NYT apparently duped by hoax letter about white guilt (and a response from Grania)

August 16, 2018 • 11:00 am

In the New York Times article below (click on screenshot), a letter from someone called “Whitey” inspired a discussion by Cheryl Strayed, bestselling author of Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, and Steve Almond, an American essayist and short story writer. Strayed and Almond write an advice column for the paper called “The Sweet Spot”.

Here’s “Whitey’s” letter:

Dear Sugars,

I’m riddled with shame. White shame. This isn’t helpful to me or to anyone, especially people of color. I feel like there is no “me” outside of my white/upper middle class/cisgender identity. I feel like my literal existence hurts people, like I’m always taking up space that should belong to someone else.

I consider myself an ally. I research proper etiquette, read writers of color, vote in a way that will not harm P.O.C. (and other vulnerable people). I engage in conversations about privilege with other white people. I take courses that will further educate me. I donated to Black Lives Matter. Yet I fear that nothing is enough. Part of my fear comes from the fact that privilege is invisible to itself. What if I’m doing or saying insensitive things without realizing it?

Another part of it is that I’m currently immersed in the whitest environment I’ve ever been in. My family has lived in the same apartment in East Harlem for four generations. Every school I attended, elementary through high school, was minority white, but I’m now attending an elite private college that is 75 percent white. I know who I am, but I realize how people perceive me and this perception feels unfair.

I don’t talk about my feelings because it’s hard to justify doing so while people of color are dying due to systemic racism and making this conversation about me would be again centering whiteness. Yet bottling it up makes me feel an existential anger that I have a hard time channeling since I don’t know my place. Instead of harnessing my privilege for greater good, I’m curled up in a ball of shame. How can I be more than my heritage?


Now Strayed and Almond respond earnestly, reflecting back the values of critical race theory and intersectionalism with statements like this:

Almond: . . . This feeling is especially acute right now, I suspect, because you’re suddenly immersed in a milieu that reflects your privilege back to you. We do live in a culture steeped in white supremacy and class bigotry, as well as patriarchal values. But the solution to this injustice isn’t to wallow in self-hatred. Instead, heed the words of the writer bell hooks. “Privilege is not in and of itself bad; what matters is what we do with privilege,” she writes. “We have to share our resources and take direction about how to use our privilege in ways that empower those who lack it.” You’re not going to empower others by disempowering yourself. . . As a straight white male raised by two professionals in an American suburb, I know I was born into a life of extraordinary privilege. But it wasn’t always that way. It took me many years to begin to recognize these advantages as unearned, the product of corrupt systems stacked in my favor. The rise of political actors and demagogues who promote white supremacy, misogyny and racism is, in part, an effort by the privileged to reject these truths.

Strayed: You ask us how you can be more than your heritage, Whitey, but what Steve and I are suggesting is that you need to own it first. As you seem well aware, your race granted you privileges that were and are denied to people who are not white. This is true for all white people in America, no matter how racially diverse their childhood neighborhoods were or were not, no matter how much money their families had or didn’t have, no matter how difficult or easy their lives have been. Every white person should be ashamed of that injustice. Which is different than being ashamed of being white. You don’t have to relinquish your heritage to be an ally to people of color, Whitey. You have to relinquish your privilege. And part of learning how to do that is accepting that feelings of shame, anger and the sense that people are perceiving you in ways that you believe aren’t accurate or fair are part of the process that you and I and all white people must endure in order to dismantle a toxic system that has perpetuated white supremacy for centuries.

Well, beyond the fact that we’re all supposed to all feel burdened by our original sin of being white, and that racism is “structural”, these responses aren’t out of line with what guilt-ridden liberals are saying these days, and do admit of the continuing fact of racism. But how does a poor coal miner or a homeless person relinquish their “white supremacy”? How can they be “allies” when they’re struggling themselves?

The person below person claims—and I have no way to verify it—that the letter from “Whitey” was in fact a hoax, reminiscent of the erstwhile hoaxer Godfrey Elfwick, who seems to have disappeared but was really good at pretending he was an Authoritarian Lefist (a status indistinguishable from parody) and taking those people in.

McGrath is much like Elfwick, as you can see by reading his/her Twitter feed.  And it’s curious to me that McGrath (who identifies herself as an “activist”, a “healer,” and a “radical intersectionalist poet”) wasn’t vetted by the Times to make sure this person was real and had a supporting (rather than a satirical) internet presence. The letter from Whitey does smack of satire, but I’m (PCC[E]) reading it from a cynical viewpoint.


Since I have little time to post, and because Grania’s opinions are often sounder than mine, I asked for her take on the letter from McGrath (was McGrath a troll, or falsely claiming credit for someone else’s letter?) and on the responses by Strayed and Almond. Grania’s response:

Yes, it certainly seems she was a troll. It appears though that her letter is a perfect Poe that the NYT staff couldn’t see through. The letter content is certainly over the top, but it’s also perfectly consistent with the sort of stuff one sees on Twitter where self-professed woke individuals make sincere humble-braggings about their purity of thought.

It just reinforces my opinion that being woke / identitarian means one operates essentially as if in a religious Christian cult, albeit one without a god (although she may be “bell hooks”) or a leader. So long as your claims are rooted in the basic tenets of original sin and guilt, people will approve of your self-abasement and self-flagellation and entirely fail to examine them critically.
I really hope that this is not representative of what college undergraduates are paying several 100 grand to learn.
The replies [by Strayed and Almond] are almost funny, but I’m not laughing. Actually I feel nauseous.
JAC: I wonder if the NYT will do some checking, and admit that the letter was a hoax if it really was. But I suspect they won’t retract the column, because the responses reflect the NYT’s own editorial stance.

97 thoughts on “NYT apparently duped by hoax letter about white guilt (and a response from Grania)

      1. My guess would have been it referred to Edgar Allan Poe’s literary hoaxes (e.g., “The Balloon-Hoax”). But maybe I’m just making that up.

          1. Yeah, that title might have been a giveaway. It originally appeared in the New York Sun with the headline “The Atlantic Ocean Crossed in Three Days!! — Signal Triumph of Mr. Monck Mason’s Flying Machine!!!” I still think it might be true.

  1. How is it that ‘white supremacy’ is both structural, and therefore outside the responsibility of the individual, and something for which the individual must atone?

    I’m waiting for some racist to use ‘structural racism’ as a defence in court. ”It’s not my fault guv’, it’s the system wot made me racist!”

    1. A quote from that post of 7/29 — in the prescient words of PCC(E): “…Titania McGrath, who identifies herself as “Activist. Healer. Radical intersectionist poet.” (It has not escaped my notice that she might be a troll. But satire and social-justice warriorism are hard to tell apart.)…”

      1. Hmmm. After reading this blogpost I was wondering what “PCC[E]” meant. (I did a Web search, to no avail.)

        I take it from Jenny’s comment that it is referring to a person associated with this blog.

        The whole of the rest of the blogpost is comprehensible to a general audience. It seems a shame to have one abbreviation that isn’t. Perhaps this blog needs a glossary, which should be hyperlinked every time a specialist term or abbreviation is used.

        (Anyone reading this who has contact with the blog’s owners, please pass this feedback on to them.)

        1. WEIT’s host and primary contributor is known as “Professor Ceiling Cat” (PCC), and, since he retired, as “Professor Ceiling Cat (Emeritus)” (PCC[E]). A web search would probably be uninformative on this point, but searching WEIT quickly reveals it.


  2. I don’t think the letter was a hoax. Just go to her twitter page. There she reaffirms that she wrote it and provides screen shots of a letter on her computer. I think also she believes what she wrote. She is also a man hater. Take a look at the poem she posted. Unless her whole persona is a hoax, which I guess is possible, I accept the letter as genuinely coming from McGrath and that it expresses her sentiments. It’s unclear, however, whether the life experiences discussed in the letter are real.

    1. I’m pretty sure her whole persona is a hoax. Doing some random searching I found this tweet:

      Hey white people. If you really want to understand your privilege, try identifying as black for a month.

      You wouldn’t believe the disapproving looks I get when I tell people I’m an ethnic minority.

      And this:

      My grandmother used to hug me. Thanks to this article about informed consent I now realise what a predatory old bitch she really was.

      Also, one decrying “twitter fascists” for suspending Godfrey Elfwick’s account.

    2. To re-iterate what Coel and Taz are saying, I am extremely confident that Titania McGrath is a satirical account. Whoever is behind it would clearly be capable of hoaxing the NYT.

      But I am also confident that this is not what has happened here. The tweet you are referring to is clearly a joke. The screenshot showing file names & (purported) dates is hilarious, and the text of the tweet is “To all the doubters, I f***ing DID write that letter to the New York Times. Do not deny my lived experience.”

  3. Joining the august ranks of Alan Sokal.

    Similar pranksters include:

    actor Don Novello (creator of Fr. Guido Sarducci for Saturday Night Live) who posed as a right-winger Laszlo Toth and published letters from conservatives in a book “The Lazlo Toth Letters”

    film director William Karel who made a “mockumentary” called “Dark Side of the Moon” explaining that the moon landings were faked- the filmmaker did not actually believe a word of it, but convinced a few.

    Any other candidates??

        1. I read Shea and Wilson’s Illuminatus Trilogy ages ago, but I never heard it was considered anything but fiction. I know there are conspiracy theories about the Illuminati, but I think the books were using that a a basis rather than deliberately perpetrating a hoax.

    1. Forgotten Silver
      Peter Jackson (LOTR Jackson) Costa Botes.

      From Wiki:
      This mockumentary by Peter Jackson and Costa Botes details the life of innovative — and fictional — filmmaker Colin McKenzie and presents some of his previously “lost” work. The movie claims that McKenzie, a director from New Zealand, made technological advancements in cinema years before their acknowledged emergence, and features interviews with film notables, such as critic and historian Leonard Maltin, who attest to McKenzie’s significance.

      It had a few people fooled (heaps in fact) probably in part because of Jackson, Harvey Weinstein is also “interviewed” (probably banned now) and it was very convincing and well made.
      Hoaxed the nation it did, well that was the headline.

      1. And of course there was Orson Welles’ entertaining movie ‘F for Fake’. Welles introduces it with “everything you see for the next hour is absolutely true”. At the end he appears and says “That was an hour and 17 minutes ago and for the last 17 minutes, I have been lying my head off”.

        And of course there was his ‘War of the Worlds’. Not to mention his apology for same, in which (as one commentator noted) he was ‘trying to look contrite and miserably failing’.

        (Quotes paraphrased from memory)


          1. Yes, War of the Worlds was pre-war (1938). Early days of radio, when people regarded it as an authoritative news source (and the only form of entertainment in many areas). Welles dramatised it as radio news reportage. Though it aired in an established ‘drama hour’ and was advertised as fiction, a considerable number of people called the authorities.

            Reading the Wikipedia page, the result seems to have been more of a ‘moral panic’ and manufactured indignation by the media (and over-reaction by the local cops, who invaded the studio en masse) than an actual panic.


  4. I have a few questions:

    – I “disempower” myself most every night at 11 pm and power up around 7 am. Is that good enough?

    – How does one “relinquish” one’s power? Is there an office for that?

    This stuff is so goofy.

  5. How about white privilege on a trip into enemy territory? In the spring of 1791 James Madison and Thomas Jefferson set off on a three week trip into the north, through Vermont, Connecticut then down through New York and back to Philadelphia. On this traveling vacation they, of course, took their slaves, Jefferson’s James Hemings and Madison’s slave Matthew. While on this trip they observed a 250 acre farm owned and inhabited by a free Negro, Prince Taylor. Madison noted that the African American cultivated the land with six white hirelings, and by industry and good management turns a good account.

    Life in early America and would it be interesting to hear the judgments on this piece of history from people today?

    1. Exactly. Simply reading the Wikipedia description of her book made me want to hurl. She and Almond seem so very very white … why were they chosen to respond to the letter?

      OTOH, the letter and specious NYT response are top kek, AFAIC.

      1. Her book wasn’t that bad (liked the hiking bits) and the movie with Reese Witherspoon was better, but why in the world she’s a “commentator” on this is beyond me.

          1. Oh bugger. I’m completely sunk then. I like walking, like driving my car, can’t stand rap (so I guess I’m not guilty of cultural appropriation, at least).

            Since we are so deeply sunk in our straight white male ableist privilege that we can never extricate ourselves, there’s no point in trying, is there? [Wanders off looking for a coloured female transgender cripple to oppress…]


      2. Cheryl Strayed is clearly BPD & NPD, a pathological liar who fabricated nearly all of her account, and didn’t even really hike the PCT (aside from the bus rides and hitching, her guestbook entries for some strange reason only appear at trailheads easily accessible by car.)

        A lengthy but hilarious deconstruction/review of Wild (book and film), by a gonzo hiker who’s actually completed the entire PCT:


        Strayed’s credentials prior to writing her fantasy novel …err … memoir, was an advice column in a college paper in which she gave uniformly atrocious advice – always prefaced by “Dear Sugar, ….”

          1. One of the few beneficial side effects of having interacted closely & at length with a BP is you can spot one a mile away. (Same holds for those unfortunate to have dealt with NPs.) Even a fine performance by one of my favorite actresses could not stop me from straight away seeing through Ms. Strayed’s falsity. Reading extended excerpts from the book only confirmed my assessment.

              1. BTW, Strayed is far from the first to lie about the PCT. Eric Ryback who claimed to be the first to hike it end to end, and wrote a best-seling book about it, fabricated much of his claim.

            1. BP: British Petroleum? Bitch Please? Before Present?
              NP: No Problem? Nondeterministic Polynominal? Not possible?
              PCT:Porphyria Cutanea Tarda? Post Cycle Therapy? Pacific Crest Trail!(I’m getting there!)
              BPD: Borderline Personality Disorder?
              NPD: Narcissistic Personality Disorder?
              I think I’m slowly but surely getting on the right track!

        1. I don’t care one little bit whether Strayed lied about hiking the PCT or anything else about her, but this blogger has serious mental health issues. I read the book – it was poorly written- (the blogger isn’t much better, just saying…) so it deserves to be criticized on that basis alone. But this Califohian long-distance hiker/blogger is dangerously obsessed with it and Strayed. She is a deeply troubled person who I think needs psychiatric help.

          1. Having read some pages of that blog (CherylStrayedisaLiar) I’ve concluded that, if the extensive quotes from Strayed’s books are anything like representative, Strayed’s outpourings are a steaming pile of horse manure that richly deserve to be treated with derision; that I wouldn’t have the dedication to dissect it all; but the blogger ‘Califohioan’ does have an acid wit that I find enormously more entertaining than Strayed’s erratic self-obsessed ramblings.

            But where you get that ‘Califohioan’ has, I quote, ‘serious mental health issues’ I’m buggered if I know. She obviously has a fascination with Strayed’s output, and time on her hands, but – given that she (Califohioan) apparently genuinely is an experienced long-distance hiker – I’m not surprised that she feels indignation at the phoniness of, and adulation accorded to, Strayed’s fiction.


          2. It’s an intentionally over-the=top rant, yet filled with accurate, informed, and devastating debunking of Wild, and I enjoyed it heartily.

            1. It’s not really a review of a book*; it’s an unhinged rant, however accurate, informed and devastating it may be.

              *Wild isn’t really about a hike on the PCT, so pointing out that Strayed faked much of the walk is really beside the point; worth mentioning but not ranting and raging about for thousands of lines. Califohian gets insanely worked up about the (at least partly faked) hike, even working up an imaginary budget to show, you know, how obsessed Stayed was with her lies.

              FTR, I disliked the book because it was poorly written, didn’t seem to go anywhere and although there was a kind of denouement in the story, I was left thinking, “So what? All her problems that prompted both the hike and book were self inflicted and near as I can tell the hike didn’t address any of them”. To me that’s a sign of a poor writer who didn’t have any clear idea what she was writing about. Also, I was completely unaware, until this WEIT post, of Strayed’s other work as an “advice” columnist (which I also don’t care about).

              1. “Wild isn’t really about a hike on the PCT, so pointing out that Strayed faked much of the walk is really beside the point”

                Considering the shit that was thrown at e.g. Hilary Clinton because she wasn’t shot at in Beirut (or wherever it was) as she mentioned just *once*, I would think it highly significant that Strayed’s alleged marathon hike, which propelled her book into the best-seller lists and got made into a movie, is probably almost entirely fake.


  6. I suspect most people who are predisposed to think like “Whitey” will say that it is an exemplar, even if fake, of real problems. It’s not true, but it should be. Although there are no doubt people who sincerely think like this, at the end of the day the discourse is not about truth but about power, So long as they can make their opponent’s “wrong”, they don’t care if their arguments or evidence are correct or real. After all, what is just about saying that a person is responsible for every crime committed by someone of their race/sex/nationality throughout all time in perpetuity?

  7. I knew this was a hoax, but the responses by Strayed sound like satires as well. If not, then they need to be pilloried, figuratively speaking. I already circulated my comments on this today and figured that JC would be on top of it. Everyone should distribute this widely. The NYT and The Nation seem to be in competition for the biggest dunce cap.

    1. Given what I’ve just learned about Strayed, I doubt she has the self-awareness to engage in satire. Makes Eat, Pray, Love seem almost … palatable.

  8. Further evidence of The Gray Lady’s demise that it would employ as an advice columnist, someone who is unrepentant about having destroyed every single one of their romantic relationships through a combination of drug abuse and one-night stands, and who’s self-realization epiphany consisted of standing on a picturesque bridge and exclaiming ‘it is all about me’

    1. Lucky you! I’ve hiked most of the 1300 km Bruce Trail in Ontario( in small doses). Have done small stretches of the Appalachian, many hikes in Utah and BC, but this Calif. native has never been on the PCT.

    2. I forgot to mention that during Strayed’s previous advice column gig, it’s widely believed she herself wrote the advice-seeking letters supposedly sent to her. Presumably, the NYT with its impeccable editorial standards would keep tabs on those things, amirite?

  9. Well, I can’t come down too hard on any dumbass gullible enough to fall for this hoax — but I sure-as-shit question whether anyone who does has got any business trafficking in “advice” to others.

  10. Strayed: As you seem well aware, your race granted you privileges that were and are denied to people who are not white. This is true for all white people in America, no matter how racially diverse their childhood neighborhoods were or were not, no matter how much money their families had or didn’t have, no matter how difficult or easy their lives have been.

    ^^^^^ This is just unbelievable.

    So, if you take a black child born into an upper middle class black family who moves through higher education to a job with good income, and a white child born in to terrible poverty, unable to get higher education, doomed to a continued life of poverty, we still must declare it was the white person’s life that represented “privilege”? What in the world is “privilege” once you water it down to that extent?

    I guess stats don’t matter regarding being white and poor?



    Well, Strayed as already dismissed WHATEVER experience a white person has had, good or bad, as being irrelevant to her claim that person has experienced privilege.

    What can you do with people who write in a don’t-bother-me-with-facts manner?

    I just listened to another excellent conversation between Glenn Loury and John McWhorter, on The Glenn Show, in which they discussed the problem of dealing with a “narrative” once it gets going. Narratives are stories born of and supported by personal feelings and anecdotes, and experience is parsed and cherry-picked to fit the narrative. Any more rigorous approach, e.g. studies, statistics etc, that don’t support the narrative just don’t make a dent. The writing here by Strayed/Almond seem to be examples of the narrative mindset – much like a religious mindset as Grania points out.

    It’s so frustrating to really believe oneself to be on the side of anti-racism – “true” anti-racism where we don’t judge one another by our race, but by our individual character.
    And yet to see this goal continually despoiled by an identity-politics approach where facts just don’t matter any more, only feelings paint the truth. Any approach that ignores reality is going to crash and burn at some point.

    1. So, if you take a black child born into an upper middle class black family who moves through higher education to a job with good income, and a white child born in to terrible poverty, unable to get higher education, doomed to a continued life of poverty, we still must declare it was the white person’s life that represented “privilege”? What in the world is “privilege” once you water it down to that extent?

      Ladyathiest was here just yesterday telling us that this is so.

      1. It’s surprisingly difficult to come up with a good original sin. Almost all of them have been done before.



  11. It does look like an epic troll, or a brilliant Poe, but then again, a lot of these Woke screeds resembles this.

    The New Racists and extremists at Pharyngula probably think the piece was very real, and made perfect sense!

  12. Someone ought to link to Steve Sailer here, who immediately wrote this up as a hoax:


    As someone who occasionally frequents some somewhat less erudite parts parts of the internet, I think it shoukd also be pointed out that “Whitey” is a standard term in certain parts… let’s say for caricatures of what their opponents would say if they spoke openly. The name alone is such an alarm bell that it adds considerably to my surprise that they fell for this.

  13. Question and request for Grania:

    Do you think Dr. Coyne would cozy up to idea of your writing a column on the non-theistic religion of progressives/control left/”woke” etc?

    It’s something that has fascinated me for several years. And you see direct mappings from Christianity/Judaism to this religion called by some “secular fundamentalism”, for example:

    1. “Hate speech” = blasphemy
    2. Whereas original sin in Christianity is something all people share, in “secular fundamentalism” original sin = priviledge, and its the property of cis-gendered white straight males. And redemption comes via the recognition and abasement of oneself to one’s intersectional antipodes.
    3. The indigenous as a metaphor for “Adam and Eve” and the Europeans, with their death and violence and disease, as the serpents.
    (BTW, I know many people, high-information voters, 1%, blah blah, pro science who really believe that those in the Western Hemisphere before Columbus are really from here…as in evolved here as distinct species.)

    1. I have heard that if you take many ‘woke’ course materials and substitute the words “Satan” and “Satanism” for “Whiteness” and “White Supremacy” they start to read a lot like religious texts.

      If I can find it there is a video of a reading of course material for ‘Healing from Toxic Whiteness’ that makes the point very well.

      1. Thanks…I will look for it.

        One thing, which you likely already suspect, my point is that “woke” courses are already religious material and no substitution of words needed.

    2. Glenn Loury and John McWhorter talk a lot about the SJW-as-religion phenomenon in their YouTube videos. Their discussions on any topic are well worth watching.

  14. How long ago did they stop being a reasonable center left paper of authority? This will give ammo to the conservatives who want to live in Fantasyland, and to stay in far right editorial echo chambers that glorify Trump, corporations, and tax cuts while vilifying Democrats, the Scotus, democracy, and government in general.

  15. I think I’ll try to communicate our white privilege to my dead ancestors who worked so hard for my lifelong toxic immersion in white privilege. My great grandmother who washed laundry for payment to feed her small children while her husband was working in another state. My grandmother who had to stand on a box at the sink to be tall enough to wash dishes while her younger brother dried. (She was able to attain the equivalence of a second grade education in country schools and was lucky to be able to read and write.) My mother who told (and showed) me how she washed laundry in a cast iron tub over a fire down by the creek when she was a youngster, before any form of machine washing was possible. Later, she worked cooking and cleaning houses for other more privileged people. My father who worked on a farm in Iowa for room and board and $1.00 a day, milking cows morning and evening, cutting off ears of corn all day to pay for my hospital bill in 1941 when was born. The lead miners, the homesteaders, the shipbuilders, the soldiers (my relatives were in all wars of the U.S. before and after it became such. My great grandfather and three brothers who fought for the north in the Civil War, and all survived.) These and all the other privileged white relatives, male and female, who made it possible for me to live the privileged white female life I lead. I hope I was worth it.

  16. I tell ya, it’s hard when my white privileged half “kicks” my non privileged half and then has to apologise every freekin time, all day long… it’s tiring.
    Before we had emails and txt, i was a bloody mess by the end of the day. Turns out, a good self selfie makes both feel privileged. Phew!

  17. There is nothing very much wrong with privilege. Well there is, of course, but not (necessarily) with the privileged person: it depends what one does with one’s privilege.
    Compare eg. Mr Trump, highly privileged, and, say, Mr Dawkins, also quite privileged.
    The one became a conman, a sleaze, a ‘bankrupter’ and ignorant populist/jingoist, the other used his privilege to improve himself and contributed greatly to human thought and knowledge.
    Both ‘privileged’, but I can hardly think of a grater contrast.

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