Marlyn Thomas (Courtesy photo)

By Marlyn Thomas

The story of yet another White woman in academia who assumed the identity of a Black woman and achieved popularity and respect is not shocking. I say this from the standpoint of an academic. It is no secret that when it comes to professional organizations, grants, centers and even the conferment of terminal degrees related to Black Studies, White scholars are given preference and more leeway to pursue research and classes from any angle that they see fit. Thus, the road ahead of them to gain tenure and live in the throes and ecstasy of academic freedom are set up very early on in their academic journey into Black life and culture. 

For Black women in the academy, or at least those of us who are Black by phenotypic attributes and adorn ourselves in Black pride before it was a trend, the road to acceptance at any institution can be complex. It is also one where we are advised by veteran Black women about things such as hair, clothing and demeanor. 

In short, there is common advice that coming across as “too Black” or “too African-centered” is career suicide. Yet, when White women in the academy assume Black identities, they seem to be more attracted to the very personality type that we are advised against. A white woman is confident enough to be everything that a Black woman is advised not to be and she will do it to the fullest. 

Rachel Dolezal not only taught Black Studies, but she was also heavily involved in the NAACP and other organizations whose mission either now or in the past focused on the advancement of Black people and securing our civil rights. Working from the framework of a race woman, it is no surprise that Jessica Krug published books that discussed the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade or was heavily involved in the community. Black women in the academy are literally being shown that we are disposable. We can become obsolete as there are women of other ethnicities waiting to assume our identities and all of the manifestations that we are shamed for like being angry at the trickle down of systemic racism, being pro Black and mixing community efforts with our university positions to close the town versus gown chasm. Privilege, ladies and gentlemen, is not being aware or held to such standards and having the freedom to pursue whatever initiative with total confidence in the laws of human resources and the limits of personal genius. Dolezal, and now Krug, have shown us how privilege works for White women even when they masquerade as Black. 

Although both women worked at PWIs, it’s not only predominantly White institutions that can privilege White women when it comes to Black culture. Even at HBCUs, there is a stark line of distinction between those who are pro Black and those who believe in respectability politics to a fault. Reader, if you are brave, take a look at the roster of professors at any HBCU and see the power of race in departments that focus on history, writing and society. You will find that liberal arts at many HBCUs are dominated by nonBlack faculty and the importance of presence in liberal arts is exponentially important because this is where the majority of general education courses are housed. This means that a Black student’s academic (not social) first impression at a Black institution can be that the history of the institution is Black, but the current educational foundation is not. This realization is earth shattering for students who come to HBCUs for the experience of learning, working and developing in a safe space. They come to find out that the Black experience is found solely in the residence halls, student center and during Homecoming (none of which are available because of the pandemic). This whitewashing, even at HBCUs, leaves Black women academics to wonder, “where do we go?”

I have taught Africana courses at a Historically Black Institution where Black female students not only preferred, but lobbied, for White women to teach them about womanism and Africana films, even though they had no real grounds to believe those women would teach them those things. Further, as students, they had no inclination that they were being used as pawns in the game of academia where a sprinkled experience of “diversity” can get one quite far in the last decade or so. Still, I await the book or documentary wherein Krug will compare her life as a Black woman with how she lived otherwise and what she achieved or sought to do by performing blackface in her day to day life. Her story will gain more momentum and get more accolades than the life of any woman born with dark skin and coarse hair and that is the real insult to injury in these cases.  

While some people would argue that Dolezal and Krug have done far more for the culture than actual Black women have, we need to recognize that a lot of Black women’s work does not go on the resume, and we don’t often demand that our names are printed in the programs. This is a result of undervaluing our work or fear of being told we are operating under a conflict of interest. For those of you who have or have had Black women as professors, don’t take for granted that we are in those ivory or ebony towers. It’s not an easy road and between patriarchy, racism and now some forms of feminism, we are there by sheer determination and grit repeating the mantra that we are not here by chance but by ordination and divine guidance. 

Marlyn Thomas is an instructor and writer who focuses on the Black experience in the humanities. She currently teaches at East Georgia State College. 

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