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A pigment of her imagination

The pitfalls of (not) being black in American academia

Artillery Row

The George Washington University, my undergraduate alma mater, sprawls across official Washington, DC, occupying much of a historic but overrun neighbourhood unpromisingly called “Foggy Bottom.” Situated between the White House and the US State Department, its western edge faces leafy Georgetown, home to my postgraduate alma mater, while its eastern fringes dissolve into downtown, now for the most part boarded up and eerily abandoned after all those “largely peaceful” race riots we have been hearing about in the months since George Floyd’s killing.

Krug even offered to “cancel” herself, perhaps to spare the woke world the trouble

GW, as it is locally known, is now itself at the centre of a bizarre race drama that has captured international headlines. On 3 September, Professor Jessica A. Krug of the university’s history department, where I studied for my BA and where she came to teach Africana studies about 15 years later, posted a maudlin confession on the open-platform website Medium. After having presented herself for most of her adult life variously as African-American, Afro-Caribbean, Afro-Latina, an “El Barrio” community member, an “unrepentant and unreformed child of the hood,” or, as we are now allowed to say again, just plain black, she admitted that it was all a fraud. As she melodramatically put it, her deception was “the very epitome of violence, of thievery and appropriation.” The charade was “unethical, immoral, anti-Black [sic], [and] colonial,” she continued, blaming long-term mental health issues caused by alleged childhood abuse for her decision to mask her true heritage, which is white, Jewish, and the product of suburban Kansas City. Denouncing herself as a “coward” and “culture leech,” she offered no apology, arguing that there was no excuse for her imposture or any possible recompense for the damage she believes it has caused. Instead, she insisted that she should be “cancelled” by a “cancel culture” that she claims to support, and even offered to “cancel” herself, perhaps to spare the woke world the trouble.

The woke world held its delicate breath for a moment and then blew out a hurricane of invective. Social media erupted with angry and wounded condemnation. Friends, colleagues, and students outdid each other denouncing Krug for what they regard as a personal betrayal, a violation of professional trust, the “destabilisation” of her academic field, unspecified “harm” to minorities everywhere, “cultural appropriation,” and the basest hypocrisy. GW’s administration almost immediately announced that it was “looking into the situation” and later confirmed that Krug will not be teaching this fall, pending an investigation. It added a mandatory formulation about recognizing the “pain” she has allegedly caused and promised to provide institutionally sponsored counselling to anyone who simply cannot get over the trauma of living a world in which Jessica A. Krug is, in fact, white.

One day after Krug’s confession, GW’s history department prominently posted “Our Statement on Jessica Krug.” It professes that “the members of the faculty” were “shocked and appalled” that she had “betrayed the trust of countless current and former students, fellow scholars of Africana Studies, colleagues in our department and throughout the historical discipline, as well as community activists in New York City and beyond,” and that she had thereby “raised questions about the veracity of her own research and teaching.” Although GW’s investigation had not yet begun – and despite the plain fact that any of the “questions” that may have been “raised” by Krug’s strange conduct have yet to be asked, let alone answered – she is to be shown no mercy. “The department calls upon Dr. Krug to resign from her position as associate professor of History at GW,” the department’s statement concludes. “Failing that, the department recommends the rescinding of her tenure and the termination of her appointment.”

When meeting someone like Jessica Krug it is much easier and safer simply to believe the lie

The language of the GW history department’s statement suggests that it reflects a unanimous opinion, but one of its senior faculty members has told me that he was not consulted about the matter. Remembering some of his colleagues, and having spent half my life in postgraduate academic environments that cannot be described as either speedy or efficient, it seems highly unlikely that GW’s 36 other full-time history professors discussed, drafted, unanimously voted for, and then published the statement in just one day in pandemic conditions at the end of the first week of a new and deeply troubled academic year. Nevertheless, whoever approved the statement really meant it – a link to it posted on Twitter is the department’s first tweet in almost three years, and a tab leading to it has been added to its website, alongside the tabs for “About” and “People.”

As an alumnus, I am profoundly grateful to GW for parodying contemporary academia so brilliantly that we now have this treasure trove of material for the ingenious satire that begs to be written about this. Let us start with the obvious fact that no one else seems willing to address: Jessica Krug actually looks like a white woman. She has been accused of playing up her minority persona in speech, dress, and style – and has mastered the ideological language of an aggrieved minority with intellectual pretensions, – but endless photos of her from various stages of her adult life would lead no reasonable person to conclude anything other than that she is white. Close family members, some of whom have spoken to the media, remember her as a definite white woman, and were astonished to learn that she had assumed a different racial identity.

But what might be astonishing in suburban Kansas, or in any other cognitively normal environment, has become the norm in US academia, where the requisite “sensitivity” – now the nearly universal subject of mandatory “training” – bars the questioning of any individual’s personal identities and characteristics, including even neutral inquiries about what they factually are. Already an awkward Larry David-esque thing to be avoided, many details one might question, including race, are “protected” by civil rights laws that universities must rigorously enforce on pain of legal action, investigation by the US Department of Education, and possible loss of US federal government funds.

Krug is clearly a deeply disturbed woman, but this shouldn’t bar her from academic employment

In practice, that means that if a white woman tells you she is black in a university setting, you cannot so much as look at her sceptically without risking a discriminatory harassment complaint, which official institutional policies not only encourage her to make but also require any third party aware of the exchange to report even if the woman does not want to complain. You will then face a thorough investigation by an administrator and perhaps a panel of faculty members, none of whom usually has any legal training, but all of whom voluntarily chose to dedicate an enormous amount of their time and energy to exercising potentially career-ending power over their colleagues. These delightful individuals have received undisclosed additional “training,” which instructs them that discriminatory harassment is a problem of catastrophic proportions and that most people – especially women and minorities – virtually never lie about having suffered it. So oriented, your inquisitors will almost certainly presume that you are a racist or some other kind of miscreant and spend weeks or even months combing through your personal and professional life for any corroborating hint of that presumption. About 75 percent of the time – identical to the percentage of defendants declared guilty by the Revolutionary Tribunal of France during the Terror, – they will find that you are “responsible” (i.e. “guilty”) for having violated a strict non-discrimination policy and should be sanctioned with disciplinary action. Even if you are among the minority of respondents who are cleared as “not responsible” (i.e. “innocent”), the mere accusation often ricochets in reputational consequences and serious professional fallout. Witness the hysterical calls before GW’s investigation even began for Krug’s own immediate defenestration for allegedly crossing a racial line, and her stigmatising exclusion from teaching while that investigation takes place.

With this Sword of Damocles hanging menacingly over everyone’s head, when meeting someone like Jessica Krug it is much easier and safer simply to believe the lie, however obvious or absurd it may be. The potential consequences of even casually questioning it are simply too great and far outweigh any possible benefit, which would usually amount to little more than satisfying mild curiosity about an individual known in the workplace. The only time I recall reacting to someone’s questionable workplace self-presentation in my own abandoned academic career involved an involuntary chuckle at a deeply insecure Egyptian colleague’s doubtful claim of illegitimate Habsburg descent. I quickly forgot the incident, only to have her rebuke me for it two years later, telling me how very offended she had been. We never spoke again – Franz Josef sei dank – but I have had occasion to share the tale with real Habsburgs, who found it hilarious and her claims preposterous.

My Cairene microaggression notwithstanding, who today could imagine calling out a black professor who decided to “pass” as white, or a professor of Jewish heritage who chose to identify as a gentile, to say nothing of the terrible risks that flow from using the wrong pronoun for an individual who claims, in defiance of any physical sign, to be transgendered? In Krug’s experience, it seems no one ever called her out, including any of her GW colleagues who now want her head hors enquête after having hired, promoted, tenured, and for eight years shared collegial space with her without registering any notice of her deception.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the best explanation of why Krug suddenly confessed appears to be that a couple of curious colleagues in her scholarly field outside GW began to wonder about her earlier this year, after it was revealed that a recently deceased writer interested in Latin American identity, who claimed to be a Cuban childhood immigrant, was in fact an African-American from Detroit with no Caribbean roots. Others seem to have broken academic taboo, at least to themselves or among very close colleagues, to raise questions about Krug’s skin colour, mainly to observe that she did not strike them as “black enough” to be who she said she was. A self-described “former friend” of hers announced that she was about to be exposed as the poseur she is and posited that she confessed to mitigate the damage. Like her situational antecedents among the doomed heretics of sixteenth-century Spain and hapless Bolsheviks who fell victim to Stalin’s purges, Krug may have imagined that confession and public self-criticism would spare her a worse fate. But also like them, it very well might not.

Krug is clearly an odd and deeply disturbed woman of questionable character, little integrity, and an uncertain grasp of reality. But none of this should bar her from academic employment. If it did, our Ivory Towers would rapidly empty out. Despite the outrage, all her critics really have on her is that she lied about her race in a way that hurt people’s feelings. No one has presented any actual evidence suggesting that her deception tainted her academic work, which appears to be about disparate African ethnic communities that formed a hybrid society to resist colonialism and enslavement. Her university press book on that subject, which was almost certainly the basis of her promotion and tenure at GW, was widely praised by respected scholars and selected as a finalist for two distinguished book awards in her field.

If GW were to strip her of tenure and fire her simply because she falsely told people she was something other than white, she would have a solid civil rights lawsuit in which she could easily invoke freedom of expression and association, and probably also make convincing arguments on due process and breach of contract grounds. If, on the other hand, GW reveals that it hired Krug because it understood her to be a minority, then any white candidate for her position who was denied employment could credibly sue for discrimination. This may well be why some people in her department want her to go now and of her own volition. But perhaps they will take a break from the hysteria now making capital fools of them to consider whether it would be better if race were no longer a category of professional consideration.

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