two youtubers seen on screen

White People Keep Posing As People of Color for Clout

For generations, people of color have had to pass for survival. Now white people are wearing the experiences of racialized people like a costume—and getting called out for it.
Manisha Krishnan
Toronto, CA
LN
illustrated by Linda Nwachukwu
March 29, 2021, 11:55am

This is part of a special series, The Future of Fame Is the Fan, which dissects how celebrity became so slippery. It’s also in the latest VICE magazine. Subscribe here

About a year before the end of his friendship with Jessica Krug, the author Hari Ziyad invited her to a party at his apartment in Crown Heights.

Advertisement

Things had often been tense between Krug, then an associate professor of history at George Washington University who taught African history, and Ziyad’s friends, many of whom didn’t believe she was Black (a suspicion that turned out to be well founded). According to Ziyad, 29, Krug—who positioned herself as a police abolitionist originally from the Bronx—frequently complained that his Black friends were gentrifiers or that their politics weren’t as absolute as hers.

As an Ariana Grande song started playing at the party, one of Ziyad’s friends joked, “That’s my favorite white woman of color”—a nod to Grande’s bronzer-fueled racial ambiguity.

Krug didn’t care for the quip.

“She was like, ‘You can’t say that. She steals from Black people and you shouldn’t be encouraging that,’” Ziyad recalled.

On September 3, 2020, Krug called Ziyad in a panic to reveal the truth: She wasn’t an Afro-Latina from the Bronx. Her parents weren’t from Puerto Rico—they were from Kansas.

“I don’t think she actually ever said, ‘I’m white,’” said Ziyad.

In an overwrought Medium post published that same day, called “The Truth, and the Anti-Black Violence of My Lies,” Krug elaborated on her long-running ruse, which she said had been going on for most of her adult life. While Krug didn’t explain why she chose to out herself at that particular moment, Yomaira C. Figueroa, an associate professor of global diaspora studies at Michigan State University, tweeted that Krug was about to be exposed by Black Latina scholars.

Advertisement

“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: first North African Blackness, then U.S. rooted Blackness, then Caribbean rooted Bronx Blackness,” Krug wrote. “I am not a culture vulture. I am a culture leech.”

“It felt very violating,” Ziyad said. “But on the other hand it felt like an affirmation of so many of the things that I felt.” (Krug did not respond to VICE’s request for comment.)

Krug’s story, like that of the former NAACP chapter leader Rachel Dolezal’s before her, went viral. She became a main character on Twitter for a few days; former colleagues and students spoke out about how her lies had impacted them, and how she had taken opportunities that could have gone to Black academics, including grants, scholarships, and a tenured position. While the widespread attention toward Dolezal was at least partially because she seemed like an outlier, Krug joins a growing league of outed racial impostors—typically white people who pretend to be Black, Indigenous, or otherwise racialized.

In addition to Krug, the past year alone has seen the wellness influencer Hilaria Baldwin, journalist Claudia Lawrence, and filmmaker Michelle Latimer confronted with claims that they were misleading about their roots. The phenomenon seems counterintuitive. After all, in past generations and continuing today, people of color have had to position themselves closer to whiteness, even passing as white, in order to survive or get ahead. Now white people are deliberately recategorizing themselves into underprivileged groups. While it’s tempting to pathologize these posers as one-offs who may be suffering from mental illness, experts I spoke to said that would amount to scapegoating. Though it sounds paradoxical, they said wearing the experiences of racialized people like a costume—an act—in search of opportunities, attention, or cultural currency is in fact the height of white privilege.

Advertisement

In 1978, the Australian TV and Film Awards invited the Hollywood legend—and native of Tasmania—Merle Oberon to be a guest at its ceremony. A clip from the show featured in the 2002 documentary The Trouble With Merle shows Oberon walking onstage in a flowing white gown, flanked by two men in tuxedos.

“I know you were terribly young when you left Tasmania, do you have any memories at all?” one of the men asks Oberon, who was nominated for an Oscar for her role in The Dark Angel.

“I’m sorry, none at all,” she responds, shaking her head and smiling.

Oberon died the next year. It wasn’t until the 1983 biography Merle: A Biography of Merle Oberon came out that it was revealed that she had spent her life pretending she’d moved from Tasmania to India to be raised by her aristocratic godparents after her father, a British army officer, died. The public learned that she was actually part Sri Lankan and Maori, and grew up poor in Mumbai (then Bombay). Her biological father wasn’t in the army; his real identity remains unclear. According to some reports, she wore lighter makeup to pull off the act.

It’s easy to understand why Oberon decided to pass as white—it was likely the only way she could have made it as a Hollywood actress in that era, not to mention the other racism she would have faced at the time.

Advertisement

“Passing… was about survival. And in doing so, there were so many risks involved. You couldn’t talk to your family members, you had to create a new life story,” said Whitney Pirtle, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of California in Merced.

It’s a familiar story, one that’s been told fictionally too. Brit Bennett’s highly acclaimed novel The Vanishing Half, published last spring, tells the story of twin sisters whose lives go from being deeply intertwined to painfully estranged when one decides to live as a white woman.

Passing afforded light-skinned Black and mixed-race people “a set of privileges, resources, opportunities… to travel, opportunities to learn, opportunities to select a different marriage partner, that had only been for people who are white,” Pirtle said.

“It was extremely dangerous, though. If you were caught, your whole livelihood or potentially your life would be taken away.”

In passing, Black people were accessing resources that white people already had—and that were reserved for them alone. But when white folks pose as people of color, oftentimes to access opportunities, they are essentially double dipping.

“To sort of claim space in that restricted, closed space is just another way to obtain more white advantage,” Pirtle said.

While it’s unclear how long the phenomenon has been taking place, there are examples of it in the U.S., Canada, and the UK dating back as far as the early 1900s. Social media has played a role in drawing attention to these impostors, with Dolezal being the most famous example.

Advertisement

Pirtle says research shows there’s been a rise in the number of white students who leave the race box unchecked when applying for college, and perhaps because some of them believe identifying as white could be disadvantageous.

Meanwhile, eastern Canadian provinces and U.S. states have seen seen an explosion in people identifying as Métis and Cherokee on census records. According to the Canadian author and associate professor Darryl Leroux, who wrote the book Distorted Descent: White Claims to Indigenous Identity, the “race shifting” trend is a result of white French descendants who “self-indigenize,” or make a claim to Indigenous ancestry, on the basis of having an Indigenous ancestor hundreds of years ago. To that end, some of the most high-profile examples of this racial grift pertain to white people posing as Indigenous, including Grey Owl, one of Canada’s first conservationists, who lied about his origin story after arriving in Canada in 1906, and the celebrated author Joseph Boyden. During her presidential campaign Elizabeth Warren apologized for identifying herself as Native American for decades and later using a DNA test rather than tribal citizenship to justify those claims. At the time, Kim TallBear, an associate professor of Native studies at the University of Alberta, explained that tribal governments “do not use genetic ancestry tests, but other forms of biological and political relationships to define our citizenries.”

Advertisement

In Latimer’s case, after the director was accused of falsely claiming to be of “Algonquin, Métis and French heritage, from Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg (Maniwaki),” she stepped back from Trickster, the acclaimed show she was making with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, featuring an Indigenous cast and crew. The CBC has now decided not to proceed with a second season of the show, which was based on a trilogy of novels by the Haisla/Heiltsuk author Eden Robinson. (Disclosure: Latimer was the showrunner of the 2017 VICELAND series RISE, about activism in Indigenous communities.)

After the scandal broke in December, the Haida Nation filmmaker Tamara Bell proposed that Canada pass a law that would have race shifters fined or jailed if caught accessing awards and grants by falsely posing as Indigenous. (The Indian Arts and Crafts Act in the U.S. is similar, but applies specifically to goods that are falsely passed off as Indigenous made, not people identifying as Indigenous.)

“Unfortunately, Canada often turns a blind eye to the wholesale theft and exploitation of Indigneous identity, which has become a widespread problem,” Bell said at a press conference in January.

a woman sitting at a bus stop

If fully posing as someone from a different background is the extreme end of the spectrum, black-fishing, or playing up racial ambiguity, as is the case with Grande and Kim Kardashian, could be seen as a socially acceptable version of the same phenomenon—wearing race for clout.

“We let ourselves off the hook when we pathologize Jessica Krug, because how many degrees removed from Kim Kardashian is she?” said Jonathan Rosa, an associate professor of education and comparative studies in race and ethnicity at Stanford University. “Ariana Grande has been passing as a woman of color in the United States context. There are so many people who can’t imagine that she is someone who grew up being positioned as a young white woman.”

Advertisement

“If you grow up in the United States as Latina, then often, in many contexts, you’re being positioned as racially marked in a way she simply was not, and yet we appreciate her kind of trafficking in ambiguity.”

One of the wider issues at play, according to Rosa, is the commodification of race and diversity. When institutions are confronted with their white-ness, the instinct is to hire more people from the Black, Indigenous, and people of color communities. But Rosa said that’s “the most cosmetic and superficial way” to address the problem—and it doesn’t deal with the structural reasons they are excluded.

“It also creates a whole other set of problems like these forms of fraudulence,” he added.

“Once you transform these collective historical experiences into individual identities, then they become things that individuals can own or sell or market, and you have lots of situations where it shouldn’t be a surprise that we would have a brand and a counterfeit brand,” Rosa said.

Maryann Erigha, an assistant professor of sociology and African American studies at the University of Georgia, said while some people might find it confusing that a white person would choose to identify as part of a marginalized group, there is a “cultural benefit.”

“People often say it’s fashionable to be Black, it’s fashionable to be Native,” she said. “And it’s not appropriation, I guess, if you are being an impostor, if people don’t know that you’re not from that group.”

Advertisement

But colorism, the ability to code switch and navigate white spaces, and the absence of dealing with the actual trauma of racism is, in part, what allows some of these impostors to succeed in their pursuits, she said. “They can see a place where they can be at the top of the group.”

As for policing this type of behavior, Rosa cautioned that doing so could reproduce harmful ideas about who is and isn’t authentic.

“The reality is, none of us corresponds to these categories in any straightforward way because the categories are violently created—they come out of histories of violence, so they shouldn’t work so well for any of us,” he said.

“What is much more important to me is community being able to define what meaningful membership and what their collective vision is.”

Ziyad has not spoken to Krug since the phone call in which she revealed she was white.

He believes she “wanted to harm Black people”—consciously or otherwise—and that she did. He said she insulted the Black women editors of his book Black Boy Out of Time: A Memoir, encouraged him to isolate himself from his friends, picked fights with white people in public while expecting her Black friends to defend her, and was critical that Ziyad was in therapy, describing it as “individualistic.”

“She existed to prove that radical Black politics would ultimately be a very miserable experience,” Ziyad said.

While he said her Medium post, which was self-flagellating but scarce in details, was not a “real apology,” Ziyad doesn’t want to hear more from her.

“I don’t care,” he said.

“I think this whole experience was about Black people and the boundaries that we are allowed to have within our communities, and I think I learned what I needed to learn about that,” he continued. “I feel so much more comfortable with my intuition now. But it doesn’t take away the violation that happened.”

Follow Manisha Krishnan on Twitter.