take the time to plan something that respects Seidel’s Arab and Latin traditions and 33-year-old Kolbe’s Vietnamese traditions. ‘We want it to be something special, not about hype and not about media,’ Seidel said.’
Sometime around the time of the article, she switched her name to Saraswati: in 2005, she was performing belly dances under her new name.
Her wedding was featured in an article about Indian-American marriages.
Saraswati is believed to have switched her last name around 2005, while a senior at Simmons University. She married later that year, but divorced and moved to Philadelphia – where she was named Woman of the Year in April 2019 by Philadelphia’s National Organization for Women (NOW)
Saraswati’s family history was researched by the writers of the open letter, posted on February 10 on Medium
The couple are now divorced, and Saraswati moved from Massachusetts to Pennsylvania, where she now lives.
Saraswati promotes this book on her Facebook page
She took on a higher profile after 9/11, appearing on Beck’s show and in a 2013 film produced by the Clarion Project, an organization the Southern Poverty Law Center said specialized in ‘rabidly anti-Muslim films.’
She worked with the American Islamic Forum for Democracy, another group that has been accused of promoting Islamophobia.
In 2017, she told Philly Mag: ‘All too often, progressive and well-meaning people ally with organizations and individuals in marginalized or targeted communities without consulting those on the margins of those communities — like LGBTQ2SIA people, dissidents, women, minority sects, racial and ethnic minorities, etc.’
On her Facebook page, she promotes a book entitled: ‘All the White Friends I Couldn’t Keep’.
When Saraswati applied for the job at AFSC, Castro said that her ethnicity played a part in the decision to appoint her in June 2021 as Chief Equity, Inclusion and Culture Officer.
‘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,’ Castro told The Intercept.
He said he was impressed by her resume and her charisma.
‘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,’ he said.
The AFSC has a history of being infiltrated by the FBI, The Intercept noted, and has been targeted by pro-Israel groups due to its work on the Palestinian cause.
Supporters of the AFSC told The Intercept they are now concerned about Saraswati, given the misleading statements she made about her identity.
‘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,’ an AFSC leader.
‘And now all of a sudden, it’s a white woman with a right-wing history. It’s scary.’
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