by Alanah Mortlock
The thing about writing your PhD on transracialism is that whenever one of these stories breaks, you’re the first person everyone you know wants to send it to. So when the Jessica Krug story broke in early September, I didn’t have to go looking for it: it was delivered directly to me by well-meaning acquaintances and loved ones who wanted my take on the latest iteration of this “white woman gets bored of being herself and decides to try out being a Black woman for a while” moment we’re living through. Having read an awful lot about the post-Rachel-Dolezal culture of transracialism over the course of my research, I was unsurprised to find nothing particularly novel in Krug’s story. I was, however, re-struck by something I recognised from the stories of Dolezal and others that, in 2020, I found especially aggrieving. To be clear, this is not an article seeking to answer whether Krug or Dolezal or others like them are “really Black?”: aside from being politically and theoretically perilous to answer, I increasingly think it is the least helpful, and maybe even the least interesting, question one could ask in response to these stories. Instead, in my work I try to think through what these stories do to the way we talk and think about Blackness, and in this article I want to focus on the ways in which narratives of trauma are being put to work.
In her public-apology-performance-letter blogpost, Krug claims that ‘mental health issues likely explain why [she] assumed a false identity’ and that ‘mental health professionals… assure [her] that this is a common response to some of the severe trauma that marked [her] early childhood and teen years’. These narratives of trauma and a troubled childhood as generative of a “transracial” identity can be seen in the self-stories of other well-known transracial cases, including Rachel Dolezal and Mezz Mezzrow. While they undeniably recall medical and psychiatric discourses that pathologise transgender identities as an abnormal – even perverse – condition resulting from childhood trauma, and while I believe this point is rich theoretically and urgent politically, in this blogpost I will be thinking about the ways in which these narratives of trauma interact with imaginaries of Blackness.
Before when reading claims of this kind, my initial reaction had been to critique this tactic for again revealing whiteness’ persistent insistence on narrating attachments to Blackness only through trauma and suffering. Black feminist writers and thinkers such as Audre Lorde and Maya Angelou have long criticised these conceptualisations for being reductive and erasing the joy and beauty that exists in Blackness and Black people. The grounding of Blackness in suffering emerges elsewhere in the transracialism debates, such as in “feminist” “academic” articles suggesting that the experience of racial oppression while passing for Black ought to authenticate the “transracial” identity of these individuals. This shrinking of Blackness to something only thinkable as the result of violence and trauma is central to a conceptualisation that supports a transracial Blackness.
But encountering Krug’s claim in 2020 – a deeply traumatic year for many of us who identify with Blackness – I found my reading of this narrative to be slightly more complex. There is, I believe, a secondary story, another imaginary of Blackness that is evoked in narratives of this kind; I began to dwell on how they conjure the path that led to their “Blackness” as a journey away from trauma. Krug actually describes it in this way in her blogpost, saying ‘When I was a teenager fleeing trauma, I could just run away to a new place and become a new person’. Blackness is rendered as a place accessed in a fleeing that leaves trauma behind. Antithetical as these two imaginaries of Blackness may seem, the fetishisation of the racial Other – or what we might think of as the “exotic” – as a time-space characterised by a kind of hedonism that offers the promise of escapism is in no way new. One way in which Blackness specifically has been rendered such is through tropicalisation. This mode of colonial worlding has been particularly associated with the Caribbean and is argued to be the process responsible for the imaginary of these sites as “tropical” paradises characterised by white beaches, palm trees, carnival and a certain kind of hedonistic, “no worries” lifestyle. It is then notable, I believe, that Krug’s identification has been with a specifically Caribbean Blackness. This narrative of desire for an exoticised paradise as escape from a traumatic reality plays out strongly in Dolezal’s self-story as well: she claims ‘I would pretend to be a dark-skinned princess in the Sahara Desert… imagining I was a different person living in a different place was one of the few ways… that I could escape the oppressive environment I was raised in’. In these examples we see how justifications of a “transracial” attachment to Blackness have participated in the worlding of Blackness as a space of tropical or exotic promise. Post-colonial scholars of geography and tourism have argued how stereotyping of this kind works to promote tourism to the benefit of the coloniser by actively erasing the scars of colonial and racist violence with which the post-colonial subjects continue to live.
It has been further argued that the tropicalisation of these lands sticks also to the figure of those who inhabit them. Along with hedonism and luxury, stereotypes of tropicalisation are theorised to denote sensuality and sexuality and so can be easily connected to the fetishisation of Black women as hyper-sexual and sexually available, iconised by the figure of the Jezebelle. I think it’s interesting at this point to reflect again on Dolezal’s self-story, in which she says that in accessing her new (or, in her mind “true”) identity, she became ‘free to express who [she] was on [her] own terms— religiously, sexually, and racially’, thus strongly associating her inhabitation of Blackness with her sexual liberation. We can see also the connection between this imaginary of Blackness and the tradition of other racist caricatures, such as the Happy Slave and the Sambo that cast Blackness as a ‘jolly, overgrown child’, created to legitimise slave societies and used to uphold hegemonies of white supremacy. These stereotypes were spread with such success that contemporary commentators said of Black plantation slaves that ‘they seem a happy race of beings… you would never imagine that they were slaves’. In this quote we can see how the construction of Blackness and Black folk as constitutionally jovial or carefree is used to paint anti-Black violence as less traumatic due to an imagined lesser-ability in Black people to feel pain. Here again, Blackness is imagined as a site defined by trauma, and yet somehow unable to be imagined as a person affected by trauma. It has been argued that the descendants of these and other post-slavery caricatures have laid the foundations of biases that encourage the use of excessive force and physical violence against Black women and girls by imagining them as possessing abnormal and threatening (to white masculinity) strength.
Reflecting on how I might bring together these two seemingly oppositional and yet somehow co-constructed imaginaries of Blackness in relation to both whiteness and suffering, I turn to the Black metaphysics of Calvin Warren. Building on genealogies of work from Fanon to Heidegger, Warren argues that, under the tyranny of ontology, Blackness exists only as the exteriority of whiteness, formalising it as ontological “nothing” in contrast to the “being” of whiteness. In the self-stories of transracialism I have discussed in this article, we see how, as these individuals have fled their-selves, they have sought a point at which it seems possible to exit their identity and found Blackness. Blackness becomes a space they can enter that is somehow external to the space they were in before: a space in which they are able to create a new mode of living. Black trans scholars such as Marquis Bey have argued that both Blackness and transness – in holding this space as the ontological exteriority of being – are indeed this site of possibility, with Green and Ellison arguing that this site may become the ground at which to develop ‘forms of collective life that can enliven and sustain us’. However, the “us” imagined here is Black trans and I think we must interrogate the work done in the discursive move that instead renders the “us” as transracially Black. In my reading, I find the moves made by Dolezal and Krug are not the realisation of the stated hope: rather than creating a revolutionarily disruptive new mode of ontological being, it seems they rather perpetuate Blackness’ status in metaphysics as ‘available equipment in human form’. Further, Warren argues that the idyll of liberatory potential is deceptive as this mode of ontological recreation (or, tranifestation) is only available to ontological beings – to whites – and that ‘such refashioning is not possible for blacks within ontology’. Following Warren’s argument, then, even if we consider Dolezal and Krug to have successfully “tranifested”, their ontological move would still be complicit in upholding the tyranny of metaphysics that terrorises Black bodies. Warren’s reading of metaphysics understands it as premised on the suffering and oppression of Black bodies and argues that there is no salvation for Black people in a system of metaphysics that imagines them as the exteriority of whiteness.
Which brings me to my concluding thoughts on this wearying topic. Whose suffering are we able to hear in these stories? Whose suffering are we told matters? When I first started thinking about these questions, I was reminded of an episode of Reni Eddo-Lodge’s “About Race” podcast titled “White women crying is racist”. In this episode, Reni speaks with two “sisters” (Angelica and Kelsey) from Sisters Uncut and tells a story:
Reni: Can I tell you about the first ever event I ever did for the book. Almost a year ago now a white woman burst into tears in the audience.
Angelica: No way
Reni: She burst into tears.
Angelica: White women crying is racist
Reni: Congratulations, you’ve made it about you.
Angelica: White women crying is racist.
Reni: You’ve made it about yourself
Discussing this story, Reni and her guests think through the various ways in which displays of pain or emotional discomfort from white women in feminist and anti-racist spaces distract from conversations about structural power by individualising experiences of fraught racial dynamics. Further, they cast the pain and suffering of women of colour as generative of problems, and the women themselves as caretakers of white women’s hurt feelings. Ultimately, I believe the narratives of trauma found in the self-stories of transracialism play into this culture that exceptionalises the suffering and trauma of white people, and in doing so actively invisibilises the trauma of bodies of colour. We see this also in the reporting of white domestic terrorism, such as in the cases of Dylann Roof and Elliot Rodger, both of whose mass murders (explicitly directed at Black people and women, respectively) were widely explained if not justified through reported past “trauma”. So as I think about these narratives, I ask myself: what do we learn about Black suffering, and where is the time for us to reflect on how Black people have suffered? These questions are hidden – invisibilised – in the narratives of transracialism and trauma, making them another site in a long history of whiteness’ wilful unseeing of Black pain.
Alanah Mortlock is a Doctoral candidate at the London School of Economics, Department of Gender Studies. Her research looks at how academic and popular discourses of “transracialism” interact with theorisations of Blackness, engaging a critical lens invested in Black feminist and trans scholarships and politics. Her research interests include Black feminisms, theorisations and epistemologies of Blackness, mixed-raceness and racial ambiguity, and the intersections of gender, race and sexuality. As light-skinned mixed-race (Jamaican and white British), her interest in questions of racial ambiguity is both intellectual and personal. She is a member of the Engenderings editorial collective, and of the African-Caribbean Research Collective. She tweets at https://twitter.com/AlanahMortlock