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For those of you who don’t know who Jessica A. Krug is, you have been spared the trauma of her twisted identity politics. A social experiment of sorts, one that lasted atleast a decade. That experiment was Blackface and Jessica Krug is a white woman.
According to George Washington University’s website, Krug’s ex-employer, Jessica Krug is a “historian of politics, ideas and cultural practices in Africa and the African diaspora.” (George Washington University) However, in light of her latest blogpost admitting to Blackface, it is difficult to read that description with genuine respect. For Krug is not what she showed herself to be. Is she a professor? Yes. An intellectual? Probably. But is she Black? No, never was.
Now to make things clear, anyone can be a scholar of anything and mere whiteness or non-Black identity doesn’t preclude anyone from building an academic career in African culture. But when you realize that possibly what she studied and mastered in professional terms was either feeding into or off of her falsified personal identity as a Black woman, it quickly becomes as offensive as her Blackface itself. For Blackface can never be a social experiment or a racist teenage phase or even a defense mechanism as Krug’s own admission wants us to believe. Blackface is the painting-on of another human being’s skin color as an arts and craft activity, it is a mockery of an entire community’s existence. Put another way, it is the act of stealing someone’s appearance so as to make it public property.
The vague and impersonal blog post/essay published on September 3, sent shockwaves not only amongst her own academic community, many of them Black Women and People of Color, but also the rest of the world thanks to Twitter doing what it does best. I for one, had started feeling that the number of white apologies I had seen since quarantine began in March, had made me immune to any surprise elements. I was proved wrong. This ‘apology’ was not your run-of-the-mill “I was young and stupid to be racist” explanation that sounds as hollow as it strives not to be. Krug’s statement was not that. It was hardly an apology. It was just one-thousand-two hundred and forty-six (1246) words of career-ending PR. A self-sabotage exercise with no remorse.
And her career did end. George Washington University uploaded an update on the situation following the faculty’s pressure for it to either remove Krug from office or ask her to resign. She chose the latter. Twitter burst open with stories and experiences, doubts that many of her acquaintances or even loved ones had nurtured about her Blackness in the past. People reacted, many spoke of healing from her errors. Seemingly, that was it; the end of her gamble and the end of a global controversy. Perhaps it should have been.
But for a while now, I have seen white people, men and women from various socio-economic backgrounds, suddenly being exposed for who they really are. Racists. From the rich to the poor, there is a streak of racism, some kind of DNA imprinted bias that is coursing through the white community and being called out in 2020. I can’t count on my two hands how many ‘cancelled’ influencers I have unsubscribed from or been shocked to find out something intrinsically racist about their behavior. It’s like a virus predating COVID-19. It is everywhere.
This article seeks to understand the nuances of white supremacy, the power structure that is breeding and upholding racism in that community. There are many ways in which white supremacy manifests itself but this article will focus on its psychological influences which in turn, influence action and decision-making. Through this brief study, I will attempt to answer the question: what makes white people think their acts are not racist or if so, they are permissible? In conclusion, I will enquire how hopeful one can be in face of the imbalance in social power that affects the efficaciousness of any apology.
1. The White superiority complex
It may seem that White supremacy as a phenomenon and a white superiority complex are interchangeable. However, it is more complicated than that. While White supremacy is a cultural and social byproduct of years of slavery and “African Holocaust” (Christian, 180) by European regimes since 1441, white superiority complex is a mindset that can shift between predator and savior in a chameleon like movement. The latter includes in itself a savior complex which allows people to feel better about themselves and sometimes even justified in committing micro-aggressions elsewhere as long as they don’t interfere with the compensatory charity work they do.
This state of mind not only makes white people defensive and closed to ideological change or new information but also causes a disassociation from reality whereby Black problems soon sound exaggerated or made up. The result? A paranoia that these complaints are being fabricated with the sole purpose of eviscerating the white community. Soon enough, the survival complex trumps the savior in them and thus begins the cycle of everyday racism.
Often through this process, Black families who succeed or even cross the middle class
threshold despite such dreary circumstances become the poster kids of White supremacist
denial. Surely, if a few Black people have succeeded, white people must have paid their
historical debt? Surely, a few means a mathematically reliable representation of the rest?
Randall Robinson quickly discredits this claim:
Even African-Americans who find themselves in a middle-class status are not immune to the realities of White supremacy and racism. Studies continue to show that there is a correlation between being of African descent and middle class and suffering racialized discrimination. Indeed, those African Americans... are usually achieving materially in spite of racialized discrimination. This attests to the spirit of African- American resistance rather than the absence of racism in their everyday lives.(Christian, 183)
So from these in-built ideas of inherited power and status in society, emerges a movement like #AllLivesMatter. Coined as a counter-attack on the revolutionary #BlackLivesMatter movement, the substance of #AllLivesMatter is unabashedly and unironically reductive in the importance it affords to its fellow non-white human beings. Its creation is in bad faith, its motive is suspect and its ways are racist. How it stands to justify itself for its cause and purpose is anyone’s guess.
2. Defense Mechanisms
Another psychological effect of White supremacy is the one that coincides with the denial of racial discrimination against Black people. It is the rise of a strong belief that if the white community continues to be inclusive, a typically leftist social trait, it will soon be on the brink of extinction. Basic sociological factors like in-community, sense of safety, survival etc. find a place in this conversation but there is something much more subtle at play. It is the feeling of being excluded from “diversity-related organizations and events that focus on Black, Latinx, Asian, indigenous, and other marginalized groups” (Ioanide, 85) which are becoming more and more mainstream because of popular culture and social media. Celebration of identity is the big message of the millennial generation.
This celebratory concept is simultaneously a blow to white-informed social structures and a general, long overdue wave of acceptance that non-white communities are just as beautiful, valued, civilized and talented. It is the shifting of the frame to accommodate diversity along with a sudden casual dismissiveness of white people as intrinsically ignorant that is putting the community in its defense mode. Paula Ioanide writes, “It is critical to understand how and why many white Americans construct themselves as victims despite being the most advantaged racial group in the United States...White victimization follows an affective logic where feelings trump facts”. (86-87)
And that is precisely how Jessica Krug got away with her crime for so many years. She manipulated the people around her to feel deeply about her or her false identity or her false claims of violent history or her false claims of a traumatic past. Nothing she said was real, everything was a calculated concert in victimizing herself just enough for people to care. And she almost pulled it off! Her Black colleagues, friends and social circle did care for her and her made-up Black identity. They cared for her not just as a part of their in-community but also as someone who fought for it. In fact, by many accounts, she overdid it on so many occasions that it ultimately resulted in her being outed this year. Because that is what truly happened. A junior scholar had nursed her doubts (like many others before her) about this seemingly Black woman who had no consistent story or background. Initially, she let it go, not wanting to be intrusive or disbelieving of Krug’s account. But when Krug pushed her to be more radical in her political stance as she often did to evade suspicion of her ideological commitments, the scholar who remains anonymous, felt compelled to dig deeper on this vigilante Black female. Turns out, she is but a gallivanting white woman who pretended to be Black and is now trying to apologize before being outed by someone else. This is still a power play and Krug has made her move.
But beyond all the simplistic narratives we could construct to explain away the shock, this episode in modern history is a case-study of the new layers of White supremacy. Jessica Krug’s act is not unique but it is an addition to an evolving list of white people trying to be or pretending to be Black. Racists have donned on Blackface for Halloween before and been cancelled for it but Krug adopted an entire lifestyle, an ideology, an aura, speech inflections, vocabulary and more from a culture that is independent in itself and not a Mona Lisa waiting to be stolen and illegally possessed.
Whether this was motivated by jealousy, envy or a retaliation to the ‘othering’ that minority celebration is rightfully causing, is open to discussion. As she herself says in her essay,
No white person, no non-Black person, has the right to claim proximity to or belonging in a Black community by virtue of abuse, trauma, non-acceptance, and non-belonging in a white community. The abuse within and alienation from my birth family and society are no one’s burden but my own, and mine alone to address. Black people and Black communities have no obligation to harbor the refuse of non-Black societies.I have done this. I know it is wrong and I have done this anyway. (Krug)
What is clear is that Krug’s theft is not plain-old racism. It is not even plain old cultural appropriation. A more sinister attempt to re-capture lost glory may be at play. A selfish thought brought to fruition. A publicly clandestine way of crossing race boundaries with no respect for the ones it would victimize. Instead it’s a crossing with a list of demands that Krug’s life and career largely met. Her friend circles, her academic achievements are as much attributable to her own talent as they are to her calculated race-picking. In any case, this is a sad state of affairs, for neither is Black culture up for grabs nor are the white community’s glory days past them. Minorities everywhere in the world have a long way to go before real equality in quantitative and qualitative terms presents itself to them. For most, it is a hope they carry not for themselves but for their future generations. That itself should be a testament to how traumatic discrimination is.
And that is why, when people like Jessica A. Krug take for use and throw when done, an entire identity along with its lived experiences with little to no consequences, their credibility in terms of regret, runs low.
3. Racist ‘mistakes’ and real change
Jessica Krug did not make a real apology and did not even ask for forgiveness which is perhaps her only saving grace in this widely publicized situation. Or not. Jennifer Rubenstein in her paper titled ‘Accountability in an unequal world’ creates a crucial distinction between the players she calls “power wielder” and the “accountability holders” (taken from Grant and Keohane’s usage) whereby even if the person in a powerful position (socially, economically or otherwise) makes a mistake, those who ask for accountability are already on the back foot given their minority status or some other disability. She explains, “...significant involvement by accountability holders is often necessary for the sanctioning of the power wielder to be appropriate and effective- and even, in many cases, to happen at all. The problem...is that accountability holders are often too weak to (help) sanction power wielders.” (Rubenstein, 617)
Krug herself adds another layer to this complex issue of emotional reparations. She muses, “Accountability works only when you are in community with people. How can I be in any type of meaningful community with those whom I have so harmfully and horrifically deceived for so long?” (Krug) By appropriating and twisting a Black identity and manipulating it to her own convenience as and when required, she has also taken away the opportunity for them to have any meaningful closure as every apology now could feel just as wrong as the act itself. Every attempt at accountability on Krug’s part could be a shout in the void, for by her own doing, she is neither here nor there. She is a white woman with roots in racism, and she may as well have her hands flailing above her head for another culture to save her.
Ultimately, what this does to Krug’s conscience is one part of the story but what it has done to an entire cultural identity is palpable damage that the world will calculate for years to come.