Opinion: Why white scholars try to pass as Black, and what we can learn from it
Rachel Dolezal in 2017. (Nicholas K. Geranios / AP)
As a nation, we may be moving towards greater awareness of the black, but black awareness remains a mystery to most Americans. We, the humans, have wanted it this way: For most of our history, racism has pushed us to replace stereotypes, biases, and patronizing assumptions with a real understanding of who blacks are.
These days, as white people wrestle with large-scale learning, we encounter a somewhat new problem: individual whites pretending to be black - what I call "passe noir". They tend to work in career positions that are normally held by blacks - the few career positions they usually fill - and most importantly Rachel Dolezal, the white woman in Spokane who was named the black head of the local NAACP in 2015. That year there was Jessica Krug of George Washington University, a distinguished professor of black studies whose book "Fugitive Modernities" is considered the canon of the history of the African diaspora. More recently, CV Vitolo-Haddad has been banned from serving in Fresno state because it was found that, as they put it, they made people believe they were black.
What is most interesting is how quickly these people condemned their own actions - or inaction - once found out. In an online article published on Medium, Krug did not hold back the Mea Culpas for the sin of portraying themselves as a woman of color: "I should be canceled," she wrote. Dolezal regretted it similarly; Vitolo-Haddad apologized for the "wrong turns" they made on the path to understanding the breed. Since these academics were so thoroughly trained in the nature of black oppression, there was little else they could do. And yet, if they hadn't been "outed" they wouldn't have said anything at all.
So this is a very self-conscious subgroup of racial cheaters in a long line of scammers going back to black-faced minstrels. The most benevolent reading of their passe noir is still a disturbing irony: sincere, empathetic whites felt the only way they could serve the black consciousness by being obscured and dressing a black identity like a costume, rather than it like a series of differences and downright American life experiences that need to be explored, not performed.
As regrettable and even ridiculous as that is, it is well known. For me, it's personal: my family is from New Orleans, Creole people from the seventh ward in town, descended from America's oldest practitioners of the passing, albeit in reverse order. Passe blanc is of course completely different from its postmodern inversion. Most Creoles did it to survive, keep a job, or evade Jim Crow's many outrages. If no one asked, they didn't say it, but they always lived with white people's fear of finding out and facing real consequences. Her identity choice wasn't really a choice: it was forced by racism and was situational rather than existential.
But all offense grows out of the secrecy and shame we have conditioned to associate with the blackness that is far more emotional than academic. Critical racial theory, racial performance, intersectionality - all of these categories are important organizational tools that cannot be compared with the complex realities of black life. While not required, blacks' experience feels fundamental to the black studies, which is why some whites may not feel legitimate in the field if they do not pretend to be.
"Fugitive Modernities" by Jessica Krug, one of the youngest scientists to admit to having "passed" as black. (Duke University Press)
Being authentically black is an obsession in this country, something that all PhD students and bestselling empathy primers in the world can't address. Indeed, advanced degrees are often seen to counteract authenticity. But no matter how woken up or "dejected" they are, white people who claim to be black (or make us believe they are) don't join in so much as to serve themselves: their academic ones Work wouldn't be nearly as emotionally resonant if you presented it as white people. They would be seen as outside of it, and many whites are desperate to get in.
In her Medium essay, a chaste Krug wrote that she avoided her “lived experience as a white Jewish child in the suburbs of Kansas City” in order to adopt different black identities her entire life - “North African blackness, then US-rooted blackness So Bronx Blackness with Caribbean roots. “Although it had been some sort of wandering target, it was clear that Krug was“ crossed over ”- the term Creole means permanently changing from one racial identity to another. Crossing is a kind of death, and that seemed Krug's intention: to be reborn a black. The special "kind" of blackness seemed to be almost irrelevant, namely to leave the white behind forever.
Lauren Michele Jackson, professor of black literature at Northwestern University, pointed out in a New York play that Krug benefited indirectly from colorism. Many professors in their field are light-skinned blacks who follow the historical pattern of fair-skinned Creoles, who are more socially beneficial and more likely to have a college degree. Jackson suggests that Krug slipped through the cracks, adjusting to this spectrum and taking advantage of the general reluctance to question it. Even in an area where authenticity can play a role, scientists take black identity at face value: who in the larger world would identify as black if they didn't have to?
What sparked this year's cascade of revelations was the death of H. G. "Hache" Carrillo, a respected writer and teacher who claimed to be Afro-Cuban. It turned out that that was only half true. He was black but American and was born in Detroit. It was a more nuanced way of passing, more indicative of the shame and feeling of frugality that went into being a black American. We occupy a caste that does not exist in countries with colonialism and slavery, but not with Jim Crow's segregation and humiliation. As a writer, Carrillo wanted to be himself, but expanded - Black in America but rooted elsewhere. Cuban and Latin American cultures had given it this extension. After the posthumous disclosure of his largely successful escape from an African-American identity, people began to question other writers who had adopted them.
Black Studies has been an academic discipline for more than 50 years, an evolving set of topics and approaches that are theoretically open to everyone. Yet we are often suspicious when someone is rightly interested in blackness who is not black himself. Such a white person must have a fetish, we think, or a traumatizing upbringing; You are at least a “cultural leech,” as Krug described himself ruefully, at least in part. Often that's true.
One of the tenets of white supremacy is that white interest in black people can only be prurient or transactional, never sincere, and certainly never equal. The particular problem for white illicit scholars is that the authority they seek may resemble supremacy, another way for whites to say that they know blacks better than they do. Passe noir is a poorly thought-out shorthand for this Puzzle, but the puzzle itself is real and this country has never really been interested in solving it.
As the movement shifts after the George Floyd protests and the talks lead to allies being won for a common project, we need white people who deeply understand and respect the blackness in all its complexity. We need white people who are deeply interested and represent what it is like and have an experience that is unusual and maybe difficult, but necessary.
For inspiration, we could study the life of Johnny Otis, the famous band leader who was of Greek descent but identified with blacks throughout his career - the only white person to my knowledge with a regular column in Black weekly L.A. Sentinel. When Otis wrote "us" he meant black people, but he included himself in the community because he lived in it in more ways than one. His entree was jazz and then R&B, but the connections went deeper. He lived physically and otherwise in this diluted space of being a white ally who was also a fellow traveler. He didn't pass because it wasn't him, but mainly because the blacks didn't want or need him. He knew that this fiction would not have served anyone.
Kaplan is a contributing writer to the Times Opinion Pages.
This story originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.
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