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Jessica Krug, Rachel Dolezal and America's white women who want to be Black

Before we move on to the next spectacle, we should consider what about our society produces and craves such imposters while ignoring more complex portrayals of Blackness.
Image: Rachel Dolezal Jessica Krug
It's hard to look away when those with privilege flex their power.Adrian Lam / NBC News

Identities are tricky. They can be assigned to us — and sometimes we assert them. They are socially constructed, but they’re not entirely fictive. Just ask Jessica Krug, or is it Jess La Bombalera? Or ask her students and colleagues in the history department at George Washington University.

Krug set the internet ablaze last week when she seemingly confessed that she had "assumed identities within a Blackness I had no right to claim."

Krug set the internet ablaze last week when she seemingly confessed via a post on Medium that she had “assumed identities within a Blackness I had no right to claim.” She labels herself a coward, a liar, “the refuse of non-Black societies” and a “cultural leech.” But ultimately, she positions herself as a truth-teller confessing her wrongdoings — a white Jewish woman from the suburbs of Kansas City posing as North African and then Afro-Latina.

“I gaslit you,” she wrote, in what is meant to sound more remorseful than triumphant. She suggests we cancel her as punishment, after explaining that cancel culture is a “righteous tool of those with less power to wield against those with more power.”

In the end, we might agree with Roxane Gay that Krug’s confessed impersonation amounts to little more than an absurd display of self-flagellation, hardly worth mentioning during a pandemic and widespread social and economic unrest. Yet, how can we account for the media frenzy swirling around it? What is it about a white woman desiring access to an imagined Black experience — and then being exposed for the lie — that continues to fascinate?

Is it a new twist on the now familiar, tearful display of a white person compelled to confront their own racism? It’s hard to look away when those with privilege flex their power while simultaneously throwing up their hands and saying they are being vulnerable. This is the power of privilege: The power to opt in and out of identities, to dramatically defend or chastise yourself before the viewing public, the power to redirect virtually every media outlet to your farfetched story. Rachel Dolezal wasn’t the first, and Jessica Krug won’t be the last.

Krug’s alleged confession — which is all we have to go on, because Krug herself has not commented publicly since the post’s publication — is thoughtful, if not melodramatic, unlike the dizzying remarks of Dolezal five years ago. Dolezal — an NAACP chapter president in Spokane, Washington — had her whiteness exposed by her family. In contrast, Krug is right to call out her power, although we still don’t know why she chose this moment to act. It’s very possible, as some have alleged, that Krug’s admission was more self-serving then she seems to imply.

Like Dolezal, Krug altered her appearance — darkening her blonde hair, according to a family friend — and seemed to take on accented speech to perform her version of Puerto Rican Blackness as Jess La Bombalera, a grittier activist version of her academic self. Also like Dolezal, she was drawn to Africana studies in college, eventually earning her doctorate in African history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison before earning tenure at GWU. And her estranged family, like Dolezal’s, is not playing along, revealing to CNN that she's as "white as snow white."

As I read about Krug’s educational background in anarticle from the Chronicle of Higher Education, which also linked an archived CV, I was struck by a number of parallels. I also earned my doctorate at UW-Madison, and her graduate adviser served on my dissertation committee. Also like Krug, I was drawn into academia after completing the Ronald E. McNair Scholars Program as an undergraduate. Later, we were both awarded an Advanced Opportunity Fellowship to support our graduate studies at UW-Madison. Both of these academic programs are designed to increase the presence of historically underrepresented groups in higher education, including students from marginalized communities who are low-income or the first in their family to attend college. We both benefited from these programs, and we’re both now tenured professors. But unlike Jessica Krug, I am Black.

I have never met Krug, but I have encountered characters like her on college campuses, including my own.

I have never met Krug, but I have encountered characters like her on college campuses, including my own. They share some uneasiness with their whiteness and seek refuge in their fantasies of Blackness and the rich culture, history and especially the radical politics they associate with it. But there is a world of difference between appreciating a culture or aligning with it politically and insisting you somehow embody it — even more, that you might do so better than other Black people because you are, as Krug had been described in her author bio, “an unrepentant and unreformed child of the hood.”

When I read the Medium post, it struck me as less a confession and more of a shield. The author insists it is neither. But Hari Ziyad, writer and editor-in-chief of RaceBaitr, tweeted, “She didn’t do it out of benevolence. She did it because she had been found out.” Similarly, Yomaira Figueroa, professor of African diaspora studies and African American and African studies at Michigan State University, tweeted that two senior Black Latina scholars had looked into Krug’s past and were ready to expose her. Anthropologist Yarimar Bonilla, reflecting on her time with Krug as fellows at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem, New York City, described her identity play as tantamount to a minstrel show.

Krug seems to have effectively asserted herself as a fraud rather than being assigned the label.

While her name has gone viral, most of us don’t know this person — by any name or identity. By all accounts, her scholarship is impressive. Her recent book about the circulation of revolutionary ideas among enslaved people during the transatlantic slave trade was a finalist for the Frederick Douglass Book Prize and Harriet Tubman Prize, presented by Yale University and the New York Public Library, respectively.

Yet, now GWU, as The Washington Post reported, is investigating Krug’s revelation that her very existence is based on, as she wrote, “the napalm toxic soil of lies.” As the university looks into the situation, Krug has been removed from her African and Latin American history courses this semester.

What does lying about who you are mean for an academic, let alone an activist? We all mislead and withhold certain aspects of ourselves to win friends and influence others, if not out of basic politeness. But that’s not equivalent to crafting a sprawling imaginary world to prop up a persona that animates professional and activist work. As with Rachel Dolezal, assumed identities can cause harm. That’s especially true when the identity is assumed in order to create professional or cultural cred.

Krug references her disassociation from the identities she was assigned at birth: white, Jewish, Midwesterner. She also mentions unspecified childhood traumas that prompted her to seek refuge in false identities and offers these “unaddressed mental health demons” as the primary explanation for the fakery, although she also chalks it up to cowardice. Krug never actually apologizes or pinpoints what it is about whiteness and Jewish culture that made her want to shed both in favor of a Black life she used as “a righteous tool.” Yet, she also assures her readers — her confessors — that her personal mental health conditions and past traumas do not exonerate her.

Ultimately, Krug’s assurances and the confession itself read like an instruction. Comfortable in her role as professor, she manages what information is presented in which order and how it should be contextualized through discourses around trauma and abuse, mental health, anti-Black violence, restorative justice and cancel culture. Even if we accept this teacher-pupil construction, every good student pushes back.

And as we push back against this neatly prescribed narrative, we might also consider what it is about white femininity that keeps producing this phenomenon. Perhaps it is a twisted attempt to be seen and heard — even to misbehave — by defying expectations of “good” white girls and women.

Rather than confronting those expectations directly, to masquerade as the oppressed is to seek out greater rewards beyond those of whiteness itself: more social media followers, more credibility, more access to spaces and initiatives reserved for people who have been historically marginalized, including college admissions. Before we shrug and move on to the next spectacle, we might take a moment to consider what about our society, our institutions, produces and craves such imposters while simultaneously ignoring and erasing other, more complex portrayals of Blackness.