Because She Can: The Unbearable Whiteness of Jessie
By TaRessa Stovall
I'm a mixed (Black, Jewish, Native American) boomer, very light-skinned and so racially ambiguous looking that most people question, assume and try to challenge my racial identity.
My copper-toned Black father hated that I wouldn’t exploit my appearance to “be anything.” My Russian Jewish mother wondered about my lifelong allegiance to Blackness and my stubborn insistence on conveying the messy totality of my DNA even when it wasn’t comfortable, advantageous or convenient.
Still, I never lied about my identity. Even when doing so might have made my life easier.
We’re familiar with the reasons that many Black people passed for white, especially in the Reconstruction and Jim Crow eras — as a way to lessen oppression and “level up” to better opportunities. But why would a white person discard their privilege to pretend to be Black?
Enter Jessica A. Krug, a white Jewish woman who built her life and successful career by Rachel Dolezaling the world into thinking that she was a Black Latina. (Rachel Dolezal is a white woman who was outed by her parents in 2015 for pretending to be Black. At the time, Dolezal was president of the NAACP chapter in Spokane, Washington and also taught at Eastern Washington University, where she specialized in Black studies and African American culture.) In a post on Medium titled “The Truth, and the Anti-Black Violence of My Lies,” Krug confessed that she assumed “various identities within a Blackness that I had no right to claim: first North African Blackness, then US rooted Blackness, then Caribbean rooted Bronx Blackness.”
She pretended to be an expert, author, professor and activist on topics that included Africa, Latin America and African American history. She is an associate professor in the history department at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. School officials said they are investigating the matter and that Krug would not be teaching during the fall semester. Krug fooled Essence, the magazine for Black women, into publishing her work with a bio saying she’s “Boricua” (Puerto Rican) and “an unrepentant and unreformed child of the hood … consumed in the struggle for her community in El Barrio and worldwide.”
Krug’s deception sparked comparisons to Rachel Dolezal, who was outed by her parents as a colonizing Becky in 2015. Like Dolezal, Krug cosplayed Blackness to build a brand and power base. Both allegedly worked on behalf of Black people while reaping the benefits of their deceptions. Unlike Dolezal, who insists that she is Black, Krug came clean, flogging herself as a liar, a coward and a culture leech. She was eviscerated on social media, as seen here on Complex.com.
Black influencers like Robert Jones Jr., known as Son of Baldwin, expressed his dismay at being betrayed and gaslighted by the woman with whom he’d shared his popular platform. Krug also wrote for the popular Race Baiting site. The Washington Post reported that “Hari Ziyad, a Black author, screenwriter and editor-in-chief of the online publication RaceBaitr posted a thread of tweets about Krug … He tweeted, ‘For years I defended her work, and her from her own self-loathing. … I always knew there was something off. It was in her persistent negativity and jealousy, her always needing to prove her authenticity at the expense of everything else.’”
What made Krug give herself up? As reported by The Hill, “[Dr.] Yomaira Figueroa, an associate professor at Michigan State University, said on Twitter that the ‘only reason Jessica Krug finally admitted to this lie is because on Aug 26th one very brave very BLACK Latina junior scholar approached two senior Black Latina scholars & trusted them enough to do the research & back her up.’"
Like Dolezal, Krug “reinvented” her white self as a woke Black woman working for the people. What do these charlatans gain by passing for Black? What are the benefits of faking a position on the least privileged rung of society? Are they driven by a twisted version of the classic white people’s need to dominate and exploit Black and other people of color? Maybe they felt generic and overlooked as white women, and knew that the phenotypical range of Black appearance and identity in this country would — with a few cosmetic tweaks —elevate them in Black and brown spaces with a light-skinned, ambiguous-looking pass.
Perhaps they liked getting over on people to whom they felt superior. Or they craved the perceived cool factor of Blackness without actually having to feel the agony of anti-Black racism. Krug knew she could become Jessi from the block with some hoop earrings, a red lip and bad hair-dye job. That, plus spewing bizarre mashup like this profane rant against gentrification in Harlem, led to cred, acclaim, high status and financial rewards with no racial price tag attached.
These women know how racism’s stepchild, colorism, elevates those who look the whitest. As Keka Araújo wrote of Krug in Medium.com, “A goofy white chick who was the self-proclaimed ‘historian of politics, ideas, and cultural practices in Africa and the African Diaspora’ felt like she could tell our stories better than us. And Black folks listened because … Black pain tastes better served from ambiguously Black hands.”
Krug and Dolezal have used this aspect of Black and Latinx cultures to their advantage, knowing that white dominance often rewards light-skinned people of color with more educational and professional opportunities and greater earning power than their darker-skinned counterparts.
As Vanessa Rochelle Lewis wrote in WearYourVoiceMag.com, Krug and Dolezal “thrive because of the unchecked, socially validated uglification of darker-skinned Black women. They thrive because of so many people’s preference for and draw to light skin … under the pretense of being Black women, they seem to easily receive accolades, professional opportunities, publishing opportunities, awards, community love and adoration and financial resources that so many darker-skinned Black women writers and academics are struggling and fighting to access.”
Both women knew they’d get away with their charades by blaming childhood trauma. Krug added mental illness to the mix—a variation on white women’s tears to avoid any real consequences. Like Dolezal, Krug will likely get lucrative book and film deals.
We don’t know yet how Krug will suffer from her deceit, if at all, but the fallout is profound. Lisa Betty wrote in Medium.com that “Krug’s ‘personal’ outing has literally destabilized a community of Black scholars at GWU and the future of the program. She needs to contend with entering a community that is already marginalized within a predominantly white institution, and additionally causing exponential harm by desecrating a safe academic and cultural space for Black and Brown students.”
Former students of Krug shared their reactions on TheCut.com, including the sentiment that the racial ruse was unnecessary. “She would have been fine if she was just a white woman. … The things that she taught me could have been done without this whole minstrel show … It doesn’t really change how I view those topics, … But in the way I looked up to her, the way I wanted to impress her, [combined] with the power dynamics [and the fact that] the relationship was built on a lie is more important than the subject matter .…” Another student wondered, “Now it’s just like, what else was a lie?”
Krug could have simply followed in the footsteps of the many white people with a genuine interest in Black topics and movements. Several white professors teach African and African American history and related subjects—as themselves. There were white people invested in the Civil Rights Movement back in the day and even larger numbers showing up to support Black Lives Matter today. It seems something deeper and more sinister drove this cruel elaborate scheme.
Anti-Black racism takes seemingly endless forms.
The Krugs and Dolezals of the world have a perverse need to dominate Black culture and people while pimping Black suffering. This gives them a sense of power and the thrill of getting away with something illicit. At its core, it is white supremacism.
The collateral damage from the kind of faux Blackness that Krug and Dolezal embody has special implications for those of us who are multiracial and ambiguous looking. We spend our lives at the intersection of “What are you?” with our identities assessed to determine where we do and don’t belong. We balance the knowledge that we don’t always face the same dangers as unambiguously Black people with understanding the ironic privileges encoded in our DNA.
Even with the availability of DNA test results, folks argue everything from our appearance to blood quantum, with no consensus about who gets to claim Black identity.
VIDEO: People of color discuss the impact of 'colorism' l GMA
As in all communities of color, colorism feeds intraracial tensions, pain and hostility. Another win for white dominance as we fight each other rather than unite against our common foe. While Krug and Dolezal are not responsible for these dynamics, their colonization of Black identity and spaces add fuel to this destructive fire. Bottom line: everybody suffers except the white folks.
Such is the nature of anti-Black racism. Like the growing online phenomenon of Blackfishing—white women using artificial tanning and makeup “to appear of African, Arab, or Hispanic ancestry”—Krug got the petals of Black-and/or Latinx identity without feeling the sting of racism’s thorns. We might never know what made her engage in this bizarre form of reverse racial passing. But we do know that her whiteness will always grant her protection, immunity and endless rewards for whatever havoc she creates. Since white supremacy is built on and fed by lies in the first place, maybe Krug’s deceptions aren’t so mysterious after all.
TaRessa Stovall is an award-winning author, journalist, blogger and identity rabble rouser living in Atlanta. Her latest book is the memoir, SWIRL GIRL: Coming of Race in the USA. It is available now at www.taressastovall.com. Connect with her on Twitter and Instagram @taressatalks.