On Jessica Krug and Mixed Race Identity
The revelation in fall 2020 that Jessica Krug, a white American woman, just like Rachel Dolezal before her, spent years holding herself out as Black and Black Latina woman made us all cringe. Krug took pains to make her skin appear bronzed, she dressed in form-fitting clothing, and kept her hair dyed dark black, adding in curly or wavy texture for good measure. We all remember Dolezal's kinky textured blonde hair and braids that gave her a distinctly 'mixed race' look. These women hogged the limelight and took employment and community outreach opportunities from Black women.
Their masquerade has prompted a conversation within the Black and Latinx communities around colorism: the way that light-skinned, mixed race, and white-passing Black women seem to get opportunities that are not available to dark-skinned Black women.
As long as I can remember, American movies with a Black man as the protagonist invariably had him fall in love with a Black woman who appeared mixed race. As a mixed race woman, I noticed this, and I could see how unfair it was: the subtle message was that I would be accepted as beautiful in the black community. Looking back, I see how those same films and series made dark-skinned women question their worth.
Remember Dorothy Dandridge’s ‘exotic’ beauty? We wonder why black women feel pressure to straighten their hair and lighten their skin, but in popular culture, we have all been conditioned to see light-skinned women as the only presentable face of black womanhood. The use of mixed race women as the face of blackness has long left out the majority of Black women who have a beauty that is not contingent on detectable quantum of white blood.
Light to medium-skinned women such as Halle Berry (mixed race, Black identifying), Thandie Newton (mixed race), Jasmine Guy (mixed race), and Lisa Bonet (mixed race) were the type of palatable Black woman to be found in film and television in the 1990s. That is why Lupita Nyong’o’s rise has been so revolutionary: most of us spent most of our lives without ever seeing a love interest darker than the black man cast as the protagonist of a film.
It is in this atmosphere of 'mixed race privilege' and exoticism that women like Jessica Krug and Rachel Dolezal were able to occupy the identity of mixed race women and work their way to the top of major institutions. Of course their usurpation of blackness caused an uproar. In the wake of the Jessica Krug’s racial ‘outing,’ Black women expressed frustration with a system that seems to lock them out of their own liberation by prioritising light-skinned women, putting lighter women at the helm of anti-racism struggles.
Some lashed out at the light-skinned people who they see as complicit in the colorist system.
I think it is fair to say that mixed race people embody certain racial privileges, but I also think it is unfair that white people posing as mixed race should somehow be held against us, or that their behaviour should be attributed to us.
Jessica Krug cosplayed the exotic mixed race woman, but we never talk about how uncomfortable racially ambiguous people make others feel — how the existence of racial ambiguity is itself a reminder of the lie that is race. We do not talk about how awkward it is for a white-passing Black person like Halsey, Meghan Markle, Rashida Jones, Drake's son, Kitt McDonald, Wentworth Miller to be privy to white supremacy when people mistake them for white.
Everybody talks about 'mixed race privilege,' but the truth is that mixed race people are also sick and tired of colorism
Everybody talks about ‘mixed race privilege,’ but the truth is that mixed race people are also sick and tired of colorism, of fearing for our relatives’ safety in the police state, and we are also hit by antiblackness. Mixed people want to talk about mixed privilege, but there is no forum for having these conversations, and the tomfoolery of certain white women passing as mixed race is not the conversation opener we’ve been looking for.
To start the conversation with mixed race people, we would have to ask deeper questions about the meaning of blackness itself. What is blackness? Some people believe blackness is only that which unites people discriminated by African phenotype. This would completely exclude white-passing Black people who have grown up going to black churches, living with their black siblings and parents, eating soul food, going to all-black schools, living in black neighbourhoods, having a completely black family history, etc. Let's be clear: people who say blackness is only based on phenotype would say that a mixed race person who looks black but has been raised in white culture is more black than a white-passing Black person whose only cultural milieu is black. This kind of phenotypical gatekeeping makes no sense.
Setting aside for a moment the fact that there are Black albino people with a unique lived experience around race because they are undeniably black but also white colored, we know there is incredible diversity of experience among mixed race Black people.
Mixed race Black people make us question the meaning of blackness. Is blackness a racial essentialism? Is blackness just a color? Is blackness only a negative experience or is it more full and complex? Is blackness merely lived oppression or is it also family history, culture, food, family membership? Also, when we talk about blackness, are we talking about Black American culture or blackness globally?
Focusing on America, we cannot talk about mixed race identity without acknowledging the fact that America has always secretly been a mixed race nation. Many Black Americans have two black parents, but they look ‘white-passing’ because they have Irish, Scottish and English blood that goes back to slavery.
Nor can we talk about 'mixed race' without talking about how Black Americans came to speak English as their first and only language and how Black culture is Western culture. The entirety of our culture is, in essence, mixed. What it means to be 'mixed race,' with the backdrop of a colonial, mixed culture, is that society sees you and your family differently.
I also think we cannot talk about ‘mixed race’ people without first addressing how race itself is a lie that is also a truth. Yes, it is a lie, but it is a lie that we all live and die by. We can declare race a construct as much as we want, but our ancestors were enslaved based on race and many of them are now buried in segregated cemeteries. Sociologically and legally, race is real. American legal regimes such as one drop rule forged Black American identity from a culture that is essentially Afro-European with indigenous foods in the mix.
The words ‘mixed race’ in and of themselves imply miscegenation — the existence of pure races that mix. Our racial lexicon is revealing — ‘mixed race’ is the polite ‘half-caste’ of yore — both depend on the idea that racial difference is so essential as to make the races akin to species. Science has moved away from race, yet in the age of Trump, society has never been more enthralled with this essentialism. Meanwhile facial recognition technology seeks to parse categories such as race, thus reifying the notion that skin color and facial features underlie differences in species or at the very least the idea that there can be ‘breeds’ of people as there are for dogs.
I suspect these conversations around what blackness really means will become ever more pressing as young mixed race people come of age. We forget that Loving v. Virginia, the case that finally legalised interracial marriage, was decided in 1967. Even after Loving, mixed race people could not exist as a legal category on the US Census. We had to choose one race based on our phenotype. Yet each successive generation of Americans since Loving case has been increasingly self-defined as ‘mixed race.’
At this point, I want to intercede to offer an alternative viewpoint on 'mixed race'. What if mixed race, light-skinned, white passing people and interracial families were partners in the fight against colorism and racism? What if mixed race people had always been deeply involved in anti-racist work? This is not hypothetical or far-fetched. Rosa Parks was a light-skinned woman. Angela Davis is as light as they come. For every Stacey Dash (mixed race), for every Candace Owens (white partner) standing in the way of progress, there is a Nikole Hannah Jones (yes, she is mixed race), and a Serena Williams (white partner). Jordan Peele is a mixed race Black man with a white wife, but he is among the most prolific anti-racist artists of our times.
I defend the right of light-skinned people, mixed race and white-passing people to claim blackness, but that does not mean that mixed race people cannot do better. It means we must live up to the legacy of the best among us. We must hold ourselves accountable for colorism and we must explicitly fight to empower dark-skinned Black people.
Mixed race people are frequently on the front lines in the fight against racism because we are often the only visibly black people in our family spaces and cultural milieu. Fredrick Douglas, one of the greatest anti-racists of all time, was a mixed race Black man living in a one drop society. We do not talk about how Francis Walter White, a white-passing Black man from Georgia, infiltrated the KKK to help protect black people. I submit to you that mixed race people have always been a part of the fight against racism and colorism, but the best among us are quiet about it.