As a nation, we may be moving toward more consciousness about Blackness, but for most Americans Black consciousness remains a mystery. We, the people, have wanted it that way: for most of our history, racism has urged us to substitute stereotypes, distortions and patronizing assumptions for any real understanding of who Black people are.
These days, as white folks wrestle with how to learn on a large scale, we’ve come across a somewhat novel problem: Individual whites pretending to be Black — what I call “passe noir.”They tend to be in career positions usually occupied by Black people — the few career positions they usually occupy — first and most notably Rachel Dolezal, the white woman in Spokane who in 2015 was found to be passing as the Black head of the local NAACP. This year there was Jessica Krug of George Washington University, a well-regarded professor of Black studies whose book, “Fugitive Modernities,” is considered to be in the canon of histories of the African diaspora. More recently, CV Vitolo-Haddad was barred from taking a tenure-track position at Fresno State because it was discovered they’d been, as they put it, letting people think they were Black.
Most interesting is how quick these people were to condemn their own actions — or inactions — once they were found out. In an online essay posted on Medium, Krug didn’t hold back on the mea culpas for the sin of representing herself as a woman of color: “I should be canceled,” she wrote. Dolezal was similarly regretful; Vitolo-Haddad apologized for the “‘wrong turns” they made on the journey to understanding race. Being so thoroughly educated in the nature of Black oppression, these academics could hardly do otherwise. And yet, had they not been “outed,” they would have said nothing at all.
This, then, is a highly self-aware subset of racial impostors in a long line of impostors dating back to blackface minstrels. The most charitable reading of their passe noir is still a troubling irony: sincerely intentioned, empathetic white people felt they could only serve Black consciousness by going undercover, slipping on a Black identity like a costume rather than treating it like a set of distinct, and distinctly American, life experiences that need to be probed, not performed.