Why Did a White Professor Lie and Claim to Be Black?

 In State

After Jessica Anne Krug posted an apologia for passing as Black, the public furor was imme­di­ate. Krug was born and reared as a white Jewish female in the sub­urbs of Kansas City.

On the very morn­ing that Krug’s con­fes­sion­al appeared, the confidante she called for solace publicly denounced her. Her uni­ver­si­ty relieved her of teaching duties and opened an investigation. The public called her men­tal­ly unsta­ble. Her col­leagues in the history department at George Washington University openly admonished her to give up tenure and go.

Karma Feinstein Cohen — another white American Jewish woman — urged Krug to come to Israel, where Krug could learn to develop who she “authentically” is “by developing [her] personal Jewish identity.” Reserving com­ment on the pru­dence of Cohen’s offer, we might note that besides asking Krug to accept per­son­al respon­si­bil­i­ty, Cohen is asking Krug to do some per­son­al learn­ing and growth about iden­ti­ty.

As a Black man and a schol­ar of neo-pass­ing — acts and sto­ries of pass­ing that occur after legal­ized seg­re­ga­tion, espe­cial­ly in our con­tem­po­rary con­text — I believe we could ben­e­fit from the same. As a query, we might ask: What can we learn from this painful tale?

The per­sis­tence of pass­ing

On July 17, 1952, the African American weekly Jet Magazine fea­tured the arti­cle “Why ‘Passing’ Is Passing Out.” The arti­cle report­ed that increased eco­nom­ic oppor­tu­ni­ties for Blacks, the nascent civil rights move­ment and grow­ing racial esteem made pass­ing less attrac­tive and less nec­es­sary for Blacks.

Of course, Jet’s pre­dic­tion was more hope than fact — as English pro­fes­sor Mollie Godfrey and I write in the intro­duc­tion to our book, Neo-Passing: Performing Identity After Jim Crow — because pass­ing has pro­lif­er­at­ed post-civil rights. We note some 21st-cen­tu­ry exam­ples that brought us to our study: a white author uses an Asian pen name; heterosexuals live “out” as gay and, irony of ironies, whites try to pass as Black.

While there is some recorded history of whites passing as Black, as his­to­ri­an Daniel Sharfstein details in the New York Times, and while there are fic­tion­al accounts, as ana­lyzed by English pro­fes­sor Baz Dresinger in Near Black: White-to-Black Passing in American Culture, this type of pass­ing is not well-known or under­stood.

We may point to other modern exam­ples of white people pass­ing for Black, such as Rachel Dolezal, but we do not have clear the­o­ries about why they do it. The need to escape racism and social ills does not appear to be an exi­gency for white-to-Black pass­ing as it does for Black-to-white. Nor is the more mun­dane nar­ra­tive logic pre­sent­ed in the 1986 movie Soul Man, where a white male col­lege grad­u­ate passes for Black in order to get into law school through affir­ma­tive action poli­cies.

Read more: Rachel Dolezal: why ignoring the painful past of "passing" is indefensible

So why does pass­ing per­sist? And why are white people pass­ing for Black?

A racial phe­nom­e­non

In 1929, nov­el­ist Nella Larsen pre­dict­ed with the con­clu­sion of her first novel Passing that the con­tro­ver­sy of racial pass­ing would plague us for hun­dreds of years. Claire Kendry, one of the novel’s Black-to-white pass­ing pro­tag­o­nists, leaps through a third-floor apart­ment window after her white hus­band busts into a Black party, demand­ing to know if Claire is a “Damned, dirty n —  — .” The party-goers rush down­stairs, but Claire’s body is nowhere to be found. Irene Redfield, Claire’s friend and the other cen­tral char­ac­ter, faints.

The novel ends, pre­sent­ing Irene’s dilem­ma as our own: “Centuries after, she heard the strange man saying: Death by mis­ad­ven­ture, I’m inclined to believe. Let’s go up and have anoth­er look at that window.” The words “cen­turies after” indi­cate that we are doomed to racial anx­i­ety through recur­ring ques­tions and inves­ti­ga­tions about racial pass­ing.

We do not yet under­stand, refuse to under­stand or can’t rec­on­cile the cur­rent sci­en­tif­ic under­stand­ing of race with our social, polit­i­cal and eco­nom­ic expe­ri­ences with it. Why do we allow race as a cat­e­go­ry of iden­ti­ty to endure, despite the fact that we now know it is a bio­log­i­cal fic­tion, a social con­struc­tion? And why do we recom­mit our­selves to the illog­ics of race — that people can only be one race or be dis­al­lowed from per­form­ing anoth­er race — in the midst of admit­ted­ly unset­tling tales like Krug’s?

Read more: 'I wanna be white!' Can we change race?

I believe there is much more for us gain by dis­cussing race, iden­ti­ty per­for­mance and pass­ing in the con­text of Krug’s recent outing. Too many of my col­leagues and the public believe the prob­lem is solved because Krug has been unfriend­ed, silenced and pun­ished. I wonder how much there is to learn and how much more we might lose by not lend­ing a heart, or at least an ear, to the details of Krug’s story.

The Conversation

Vershawn Ashanti Young, Professor, Department of Drama and Speech Communication, University of Waterloo

This arti­cle is repub­lished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Image: Reuters

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