Sympathy Grifting: The Intersection of Race, Gender, and Fraud

By Thea Lim, originally published at bitchmedia.org

I am living in Toronto for the summer, where the press is going wild over a local case of sympathy-fraud:

Ashley Anne Kirilow, a 23-year-old Burlington native, admits she faked cancer, ran a bogus charity and collected thousands of dollars from hundreds of people. She shaved her head and eyebrows, plucked her eyelashes and starved herself to look like a chemotherapy patient. She told anyone she met she had been disowned by drug-addicted parents, or that they were dead. Both parents are alive and well, each in separate marriages with three young children… While volunteers claim she raised $20,000, she said it was less than $5,000.

Since this newspiece a fourth fraud charge has been added to Kirilow’s list.

Kirilow is young, thin, sweet-faced and white: over the year that she convinced people to donate money to her cancer cause, she was given trips to Disneyworld and took a paradise trip to Australia; she is alternately described as an angel and a princess.

When I first saw this news case, I thought to myself (yes, rather cynically): there is no way that anyone other than a young, attractive, normative person could have pulled this off. If Kirilow had been—for example—fat, in her 30s, plain-looking and homeless, few would’ve given her the time of day. Much of Kirilow’s success seems attributed to the fact that she easily roused pity with her little lost girl story and her brave smile. Kirilow embodied a version of white womanhood that we want to believe in (or at least we’ve been socially conditioned to embrace it): pretty, plucky, determined, and in need of rescue.

Kirilow is a prime example of a sympathy grifter: a grifter who uses racist/sexist/classist/etc beliefs in their favor, to get money, affection and attention, or to (literally) get away with murder.

While Kirilow’s case has only covert markings of the way that biases around race, culture and gender enable fraud, another highly publicised “it wasn’t me!” case from a few years back was more overt: Belgian teenager Kimberley Vlaminck accused her tattoo artist, Rouslan Toumaniantz, of putting 56 stars on her face without her permission. The case got a huge amount of press which only escalated when it came out that Vlaminck had lied; all along she had requested the stars. This is the twist to this case:

The Belgian [Vlaminck] blamed the Flemish-speaking tattooist for not being able to understand her French and English instructions.

There has long been tension in Belgium between French and Flemish-speaking communities in Belgium: in other words, Vlaminck appealed to linguistic tensions to rouse sympathy for the fact that she’d had 56 stars tattooed on her face “against her will.”

And another sympathy grifter—Amanda Knox, an American student who was convicted of murder in Italy—deconstructed by my fellow Racialicious blogger Nadra Kareem:

I’ve no idea if Amanda Knox is innocent or guilty of the charges leveled at her—a jury’s already deemed her the latter—but some American journalists decided that she was innocent long before a verdict was reached. What’s disturbing about some of these journalists is that Knox’s race, gender and class background played central roles in why they considered her innocent…

While waiting to be interrogated, Knox reportedly did cartwheels. [American journalist Timothy] Egan chalks this up to Knox being an athlete. But if Donovan McNabb or LeBron James were being investigated for murder and did cartwheels during an interrogation, would their behavior be taken as that of a benign athlete or make them look unfeeling and flippant? Egan attempts to undermine Italy by making it appear as if sinister Italians were angling to punish this girl who not only reminds him of numerous girls from the Pacific Northwest but also of his own daughter…

…The problematic racial overtones in the reporting of the case not only involve Italians but black men. Following her November 2007 arrest, Knox wrote to police that bar owner Patrick Lumumba killed Kercher…Because of Knox’s repeated insinuations that Lumumba murdered Kercher, he spent two weeks in jail. Police ended up releasing him because he had a solid alibi. Lumumba sued Knox for defamation and won.

While Egan has mentioned that Knox mistakenly linked Lumumba to Kercher’s murder, he quickly let her off the hook for it, as did a commenter at women’s Web site Jezebel who remarked:“I don’t judge her for that at all. She was held in an Italian prison, questioned for days, and encouraged to ‘confess.’”

But to ignore Knox’s transgression on this front is to ignore the history of sympathetic (but guilty) white Americans fingering black men for crimes the men never committed. In 1989, for instance, Charles Stuart shot and killed his pregnant wife, Carol, but told police that a black man was responsible. Two years later, Susan Smith murdered her young sons but told police initially that a black man had carjacked her and kidnapped the boys.

A sympathy grifter succeeds (at least temporarily, since Kirilow, Vlaminck and Knox were all eventually caught in their lies) by using and fulfilling “positive stereotypes.”

A “positive stereotype” is any generalized belief about your gender, race, ethnic, class etc group that is positive, rather than negative. So for example, both the beliefs that Asians are intrinsically spiritual, (please see the Buddha of Suburbia) or that white women are docile, are positive stereotypes. I put quotes around “positive stereotype” because it is an an oxymoron to me, in that it is never positive to have a stereotype applied to you; whether a stereotype suggests something pleasant or unpleasant, it is a vast generalization that dehumanizes you and ignores who you are as a person.

There’s a huge range of people for whom sympathy grifting is just not possible: those for whom primarily “negative stereotypes” exist. It is fairly unusual for a young man of color to get away with sympathy grifting, since our cultural stereotype of young men of color is that they are violent and criminal. There are exceptions to this; for example David Hampton, the young gay black man that the the movie Six Degrees of Separation is based on.

While sympathy grifters then, more often than not, are young white women, Korean American Kari Ferrell—also known as the hipster grifter—hit the news pretty hard last year after scamming a total of $60,000 off of suitors and admirers, largely by fulfilling every hipster yellow fever wet dream across the Eastern Seaboard and beyond. Google her even now, you’ll find naked pictures of her on hipster news sites labelled AZN p****. On second thought, don’t google her.

Because a “positive stereotype”  is complete nonsense, a lie, it makes an excellent scaffolding for a web of lies. And while I have zero sympathy for Kirilow, Vlaminck, Knox, and Ferrell, I am fascinated by how they managed to turn stereotypes that delimited them, into weapons. A bizarre byproduct of each of these strange and sad cases is that all these women consciously or not (I’m going to go with not) punished their advocates for having preconceived cultural notions; their notions made them dupe-able.

While these women’s successes must have relied heavily on personal magnetism, I really cannot believe they would’ve gotten as far without the fuel of stereotype.

Just one more reason to dismantle the kyriarchy.