I don’t know George Washington University history professor Jessica Krug. I have no special insights into either her motives or personal struggles, nor do I have any reason to feel personally betrayed by the recent revelations that she had been passing for black for many years.
But while the court of public opinion has already found her guilty of at least one, perpetual count of “cultural appropriation,” in my view this conclusion misses the mark. To be clear, if I did not find “Jess La Bombalera” offensive, I wouldn’t have bothered writing this essay. Still, if one considers, first, that culture — the folk’s shared sensibilities informed by common experiences — exists, on some level, to be appropriated, second, the variety of black experiences precludes the existence of a singular black culture, and third, the implications for mass culture of thirty-years of mainstream hip hop, then calling Krug’s performance “appropriation of black culture” only compounds the problem Krug personifies.
If Krug is not guilty of appropriating “black culture,” she is guilty of attempting to establish her bona fides as a scholar of black people through a persona that both pandered to and reinforced commonplace stereotypes about black and brown people. Simply put, Krug was a minstrel act, a racist caricature.
But while Krug’s persona was certainly offensive, what’s far more offensive is that there is a demand for this kind of performance in some liberal academic circles.
Because I’ve lived most of my life either on the near periphery or within academia, I’ve had nearly four decades of experience with the creepy essentialist language of “racial authenticity” that lives and thrives in more than one corner of putatively liberal academia. As a result, I learned a long time ago that some white liberals expect black and brown people to “perform” in ways that comport with their well-meaning, usually underclass-informed, and fundamentally racist expectations of black people.
To be sure, the phenomenon of which I speak is not confined to academia. Consider for a moment, Barack Obama’s inspirational story. Liberal pundits and politicians alike, celebrated Obama as a kind of underclass-informed, Horatio Alger success story. Indeed, liberals like Chris Matthews and Senator John Kerry insisted that Obama could speak frankly to young black boys and men about the cultural impediments to their progress, because he knew them first-hand.
Before ascending to the US Senate and ultimately the White House, we were told, young Barack struggled with anger, questioned the value of education, and experimented with drugs, partly because he, like so many other African American boys, had been abandoned by his black father.
Of course, the sketch of Obama’s life told a different story than the details. President Obama’s parents met in college, not the club; Obama’s father abandoned him and his mother to attend graduate school at Harvard, not because he had to do a bid in prison; Obama’s grandparents did help raise him, but in a solidly middle-class household; and Obama may have struggled with the value of education while smoking “reefer,” but he did so while attending one of Hawaii’s most prestigious prep-schools.
Obama was an appealing black presidential candidate, then, not just because he was well-credentialed, smart, and charismatic. Obama affirmed a fantasy embraced by a stratum of white liberals that presumed a post-racial America had eliminated structural impediments to black economic mobility. The major obstacle to black progress, according to this account, were blacks themselves. Of course, this self-affirming project required shoehorning Obama’s personal story into a primetime TV-friendly version of a John Singleton film.
While much ink has been spilled on explorations of black angst about the frequently acknowledged fact that some white liberals and even conservatives like “their blacks” to share the same class sensibilities, we rarely consider the equally true fact that some white liberals, and even conservatives, like “their blacks” to fulfill their fantasies about the forever unknowable, forever exotic black other. That’s what “so and so isn’t really black” is partly illustrative of. This is what’s driving the demand for essays and memoirs on “black rage.” And this was also, very clearly, a critical component of Jessica Krug’s academic market niche.
However offensive Krug’s act is — and it is very offensive because it was a front — the demand for her performance is even more offensive. Indeed, the demand for the product Krug was selling merits far more attention than she does. Why? Well, Krug may have done damage to some people herself. But some of the people who bought her performance of blackness will continue to do damage to black and brown people, precisely because Krug tailored her racist performance to mesh with her intended professional audience’s racist presumptions about “black authenticity” — whatever that might be.
The sensibilities that fuel the quest for racial authenticity pose real threats not just to the mental health of black and brown people. They pose a threat to democracy itself. I suppose the damaging consequences associated with this kind of racial essentialism are most obvious, though, if you call the baseline problem what it is: an embrace of racist stereotyping, albeit by another name.
By definition, such stereotyping denies black (and brown) people complexity and, by extension, their humanity — whatever the intentions of the offenders.