Living in Blackface
What does it say about America that Rachel Dolezal and Jessica Krug wanted to pass as black?
Rachel Dolezal and Jessica Krug. (Photos: left: AP/Nicholas K. Geranios; right: Duke University Press, via Twitter)
The chattering classes never truly finished with Rachel Dolezal, the white woman who was discovered in 2015 to have spent her adult life passing as black. She was in the news for only a few weeks in June of that year, until the white supremacist Dylann Roof murdered nine black people in Charleston, taking the national spotlight elsewhere.
However, Dolezal was more than a mere curiosity. She, along with a similar case revealed this past September—the history professor Jessica Krug, who passed for 20 years as a person of color—are revealing about black identity today, as well as how all of us navigate what has been called our “racial reckoning” since the murder of George Floyd last spring.
Dolezal grew up in Montana, raised by her white biological family. She was the rare white student to attend Howard University, which she ended up suing, saying the traditionally black school had discriminated against her as a white person in various ways. Some years after graduating, she took to sporting a spray tan and transforming her hair to appear African-American, presenting herself socially as a black person, and claiming to have had a black father. She eventually became head of the Spokane branch of the NAACP while teaching in the Africana Studies department at Eastern Washington University. Outed by her parents in 2015, she avowed that she “identifies” as black and would continue to. At last report, she is “identifying” as Nkechi Amare Diallo.
Krug grew up white and Jewish in Kansas, attended private school, and worked as a history professor at George Washington University. There, while posing as an academic of color, she studied black people in the worldwide diaspora, and wrote a respected book, Fugitive Modernities. When historians of color threatened to out her deception, she came clean in a Medium essay (“I cancel myself”), and resigned. Krug eschewed the spray tan, instead working with what her Caucasian skin would allow, first claiming to be part-Algerian, and later settling into an “Afro-Latino” identity, complete with a social-media-activist handle “Jess La Bombalera,” and purporting to have grown up in the Bronx. In her “Bombalera” guise, she assumed a Nuyorican accent—the equivalent of Dolezal’s “fierce” locks—and dressed down white officials for condescending to her “brothers and sisters” in the Bronx.
Enlightened wisdom today is that, however black lives look from the outside, to go about as a black person in these United States remains an ongoing, almost daily, burden. Overall, we are to understand that the changes in the black American condition since 1968 have largely been rearrangements of the deck chairs on the Titanic. The point is usually made with statistics. Whites have about 10 times the wealth of black people—a gap similar to that in 1968. A black man has a 1 in 1,000 chance of being killed by a police officer. Partly because of disparities in healthcare, black people are three times more likely to get Covid and twice as likely to die from it.
However, the reality of black people’s daily existence rarely forces one to confront the differences between our lives and white ones. As even Ellis Cose—celebrated liberal journalist doyen of the black American situation—has noted, “In the real world such statistics are almost irrelevant, for rage does not flow from dry numerical analyses of discrimination or from professional prospects projected on a statistician’s screen.” Any observer can see that the openness of racism, and thus black people’s daily experience of it, has changed massively over the past 50 years. The braver observer may question the claim often seen on social media from black people that they experience racism “EVERY DAY! EVERY DAY!” Such an observer’s skepticism is correct. Dr. King did not fight in vain.
And it is for this reason that only today is a fashion emerging for white people to declare themselves black in “identity.” Dolezal and Krug gave up the white privilege that we are taught makes such a decisive difference. They did this to live as the people we are told endure such endless misery, to such a degree that we are to think of oppression as the essence of black Americans, as taught by primers such as Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility.
There were white figures in the past who played around the color line, of course. Most often cited is the white jazz clarinetist Mezz Mezzrow who, from the 1920s on, styled himself a “voluntary Negro,” married a black woman, and openly depicted himself as “almost” black. However, he did not deem himself black, and never broke with his past in the way Dolezal and Krug did. Dolezal, for example, sat calmly in an interview, talking on the subject of black oppression and speaking of what “we” go through. Figures like Mezzrow did not take it this far.
The difference between Mezzrow and Dolezal is a clear indication that race relations have been improving in this country. And it is not an accident that Dolezal and Krug are both around 40. They both came of age in an era when perceptions of white privilege and black despair became enshrined as liturgical truth in enlightened circles. Yet despite this, each chose to “identify” as members of a race supposedly living as America’s most broken, tortured outcasts.
Why would a white person choose such a thing? To make sense of it, one can situate individuals along a path that ends with Dolezal and Krug. Stage One is a kind of white person who loves black culture, usually beginning with the music and extending to styles of dance, dress, movement, speech style, even “attitude,” and with a mostly or exclusively black social life, including dating partners. Mezzrow was an example, with his deep love of jazz leading him to adopt black street culture of the time. This kind of person often feels that there is something more “real” about black people—a sentiment expressed by Norman Mailer in his yen to be a “white Negro,” stated in a 1957 essay of the same name, complete with the exotifying idea that black people have more elemental sex.
This wannabe black person lives under a glass ceiling of a different kind. I have heard such people, in looser moments, saying, “I almost feel like I am black.” You can tell there is a part of them that wants to simply say, “I am black!” But they don’t, because they know what awaits them: an indignant smackdown that being black means having suffered the insults, dismissals and general oppression that black people suffer.
Most white people of this sort are aware of that, agree with its premise, and leave it there. I have known some who are a kind of Stage Two along our pathway to Dolezal and Krug. They put out exploratory tendrils driven by a frustrated desire to push through that glass ceiling. One of them, when noting problems that she and her black friends had encountered, saw the matter as rooted in racist discrimination against the black friends, and saw herself as oppressed by proxy. Another Stage Two person took on black speech patterns, and recalled a white man telling her, “You sound like a n****r when you talk.” Oppression? Perhaps.
But this person knew that a common response would remain, “But you’re still white!” Here is where Dolezal and Krug come in, taking wannabe blackness to a new, and more workable, level. If you can’t really be black unless you are oppressed, then one way to wangle things is to actually take the step of “identifying” as black, and warding off the objection by faking your own oppression.
Dolezal fabricated numerous incidents of supposed racial discrimination against her—more ironically so for having claimed discrimination against her whiteness while at Howard. Krug tweeted from an academic conference that she was mistaken for a custodial worker at the hotel, experiencing the mistreatment that supposedly awaits all black (or in her case “Blacktino”) people circulating in the mainstream.
The urge to dismiss this as a sign of derangement should be resisted. People who play victim do so for a benefit: They find significance in the role. The noble victim earns congratulations, even if by implication, just for getting through another day, with almost any achievement a victory snatched from the jaws of defeat. The idea is of victimhood as a defining trait of being black, and to claim to suffer it also lends one a sense of community and belonging. It is not an accident that both Dolezal and Krug had broken with their families.
To adopt blackness can confer a sense of importance more generally. No person in academia or the media can miss that the educated class finds almost anything more interesting/dynamic/challenging/worth-a-look when a black person does it. We are taught lately that academia is shot through with bigotry, yet no scholarly work is dismissed because someone black wrote it. Indeed, scholarship by a black person is more likely to be elevated over scholarship by a white person on the same topic. Krug’s book would likely have gotten much less attention if a white person had written it. Certainly, she felt more interesting as an Afro-Latina fighting for “her” people than she would have as a white professor toiling in obscurity.
In academia, being a pretty color makes you special. This has been true for decades, and it will continue in the current fashion at universities to air manifestos devoted to placing diversity front and center in hiring decisions. What white academic wouldn’t almost wish they were black under those conditions, especially knowing deep down that for all but a very few black people, daily existence is nothing approaching the hellscape that certain performers pretend it is?
But that is just it: This kind of passing-as-black is only psychologically plausible when the purported oppression is minor.
The cases of Dolezal and Krug neatly reveal the discrepancy between what we are often told and the lived reality. We cannot know whether Dolezal really thought, when she started “passing,” that being a black woman would mean being endlessly subjected to snarling remarks, being mistaken for the help, being paid markedly less than white people doing the same jobs, being carefully watched by store clerks, asked for a second credit card, and so on. If so, she was disappointed, and thus had to invent such things for her act to be complete. She would not have had to invent those things 50 years ago. I can also attest, as a black man who has been attending academic conferences at hotels for 30 years, and with an appearance that is much more immediately identifiable as black than Krug, that I have not waded through hotels’ hallways and ballrooms with people asking me to gather up the dirty water glasses or get started mopping the foyer, and I have never seen it happen to any other black academic.
Racism exists, to be sure. But if black people’s experience in the 21st century was the constant firehose spray of slights and dismissals that today’s woke consensus teaches, then Dolezal in her spray tan wouldn’t have lasted two weeks, and Krug would have been quietly thankful that she was not black.
Dolezal and Krug are bellwethers of a sort, who can help us make our way amidst the racial reckoning of 2020. They reveal the uncomfortable fact that more than a few people speaking for black America exaggerate the degree that racism infects our daily lives.
Certainly, there are “Living While Black” incidents—for example, a white person calling the police on a black person with suspicions that have no basis. A couple of years ago, a receptionist mistook me for a sound technician at an event where I was the professor about to lead a class, dressed in an overcoat and carrying a briefcase. However, these are isolated cases happening across a massive nation, remnants of something once vastly more common and dangerous, not regular occurrences in individual black lives in the way that they were generations ago. To be black is not to go about ever injured, grieving, and struggling to get through days endlessly hobbled by manifestations of racism large and small.
Sadly, this portrait has become a boilerplate claim. This year, Greg Patton was teaching a class on business communication to business students at the University of Southern California, discussing hedging terms such as “like” and “you know” in different languages. He mentioned in passing that in Mandarin, people say “na-ge, na-ge, na-ge.” This offended a group of black students in the class, who reported Patton to the dean of the business school, saying in a statement: “We are burdened to fight with our existence in society, in the workplace, and in America. We should not be made to fight for our sense of peace and mental well-being at Marshall.”
The sad thing is that there are black people who fake victimhood in the same way as Dolezal and Krug did, and for the same reason: seeking a sense of validation and group membership in noble victimhood. Only this could explain those insisting that Princeton University—with its battery of diversity programs, its stringent censuring of all communication possibly deemed racist, and its removal of Woodrow Wilson’s name from an important building—is a racist institution that needs to deliver itself into the hands of a Star Chamber assigned to police for racist actions and statements. That performative nonsense comes from the same well as Dolezal’s phony reports of discrimination and Krug pretending to have been asked to clean up after a conference hotel meal.
Just as Dolezal and Krug were wrongly deemed crazy, there is nothing pathological in the disproportionate bent for this kind of thing from black people. Almost four centuries of being treated as animals was hardly useful for a true sense of racial pride. In his book on reparations, The Debt, Randall Robinson had it that racism
has hulled empty a whole race of people with inter-generational efficiency. Every artifact of the victim’s past, every custom, every ritual, every god, every language, every trace element of a people’s whole inherited identity, was wrenched from them and ground into a sharp choking dust.
There is some truth in that. It would be difficult to explain if black history had not taught black people that to be black is to be less. Playing the victim is a handy way to assuage that sense of inadequacy. Then—to the extent that playing the victim is a general human trait—as people of a subordinate, troubled group, black people as individuals have a readier way of falling into that personality type than, say, a white Lutheran in North Dakota. There is a sense of warmth in circling the wagons, a sense of purpose in the role of warrior.
An entire book such as Wilfred Reilly’s Hate Crime Hoax—and Reilly is black—makes it clear that there is a little bit of Dolezal and Krug in quite a few black people. The reasons are understandable as both social history and individual psychology. However, they require us to avoid the infantilizing treatment that the gurus of antiracist enlightenment insist upon: that, when there is a claim of racism, we must consider only the impact (“How I feel”) never the intent (“What they meant”).
We must think about both impact and intent, and decide how to weight them. In other words, we must actually think, despite the menacing insistence from our race-debate arbiters that, where racism is involved, thinking is morally perverse. If racism were really the cut-and-dried and immutable business that the Great Awokening insists it is, Rachel Dolezal would be a white woman with straight hair whose tanning was limited to summer vacations, Jessica Krug would be one more white woman who goes salsa dancing on the weekends and considers herself an ally of black people, and none of us would have heard of either of them.
John McWhorter, contributing writer at The Atlantic and professor of linguistics at Columbia University, is a member of Persuasion’s Board of Advisors. His new book, Nine Nasty Words: English in the Gutter: Then, Now, and Forever, comes out in May.
I’m the hugest fan of your work and writing; I’m so grateful for this perspective during this extremely confusing era of ours.
I would love it if you were able to research and write about the way education is failing poor kids and kids of color due to allowing different standards for different types of kids. The APM reports about phonics and public schools is so enlightening and an example of good intentions doing real harm. I abhor racism and I can see how well intentioned progressives are unintentionally creating racist systems in education.
Has anyone looked into, in cases like these and others, need to belong?
I had a (white, vaguely agnostic, middle-aged) professor who claimed she had no culture -- really what it was is she was a member of the dominant culture and didn't feel connected to anything because of it.
As a Jew, I may not spend a lot of time involved in my community, but I feel connected that community. I have my family over for Sabbath dinner Fridays. I text with my rabbi and call him by his first name when we're in informal settings. I have a place where I fit in and people who will count me as part of their circles simply because I'm Jewish; if we have nothing else identifiable in common, it's an invitation to the table (usually literally).
But when a bunch of white, vaguely Christian or agnostic people get together in public and celebrate who they are, that feels a lot like a white supremacist rally, and people who are craving community might be willing to try to pass as part of a community they don't naturally belong to rather than try to be part of what seems to them a dangerous, or at least undesirable, group of people "like them."