Can You Adopt a New Racial Identity?
Late one night last week, I was scrolling through my social media feed and noticed someone named Jessica Krug trending. At first, I ignored it, but when I saw the infamous Rachel Dolezal trending alongside Jessica’s name, my interest was piqued. I clicked and was unsurprised to see reports of yet another white woman pretending to be Black for her career gains.
Jessica Krug was an associate professor of African & African Diaspora History at George Washington University. According to the school’s website, Krug was ‘a historian of politics, ideas, and cultural practices in Africa and the African Diaspora, with a particular interest in West Central Africa and maroon societies in the early modern period and Black transnational cultural studies.’ Krug began teaching at GWU in 2012 and published her book Fugitive Modernities: Kisama and the Politics of Freedom in 2018. Fugitive Modernities is a study of political and resistance movements among people trafficked in the slave trade and was a finalist for the 2019 Harriet Tubman Book Prize and the 2020 Frederick Douglass Book Prize.
In addition to posing as an Afro-Latina for professional gains, Krug also posed as an Afro-Latina activist named La Bombera, who lived in the Bronx. In a now-deleted tweet, Robert shared:
I am in a state of complete and utter shock and sadness. Jess La Bombera, an activist who I often deferred to and stepped aside and gave the mic to on this platform, just revealed that she is a white woman who has been pretending to be Black.
— Son of Baldwin (Robert Jones, Jr.) (@SonofBaldwin) September 3, 2020
Other friends, former students, and colleagues began to step forward on social media as well with their own stories about Krug, often outlining their own suspicions of her fraudulent activity:
As I read stories from her former Black colleagues outlining the various ways Krug gaslighted and lied to them, I began to wonder if this is a trend we will see more of. What does it mean to be Black in 2020? And how do we deal with those who claim a culture & identity that they do not belong to? Further, what is the reason behind wanting to appropriate Blackness in a society that still struggles with the message that ‘Black Lives Matter’?
It is certain, in any case, that ignorance allied with power, is the most ferocious enemy justice can have.
- James Baldwin
In 2015, Spokane, Washington, gained notoriety after the family of local NAACP President Rachel Dolezal was interviewed on TV. During their interview, Dolezal’s parents outed her as a white woman who was pretending to be black. Although Rachel vehemently denied the claims, she eventually resigned from her position with the NAACP and was removed from her position as chair of the Police Ombudsman Commission. “I acknowledge that I was biologically born white to white parents, but I identify as black,” Dolezal said during an interview on The Real. “Sometimes how we feel is more powerful than how we’re born, and blackness can be defined as philosophical, cultural, biological, you know, it’s a lot of different things to a lot of different people.” Dolezal maintains that she identifies as someone who is transracial.
It should be noted that race is a social construct created in the 1500s by European philosophers to justify colonization. The social construct of race has been weaponized since its creation to give or deny privileges to certain groups above others and control social mobility. According to the National Museum of African American History and Culture, “American society developed the notion of race early in its formation to justify its new economic system of capitalism, which depended on the institution of forced labor, especially the enslavement of African peoples.”
Because race is not based on biological concepts, the meaning of what it means to be a particular race slowly evolves alongside society. The category ‘white’ was used during American colonial times as a political construct and an organizing tool to unite the Germans, Dutch, English, French, and other Europeans. It was used to consolidate political strength, increasing their ability to maintain control and dominance over the Native Americans and African slaves, who often outnumbered Europeans in many places.
It’s important to note that it wasn’t always easy to be considered white. For Italians and the Irish, part of becoming white meant assimilating by accepting certain cultural losses.
But being an African American in 2020 means being aware that it is disadvantageous to celebrate our culture fully in predominantly white spaces while being copied mercilessly by non-Black people as “trendy” in mainstream society. The way we speak, our style of dress, and even how we wear our hair heavily influence popular culture, yet we are punished continuously for showing pride in that in our daily lives.
Is being transracial an identity?
“As people of color, no matter how hard we try, we cannot achieve whiteness, but the fact that a White woman can achieve Blackness and lie and take space and take resources and on top of it be belligerent when confronted is the epitome of White privilege.”
- Rosa Clemente, civil rights activist, and journalist
In 2017, Rebecca Tuvel, a tenure-track assistant professor of philosophy at Rhodes College in Memphis, released a peer-reviewed article in the journal Hypatia entitled “In Defense of Transracialism.” Tuvel sought to defend Dolezal’s claim that they identified as African-American despite being born of European descent, arguing that if we accept ‘a transgender individuals’ decision to change sexes, we should also accept transracial individuals’ decisions to change races.’
She asks, “So what does this imply about the possibility of changing races? It implies that although ancestry is a particularly valued determinant of race in American society, it is no more predictive of one’s “actual” race than any other determinant because one’s “actual” race is a matter of social definition.”
Upon being released, the article was highly controversial, drawing both defense and criticism from Tuvel’s peers. While Hypatia’s editor-in-chief, Sally Scholz, and its board of directors stood by the article, the journal’s Facebook page apologized for the article’s publication on behalf of “a majority” of Hypatia’s associate editors. Nora Berenstain, assistant professor of philosophy at the University of Tennessee, wrote that the paper contained “egregious levels of liberal white ignorance and discursive transmisogynistic violence.”
What does it mean when people appropriate?
Often, there is confusion on why people who culturally appropriate face such backlash. After all, the United States is the great multicultural melting pot that boasts influences from its African, Native American, Asian, Pacific Island, and Latin American people. But there is a difference between cultural exchange and cultural appropriation.
When we culturally exchange, we ‘borrow’ different aspects from another culture that have come together with us on equal footing. An example of cultural exchange would be wearing Indian attire to a wedding at the request of the Indian bride, engaging with the culture as a respectful and humble guest.
Cultural appropriation, however, involves giving the dominant group credit for aspects of a culture that they have taken, which inadvertently reinforces the power imbalance between the two groups. An example of this would be the Atlanta Braves’ use of the tomahawk chop during their games despite numerous protests from Native American activists asking them to stop.
How can we move forward?
Part of embracing other cultures is respecting that culture’s boundaries and being aware of your relationship to them as someone who does not belong to the same culture. According to Susan Scafidi, author of Who Owns Culture?: Appropriation and Authenticity in American Law and the Fashion Law Institute’s founder at Fordham Law School, culture is fluid and evolving. Source communities arise and form new cultural products on an ongoing basis.
Appropriation can apply to both ancient traditions like basket weaving and modern creative genres like jazz or hip-hop. And it is always essential for those coming from outside of the culture to rely on the source community to define what is considered appropriation or not.