Marius Kothor is a Ph.D. candidate in the department of history at Yale
University. She has broad research interests in 20th century African history,
gender, and Black internationalism. Her dissertation project has been award fellowships from the Fulbright (IIE) program, the Social Science Research
Council (IDRF), and the Fulbright-Hays (DDRA) Program. She has published essays in a number of venues including: The New York Times, The History News
Network, and is a contributor to Black Perspectives. You can follow her on Twitter @Mariuskothor
By Marius Kothor
I took the Jessica Krug story harder than I anticipated. I was enraged by her confession that she had built a career pretending to be a Black Latinx woman. While Krug was welcomed and celebrated in several academic spaces and institutions, those of us who live the experiences she had put on as a costume are made to feel like imposters. Jessica Krug was successful in academia as an actual imposter precisely because she does not look like the people whose belonging in academia is constantly in question. She does not look like me.
I am a Black African woman and a first-generation student who came to the United States as a refugee. For most of my academic career, I have felt alienated from the institutions that I have attended. At workshops for underrepresented students, I have been assured that my feelings of alienation are a manifestation of “imposter syndrome.” According to this logic, my sense of isolation is a consequence of an inferiority complex or low self-esteem. This never resonated with me. I’ve always known that it was the conditions within these institutions that made me feel unwelcomed. Instead of focusing on the ways universities treat underrepresented students and faculty feel like imposters, the concept of “imposter syndrome” diverts attention away from these structural problems and locates the root causes of alienation and isolation within the minds of individuals.
In my sophomore year, the only Black woman professor I ever had in college was denied tenure. Although I didn’t quite understand what that meant, I took this to mean that the university did not want her there. I was heartbroken. Her tenure denial made me feel that there was no space within the institution for people like her, people like us. By not doing enough to retain the only Black woman professor in her department and one of the handful of Black faculty on campus, my undergraduate institution signaled to Black students that it does not value Black people as scholars and that it essentially sees us as imposters.
This disregard for Black scholars is also articulated in university curriculums. As an undergraduate and a graduate student, I have taken classes where no Black scholars were included on the syllabus. This is especially troubling because I have focused on African History since I was an undergraduate student. The underrepresentation of Black scholars on university campuses and curriculums communicated to me that these institutions do not think Black people belong in academia. The alienation I felt as a real Black woman in academia likely never happened to Jessica Krug, the real imposter.
Academia’s obsession with making underrepresented communities feel like imposters allows people like Jessica Krug to flourish. Krug’s performance of Blackness was less likely to be questioned because her visual proximity to Whiteness afforded her the benefit of the doubt, it made her facade believable in the eyes of the predominantly white institutions she inhibited. Even with the dyed jet-black hair, the African textiles, and hoop earrings she incorporated into her Black-face costumes, Krug still walked through academic spaces as a White woman. This would have given her real privileges, the most important of which was the assumption that she belonged. She was likely to be seen an expert on Black people’s histories while the expertise of a Black women like myself is constantly questioned.
In the absence of real Black women who have been marginalized and push out of academia, a White woman, pretending to be Black can take up space and establish a successful career. The Black people who would have been more likely to see through Krug’s performance did not form a critical mass within the institutions and departments Krug inhabited. Thus, as one of these women explained in a recent New Yorker article, they did not feel safe enough to bring forth their suspicions until this year. By then, Krug had collected several fellowships and grants meant for marginalized scholars, received a tenure-track job, published a book with a reputable university press and secured tenure at a world class university.
To close with a metaphor, let’s think of the university environment as a social gathering. Perhaps, a party. Traditionally, only White men and, later, White women were invited to this party. One year, the host invites a young African woman. She accepts the invitation. When she arrives at the party, however, she overhears a group of White men debating whether Africa was better off under European colonialism. When she joins the group of White women, they turn their attention eagerly towards her and express their excitement about finally having a diversity invitee. The White women then ask to touch her braids. When the new attendee tells the host that she does not feel welcomed at the party, she is told that she just needs to work on her confidence and join in on the discussions at the party. The woman resigns not to attend the party the following year. In her absence, a White woman pretending to be Black attends the party and fits right in because she is not offended by the conversations that are happening at the party. None of the attendees ask to touch her hair because it is just like their own.
This situation is emblematic of the experiences of marginalized communities in academe. People do not find these spaces hostile because they have imposter syndrome but, rather, because they are made to feel like imposters. The responsibility here was not on the young woman to participate in conversations that harm her, rather, like universities, the party should have been a space in which everyone felt both invited and welcomed join. Absent that, actual imposters will continue to invade these spaces and create homes for themselves, undermining the integrity of the entire academic enterprise.