Hugh Ellis

Former George Washington University Associate Professor Jessica Krug has been the focus of controversy for the last couple of weeks, after she disclosed in an essay she had, for years, pretended to be black.

The Professor, with research interests including, ahem, the effects of colonialism and imperialism, faked various racial identities, including being Algerian-American and Bronx-bred Afro-Puerto Rican. As an activist, she went by the name of ‘La Bombalera’, from Bomba, an Afro-Puerto Rican style of music and dance.

In a September 3 blog post, Krug confessed that: ‘I have eschewed my lived experience as a white Jewish child in suburban Kansas City under various assumed identities within a Blackness that I had no right to claim.’ She also said she ‘should be cancelled’ and ‘was a coward’. Missing – as several critics have pointed out – were the words ‘sorry’ and ‘apologize’.

She has now resigned from the University.

The scriptwriters are going berserk on the 2020 Season of ‘Earth’.

I joke because the situation is absurd, but actually this is no laughing matter. Considering the four to five hundred years of colonialism, racism and injustice, this crass mimicry adds insult to a heck of a lot of injury.

Jessica Krug’s story hit me in the guts, more so than the famous Rachael Dolezal’s, because I’ve actually read Krug’s work. I’m no historian, but her scholarship appeared to be top class.

Her writings – especially on African-Latin American communities affected by the slave trade and moved callously around the world by global imperialists – are profoundly moving and taught me a lot.

Doesn’t mean she ain’t a fraud, though.

Maybe the annoying thing is how convincing a fraud she was.

As academic Lauren Michele Jackson noted in The New Yorker, the deception worked because it was layered. Krug was faking a nuanced identity – hard to pick up anything strange if you’re not Algerian-American-Puerto-Rican-Plus and living in the Bronx. Unlike Rachael Dolezal, of course, who seemed to be distilling her identity from a boxed set of The Fresh Prince of Bel Air.

It was all so unnecessary. I can tell you. I’m an academic.

I have published in Journals of African Culture, African Society, African Media Studies. It might help that I’m from an African country, or work at an African university, but I’ve never, ever, felt that I had to fake being genetically African in order to get through the door and have my scholarship recognized.

The act, however, might have once been tempting in order to ease some of the unnecessary secondhand white guilt I used to feel.

(I say ‘unnecessary’ because truly, no one cares. All people care about is that you fight for social justice alongside everyone else.)

Maybe Jessica Krug was trying to be more acceptable, not to academia or the activist community, but to herself. Here’s where I have a little sympathy for her.

I confess it’s taken me a long time to learn the difference between fitting in and making someone else’s culture a costume.

You see it’s relatively easy to pick up the trappings of blackness – African dance styles, music, outfits, language and style of language. And so on. None of these are necessarily wrong.

But they don’t make you black.

There’s a big difference between becoming a part of a culture though learning (including butting out of those few activities where adopted outsiders are asked not to join) and leeching off a culture.

If you get into these things without learning the history and respecting the people, if you do them to ease your bad feelings about having European roots, rather than out of admiration for the culture in-and-of-itself… Well, if you do that, my friend, you’re on a one-way ticket to humiliation, to claiming what isn’t yours, and potentially to career ruin via a self-flagellating blog post.

Hugh Ellis is a Namibian citizen and lecturer in the Department of Communication of the Namibia University of Science and Technology. The views he expresses here are personal views. Follow Hugh’s blog on http://ellishugh.wordpress.com