A few weeks ago, I re-watched Jordan Peele’s racial thriller Get Out. The movie still elicits a visceral response of horror, mostly due to its banality and familiarity. The upper-class liberal white family is creepy, but they are given the benefit of the doubt, repeatedly. The situation is familiar to many of us who move in racially mixed social and work spaces.
We ignore the uneasiness until we realize that, like a frog in water set to boil, it’s too late. They never actually saw your humanity. Instead, they saw you as a commodity, and you and the labor of your body and mind are about to be overrun and possibly consumed.
That’s the feeling that some in academia have been expressing after being conned by recently tenured associate professor of Africana studies at George Washington University, Jessica Krug. According to her confession on Medium last Thursday, Krug, who is a white woman from Kansas, has been masquerading for years as a woman of color. She has embodied the identity of a North African, a Black Carribean and a salsa-dancing, accent-faking Afro-Puerto Rican from the Bronx for more than a decade. During that time, she has won a McNair Scholarship—a prestigious financial academic award reserved for people of color and first-generation students.
Similar to but unlike Rachel Dolezal, who feels she actually identifies as Black, Krug admits her act was, in fact, a ruse. She blames her identity shifting and cultural theft on “mental illness” due to “childhood trauma.” But before one looks at her actions as those of someone who is delusional or ill, it’s important to note that her actions are not as uncommon as they may seem.
As outlandish as attempts to embody another race may seem (which is not to be confused with the type of passing mixed-race Black people may have done in earlier times in order to escape the horrors of Jim Crow and racial oppression), appropriating the culture and labor of Black people is precisely what white supremacy has been doing in this country since the first Black bodies were brought to American soil.
From stealing the profit of Black labor through slavery, sharecropping, convict leasing, the current prison system, and intractable unequal pay, the economic theft and consuming of Black bodies has not abated. Cultural theft includes minstrelsy, the attribution of the birth of rock and roll to white artists, and the Kardashians, who continuously appropriate, don, and consume Blackness by transforming themselves, their lips, hips, skin color, and hair styles to perform a whitewashed Blackness for profit.
And it is this last form that Krug’s masquerade most closely resembles. The Kardashians gain credit for styles and looks that actual Black women have been criticized and shamed for. The legitimacy and success that white people obtain when performing Blackness that eludes actual Black people is evident in Krug’s performance in academia.
Not satisfied with being a scholar who is an ally to Black or Latina women, she actually took on the persona of these women, while also reportedly criticizing and denigrating the work of actual Black and Latina women. For example in the forward to her latest book, she referred to scholar Marisa Fuentes as a “slave catcher.” She also pitted Black and Latinx folk against one another, as many Black women questioned her racial and ethnic identity, while others felt compelled to shield and protect her.
In addition, Krug’s impersonation brings unwarranted scrutiny to the field of Africana studies, as some question that if the identity is a sham, perhaps the scholarship is as well. She also brings unwarranted scrutiny to Black women whose features may indeed not fit an Afrocentric mold.
Colorism, the favoring of European features within communities of color, is real and harmful, and there is no doubt that the perception of Krug as a light-skinned Black woman helped her gain favor in a white supremacist culture and in academia. For Black women whose Blackness has already been called into question because of the shade of their skin, Krug did them no favors. And for darker-skinned Black women who are too often not centered in academic spaces or heard, Krug’s successes confirm the reality of colorism, the biases against them, and the devaluing of Blackness.
Toward the end of Get Out, the main character asks the man to whom his body is being sacrificed, “Why us, why Black people?” The character, an art lover and dealer who lacks legitimate artistic talent, says, “I want your eyes… I want those things you see through.” Krug’s deep insecurity with her own vision and talents caused her to don Blackness in an attempt to be who we are and see what we see, without realizing it doesn’t work that way. And despite white America’s centuries-long attempts to capture and keep it, Blackness will never work that way. Blackness will never be yours.
The author would like to dedicate this piece to her mother, Mary Francis Taylor.