To the editor:
I am disappointed and dismayed at the editorial process that led to the publication of Peter C. Herman’s “L’Affaire Krug and Contemporary Wokeism.”
What standing does Herman have to write on this topic? He appears to be a scholar of the Renaissance. I am confident that if Inside Higher Ed sought to weigh in on the controversy surrounding Jessica Krug’s decision to pass as Black, you could have found any number of scholars who specialize in ethnic studies or fields more closely related to contemporary race identification questions.
It is reflective of Herman’s lack of facility in the questions he engages that he cites Shakespeare but fails to account for some of the ideas raised in The Merchant of Venice. Shylock, yes, asks questions that point to the social construct of race. But the point that Herman leaves out here is one that historians and scholars of race raise as well (and do so without falling back on anti-Jewish stereotypes): What is the purpose of the construction of race? See, for example, scholar Barbara Fields on this question.
The construct of race was not formed to offer people a broader variety of “socially determined performances” but the subjugation of groups of people for the consolidation of economic and political power. The determination of individuals, such as Krug and Rachel Dolezal, to present themselves as belonging to racial and ethnic groups to which they do not belong, reinforces this dynamic. Those determinations do
not, as Herman suggests, contribute to some sort of eliding of problematic segregation. The case of Krug is particularly egregious as her identification allowed her access to resources specifically marked for people from underrepresented racial and ethnic groups.
Herman makes a dangerous equation between gender — a characteristic that is individual — with race — a social construct, yes, but one reinforced by familial heritage, physical appearance, and societal recognition. Racial and ethnic identity is rhizomatic, with vertical and lateral roots; gender identity is often assigned at birth, but that assignment is sometimes incorrect or incomplete, and it is healthy and good that people can later take steps to embody the gender identity that is right for them. Many thinkers — Crissle West, Meredith Talusan, Samantha Allen — publishing on a range of platforms have articulated the reasons that this equation is wrong.
Rather than returning to the outdated idea that recognizing racial differences creates further segregation and oppression such that we should just start ignoring race — a convenient strategy for a white man, who has almost certainly benefitted from the privileges whiteness affords — thinkers such as Ibram X. Kendi suggest that we should instead recognize the ways that racism is upheld through policy. We need to then take steps to dismantle those racist policies, such as housing segregation, school segregation, preference for legacy students and high test scores (even on tests that have been recognized to have racial bias) in higher education admissions, and replace them with antiracist policies.
Herman’s concluding call that we ignore race in addressing issues of class and global climate change misapprehends these problems as separate when they are intrinsically linked. We know, for example, that the wealth gap between white and Black households is approximately tenfold (Brookings); that is, white households have an average net worth of $171,000 while Black households typically have $17,150. Stanford’s Open Policing Project finds significant gaps in police stops of white people versus Black people. The Sentencing Project documents longstanding disparities in criminal justice outcomes for African-American and Hispanic people compared to white people (https://www.sentencingproject.org/publications/un-report-on-racial-disparities/). And did we not learn after Hurricane Katrina that natural disasters, on pace to occur with increasing frequency, will disproportionately affect nonwhite people because of historical instantiated policies on housing and segregation?
I also take issue with several statements in this piece that reflect sloppy, sometimes racist, logic on the part of the writer:
- Herman, in the second sentence of this piece, indicates that one of the ways Krug demonstrated her Boricua identity was by “dressing the part.” Surely he is aware that people of Puerto Rican descent make a range of decisions about what they wear, and that hoop earrings and cheetah (print?) pants are not determinative markers of Boricua identity. White people wear these things too. It is curious that he sees heels — which many people wear in many professional and other settings — as a distinctive marker of Krug’s decision to pass as an ethnicity not her own.
- Herman continues his discussion of Krug’s markers of identify by noting that “She even adopted woke anti-Zionism, claiming (wrongly) that the New York Police Department is trained by the Israeli Defense Force and, like the IDF, the police are a colonial, occupying force.” I do not understand how this position reflected Krug’s false ethnic identity. It is racist and anti-Jewish to suggest that one must be nonwhite in order to be anti-Zionist. I, a Jew, am deeply troubled by the state of Israel’s occupation of Palestine and the cruel, dehumanizing military and political tactics used to implement that occupation. It is especially curious that Herman drew this conclusion in light of Krug’s background as a white Jew. Does he see Jews as necessarily Zionist?
- I notice that Herman chose to omit Kwame Anthony Appiah’s first name. From the author’s website:
His biography on the NYU website:
I ask that you revisit the process by which this piece was approved for publication, and consider what steps might be appropriate to correct some of the issues in this piece, as well as to take steps to publish work that better reflects the conclusions that scholars in identity studies have reached.
With best regards,