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L’Affaire Krug and Contemporary Wokeism

The controversy over a white professor passing herself off as Black reveals an underlying contradiction in how we view race, Peter C. Herman writes.

September 25, 2020
 
Jessica Krug
 

L’affaire Jessica Krug has certainly generated its share of heat and controversy. Krug, born white and Jewish, a professor in the history department at George Washington University until she resigned in the wake of this scandal, pretended for years that she was a person of color, claiming at various times North African, Black American and Black Caribbean descent.

In a 2019 essay published at Essence.com (since removed), she referred to herself as a “Boricua,” a Puerto Rican living in the United States. Krug dressed the part, showing up in class wearing heels, giant hoop earrings and cheetah pants. In a particularly cringeworthy moment, Krug went on a profanity-laden, deliberately grammatically challenged tirade at a New York City Council hearing, objecting to white New Yorkers who didn’t yield their time back to “Black and brown Indigenous New Yorkers.” She even adopted woke anti-Zionism, claiming (wrongly) that the New York Police Department is trained by the Israeli Defense Force and, like the IDF, the police are a colonial, occupying force.

Then, on Sept. 3, 2020, Krug outed herself on Medium.com as a fake and a fraud, calling herself “a culture leech.” Her self-excoriation, however, was nothing compared to the torrent of abuse that rained down following her admission. Her students felt betrayed. Her colleagues wanted her fired. For Washington Post columnist Karen Attiah, Krug’s story represents the epitome of “white” privilege: “the audacity of assuming the identity of a marginalized group. As a friend of mine put it on Facebook, ‘Vile and detestable at every level … This story makes me physically ill.’”

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But Jessica Krug’s impostures make explicit a fundamental contradiction in the way we talk about race, gender and sexuality today.

On the one hand, there’s a long history behind the idea that race is socially constructed, not innate or, to use a slightly jargony term, “essential.” Shakespeare clearly intuits this approach when he has Shylock in The Merchant of Venice give his famous “Hath not a Jew eyes” speech, arguing that Christians and Jews share a common humanity.

A few centuries later, W. E. B. Du Bois argued that “race” is not biological or physical, but a category that has meaning only in historical or sociological terms. Expanding on the point, Anthony Appiah writes toward the end of his 1985 essay “The Uncompleted Argument: Du Bois and the Illusion of Race,” “The truth is that there are no races.”

Science backs up literature, sociology and philosophy. DNA analysis shows that genetic differences are not fixed along “racial lines.” When a Korean scientist, Seong-Jin Kim, had his genome compared with two Western scientists’ (James Watson and Craig Venter), it turned out the Europeans had more in common with Kim than with each other.

The same principle applies to gender and sexuality. Gender preference is no longer tied to one’s physical characteristics or whether one has X or Y chromosomes. If you feel that you are a woman even though you inhabit the body of a man, then you have the right to be considered a woman. That is why surveys often ask which gender we identify as, not whether we are a boy or a girl.

What this means -- or at least, strongly implies -- is that one’s racial identity could be as much a matter of personal preference as gender. Krug clearly wanted to appear as a woman of color, and she masterfully figured out exactly what attributes our culture marks as “colored”: what speech patterns, what dress, what political opinions, what backstory, and she adapted her self-presentation to conform to those views. By all accounts, Krug’s POC persona was brilliantly successful. She fooled everyone.

But when she revealed what she had done, a very different conception of race came to the fore. Krug’s critics unanimously assume that race is “essential,” baked into one’s DNA as indelibly as eye or hair color, and that one’s race qualifies or disqualifies you from speaking about certain subjects. As a student of Krug’s put it, “Why at my school do I learn about cultures of brown people or Black people from white people? Why are they in a better position to give that education?”

Another student at GWU complained about “the lack of authentic Black and Latinx faculty” at the institution. As for what constitutes “authentic” or “actual,” that’s not for anyone other than Black people to decide. As Michelle Moyd, an associate professor of history at Indiana University, says, “It is not really for outsiders to judge whether or not people who ‘do not appear to be Black’ are Black or not.”

Krug’s imposture is not unique. In addition to Rachel Dolezal, who self-identified as Black even though she has white parents, pop culture is filled with examples of “performative Blackness” that gets discarded once it’s no longer convenient. A columnist for The Guardian (U.K.) denounced white, female Instagram influencers “passing themselves off as black.” Apparently, there’s a term for this: “Blackfishing,” and according to many, it’s totally wrong for the same reason that Krug was wrong -- “If you’re not black, you shouldn’t be doing that,” says the Black Instagram influencer, Erika Hart. All the benefits, she continues, should go to “actual black women.”

The problem is that if you adopt the view of race held by Shakespeare, Du Bois, Appiah and the geneticists, there is no such thing as an authentic Black or Latinx person because there are no “actual” racial categories: they are all socially determined performances.

But that is not how race is usually discussed these days among the woke. Instead, as the uproar over Krug’s impersonation shows, race is now widely considered an intrinsic category, not a social construct, and there is no crossing the boundaries. If you try to cross or “pass,” you risk being greeted with the same horror and derision that miscegenation generated not that long ago.

Paradoxically, we have returned to a view of race not dissimilar to white supremacists: both view race in absolute terms, and both believe the races should be separate.

Like white supremacists, progressives now find themselves (oddly enough) trying to segregate the races whenever they can. A proposal for the 2021 Modern Language Association Convention called for two panels “designated” for whites and people of color respectively. At my university, the Center for Diversity and Inclusion offered three workshops similarly “designated”: one “for faculty of color,” another “for women of color” and a third “for white allies.” (The irony of a center supposedly devoted to inclusion sponsoring workshops that exclude was apparently lost on the organizers.)

In both cases, criticism forced them to back down. But the original impulse for separate but equal meetings, a practice banned by the Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education, remains.

The central question, then, is which approach will help lessen the very real disparities in American society?

One direction, let’s call it the “Appiah approach,” leads to taking down barriers, to emphasizing achievement over ethnicity when doling out awards and to looking beyond or beneath appearances when judging people. As Martin Luther King Jr. famously said, "I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character."

For many, such an approach clearly has failed. Persons of color are subject to police violence at a much greater rate than white people. The corridors of power are still largely white, and a huge wealth gap continues to separate whites and African Americans.

But is the answer creating a progressive version of Jim Crow? Emphasizing difference rather than similarity? Using race and ethnicity to make employment and university admission decisions? Assuming that students will be successful only if they have teachers who look like them? Is the answer to getting beyond racism policing the color line with all the rigor of the post-Civil War South?

Or, should we try, as Thomas Chatterton Williams, New York Times contributing author and signer of the “Harper’s letter” protesting “cancel culture,” suggests in his memoir, Self-Portrait in Black and White: Unlearning Race, to try to get beyond “the fictions of race” and relate to each other as individuals, not through the lens of “tribal identitarianism”?

Is the answer creating greater and greater barriers between races, distinguishing between “insiders” and “outsiders,” between those who belong and interlopers, even though “race” is itself a fiction? Do we assume that all “white” people are by definition racist, and all “Black” people oppressed (surely a gross oversimplification)? Or, given that most people of whatever hue have mixed ancestry, do we try to find a way to move beyond superficial differences of skin color?

Then we could worry about things that really matter, like class and global climate change.

Bio

Peter C. Herman is professor of English literature at San Diego State University and author of Unspeakable: Literature and Terrorism from the Gunpowder Plot to 9/11 (Routledge, 2020).

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