Of all the absurd stories to come out of 2020, Thursday brought us perhaps one of the most absurd. Jessica Krug, or “Jess La Bombalera” as she at times styled herself, is a white Jewish George Washington University history professor specializing in Africa and the African diaspora who for years claimed a bewildering cornucopia of Black identities, before outing herself in advance of what sure seems like a forthcoming expose in a performative, self-flagellating Medium post in which she begged, begged, to be canceled.
The extremely apt comparisons to Rachel Dolezal—both seemed to think that a not-that-convincing hairdo and a nose ring were sufficient props in their quest to perform Blackness—practically write themselves. But Krug and Dolezal are not the only people who have chosen to cloak themselves in the mantle of an oppressed identity in a seeming bid for authenticity—the reveal of these kinds of stories is by now a semi-annual event. Certain fields, academia and publishing in particular, seem to be breeding grounds for racial fraudsters, which invites the question of not only why, but what are the specific, perceived rewards of doing so? What unites these stories of “ethnic fraud” is their conservative belief that being non-white rewards a person with material benefits, at least if you’re a writer or scholar who believes there is profit to be made off of identity politics. But that belief is largely false—the few opportunities that exist for scholars and writers of color are marginal when compared to the systemic advantages that accrue for white people in these industries.
Krug is not even the only professor this year from George Washington University who lied about their racial and ethnic identity: In May, it was revealed that the recently deceased and supposedly Afro-Cuban writer Hermán G. “Hache” Carrillo, a creative writing professor at GWU who wrote the 2004 novel Loosing My Espanish and claimed to be from Cuba, was in fact not a Latinx immigrant at all, but a Black American from Detroit, born Herman Glenn Carroll. “We were all like, ‘Wha—?!” his niece Jessica Webley told the Washington Post of her uncle’s deception. (Her mother, for her part, shrugged it off merely as her brother’s eccentricity.)
I suspect that some of the reasons that Carrillo (or Carroll) took on a manufactured identity were rooted in a belief that success would come more easily with a more intriguing back story, one that has a small kernel of truth in an industry where overwhelmingly white publishers still act as gatekeepers for success and where one’s racial or ethnic identity at times is seen as a selling point for the relatively few non-white people who make it through those narrow gates. As one of Carillo’s friends mused after his background was made public, “Did being Afro Cuban add flavor? Interest? Allure?” before adding, “He made a strategic choice in terms of how he marketed himself.”
Carrillo is a bit of an anomaly, of course—most writers and academics who claim the mantle of an oppressed identity, typically Black or Native American, are white—but the motivations perhaps overlap, even if they hit differently. After all, there is an entire micro-community of white writers and academics who claim Native ancestry, taking advantage of the ease, born from the destruction of genocide, of performing indigeneity by merely saying one is indigenous—the Canadian fiction writer Joseph Boyden claimed he was First Nations for years, unsubstantiated claims that were heavily scrutinized by Indigenous writers and activists only a few years ago. Boyden joined a long line of writers and academics who have cosplayed as Native for their own material gain. Other examples include the Newberry Medal-winning writer, Jamake Highwater, ostensibly Cherokee and Blackfoot but in fact of Jewish descent, who lied that he had been adopted; and Andrea Smith, the famed feminist cultural studies scholar who similarly lied about being Cherokee. Let’s also not forget Margaret Seltzer, who in 2008 published a critically acclaimed memoir under the name Margaret Jones “about her life as a half-white, half-Native American girl growing up in South-Central Los Angeles as a foster child among gang-bangers, running drugs for the Bloods,” a memoir that was entirely faked—Seltzer, in fact, grew up in a well-to-do white family in the San Fernando Valley. And this year brought us the strange tale of BethAnn McLaughlin, a white professor who, while she didn’t pretend to be someone she wasn’t in her own life, fabricated a separate identity online as a bisexual, Native American professor, and then astonishingly pushed the story that that professor had died from covid-19, both conveniently killing her off while drawing more scrutiny to the existence of this entirely fictional person.
What about Asians, you might ask? While it’s more difficult to claim Asian ancestry given how the logic of race in this country has associated “Asian-ness” with a particular physical phenotype, that hasn’t stopped people from trying, at least on paper—recall the brouhaha in 2015 over the white poet Michael Derrick Hudson, who, after years of failure, infamously penned a poem under the name “Yi-Fen Chou” that was then included in that year’s Best American Poetry anthology.
Underlying many (though not all) of these strange tales, too, is a betrayal of imagination—that one cannot be a white person who cares about the lives of non-white people, that for your moral or even literary concerns to have merit, your experiences need to have the stamp of authenticity too. To go back to Krug, she didn’t have to be Black or Puerto Rican or from “the hood” to be a person who is deeply interested in questions of colonialism, to be someone who cares about gentrification and the politics of race. The fact that she thought she did is maybe the whitest thing about her.