Outcry as white professor reveals race lie
Should people be allowed to choose their race? An American academic has shocked the world after admitting that she pretended to be black, sparking a heated debate about racial identity.
For years, Jessica Krug stood at the front of a classroom and told students about her struggles growing up as a black woman in America.
But the professor was, in fact, hiding an extraordinary lie: she is not black. In reality, Krug, who taught classes on African and Caribbean history, is a white woman from Kansas City.
Admitting the truth in a blog post last Wednesday, Krug wrote that her behaviour was “the very epitome of violence, of thievery and appropriation, of the myriad ways in which non-Black people continue to use and abuse Black identities and cultures”.
According to Krug, her actions are the result of mental health issues and childhood trauma. But in recent history she is not the only white American to take on a new racial identity.
Her case bears a striking similarity to that of another woman: Rachel Dolezal, a race activist and college instructor, became notorious in 2015 when her parents outed her as white.
Despite widespread criticism, Dolezal remains unrepentant. She claims that “the idea of race is a lie” and says it is possible to be “transracial” — just as it is possible to be transgender.
In the same year another US college, Dartmouth, fired the director of its Native American Program, Susan Taffe Reed, after she was accused of misrepresenting herself as an indigenous American.
Today, it is widely accepted that it is OK to change your gender identity. So what is the difference between changing gender and changing race?
The science behind transgender identity is far from definitive. While most studies seem to corroborate the idea that there are clear differences between male and female brains, scientists have rejected absolutely the notion that such differences exist between different races.
Indeed, when Rebecca Tuvel, a philosopher from the University of Rhodes, argued that “society should accept an individual’s decision to change race the same way it should accept an individual’s decision to change sex”, she faced a huge backlash.
For Meredith Talusan, a transgender writer: “The fundamental difference between Dolezal’s actions and those of trans people‘s is that her decision to identify as black was an active choice, whereas transgender people’s decision to transition is almost always involuntary.”
Both Krug and Dolezal built entire careers upon their new perceived identities. In comparison, transgender people often face violence and discrimination.
Some commentators say that while race can be fluid, the actions of Krug and Dolezal are still wrong. White Americans do not experience the everyday racism faced by black people, such as profiling and police brutality.
“Race is a social construction, but it’s real in the way that people treat you,” says sociologist Charles Gallagher.
Whereas the mixed-race children of black slaves sometimes chose to “pass” as white to escape discrimination, the same cannot be said for white Americans today who pass as black.
So, should people be allowed to choose their race?
Yes, say some. We are living in a world with an increasingly fluid approach to self-identity. Everybody should be allowed to express themselves in any way they desire. Many now even believe that race itself is little more than a social construct. The actions of people like Rachel Dolezal or Jessica Krug are unusual and shocking — but ultimately harmless.
No, say others. The idea of a white person choosing to live as a black or indigenous person is highly offensive. By pretending to be part of somebody else’s culture and somebody else’s struggle, white people who claim to be black are demeaning the real experiences of African Americans. As Jessica Krug herself puts it: “Intention never matters more than impact.”
- What matters more: how you identify yourself, or how others identify you?
- Is race a social construct?
- Imagine a world in which there was no such thing as race. Write a short story exploring how life would be different in such a society.
- Do you think racism is one of the biggest problems your country faces today? Write half a side explaining your point of view.
Some People Say...
“Racism is man’s gravest threat to man - the maximum of hatred for a minimum of reason.”Abraham Heschel (1907-1972), Polish-American rabbi and philosopher
What do you think?
Q & A
- What do we know?
- It is generally agreed that a person’s perceived racial identity does affect how others are likely to treat them. Scientific studies have revealed the prevalence of unconscious bias or racial prejudice. For example, white participants in one UK study were found to perceive black faces as more threatening than white faces, while in the USA, doctors were found to recommend less pain medication for black or Latino patients than for white patients with the same injury.
- What do we not know?
- One main area of debate surrounds the actual definition of “race” itself. In many countries, the racial categories that are used to define people are entirely arbitrary. For example, when Barack Obama, who unlike many Americans with African ancestry is not descended from former slaves, first ran for the American presidency he faced criticism both for being “too black” and also for being “not black enough”.
- Jessica Krug
- Krug is an associate professor at George Washington University in the US. She did not say in her post why she decided to admit the deception.
- A perfect example. In her blog post, Krug apologised to all the people she had harmed, both individually and collectively.
- Rachel Dolezal
- In the five years since she became a household name, Rachel Dolezal has changed her name to Nkechi Amare Diallo and become the subject of a Netflix documentary.
- The word transracial actually originates from adoptive and academic circles, where it is used to describe the experience of children raised in homes that are racially or culturally different from that of their birth.
- Support a statement or theory. Many transgender people report feeling that they were a “girl in a boy’s body”, or vice versa, from early childhood.
- Police brutality
- Only 13% of the US population is black, but black Americans make up over a quarter of the people who have died in US police shootings since 2015.
- Social construction
- An idea that has been created and accepted by the people in a society. Some people believe race, gender and concepts such as masculinity and femininity are all social constructs.
- Even though the “one-drop rule”, emerging from Southern states in the US, meant that the nation defined mixed-race descendants of slaves as being black, many were able to enter white society. For some, passing as white and uplifting other black people was the best way to undermine a racist system.