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White Teachers Claiming To Be Black: ‘Cultural Appropriators’ or Seriously Ill?

Twice this month Americans have learned about white college teachers falsely portraying themselves as people of color.

In early September, Jessica Krug, an Associate Professor at George Washington University specializing in African and Latin American history, admitted pretending to be Black for most of her adult life. After her admission, she resigned from her position

This week CV Vitolo-Hadad, a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and co-president of the university’s Teaching Assistants’ Association (TAA), admitted to falsely claiming to be a person of color. The TAA condemned Vitolo-Hadad’s “appropriation of Black or Brown identity in no uncertain terms.”

Minstrel Show or Serious Mental Health Issues?

Professor Krug wrote in her admission

“Mental health issues likely explain why I assumed a false identity initially, as a youth, and why I continued and developed it for so long; the mental health professionals from whom I have been so belatedly seeking help assure me that this is a common response to some of the severe trauma that marked my early childhood and teen years.”

Krug’s book Fugitive Modernities is about the history of a region in Angola. It was published by Duke University Press. The book had been a 2019 finalist for the Harriet Tubman Prize and the Frederick Douglass Book Prize. 

Krug gave a lecture at Harlem’s Studio Museum discussing police misconduct. In this video, she claimed that she constantly witnessed acts of police brutality while growing up in the Bronx, New York. She described one such act directed against her brother and alluded to the police shooting of Amadou Diallo in 1999, which she claimed happened, “around the corner from my home.” Krug is, in fact, white and grew up in a suburb of Kansas City.

Vitolo-Hadad wrote in her admission:

“I have let guesses about my ancestry become answers I wanted…I have left people to make assumptions when I should have corrected them.”

Editorial columns have denounced the behavior of these two college teachers as “disgusting,” “perpetuating of lies,” and a “minstrel show.”

Claiming you are someone you are not is lying. Falsely taking advantage of affirmative action programs is fraud. Some people who engage in such behavior are con artists. Some, however, are seriously mentally ill.

Mental Health Disorders As Grounds For False Identity Assumption

It is worth giving some thought to Krug’s assertion that, “mental health issues likely explain why I assumed a false identity.”

Physicians like me are familiar with the patient in the emergency room who feigns acute pancreatitis in an attempt to get a prescription for narcotics. Such people are deceptive drug-seekers. 

Physicians are also familiar with people who claim that their injuries are the result of combat service in the US Armed Forces when, in fact, they spent the war stateside and never saw combat. Some of these people are trying to create an invented life story for themselves to deal with serious mental health issues.

When I was a medical student, we were taught about “gridiron abdomen.” The abdomen of these patients was crisscrossed with surgical scars, like the lines on a football field. These patients repetitively feigned illnesses, which resulted in surgery. They went through terrible pain from these operations for no apparent reason and for no benefit to themselves.

We called this mental health disorder von Munchausen syndrome after the fictitious teller of tall tales Baron von Munchausen. Now we call the disease factitious disorder since nobody seems to know the von Munchausen stories anymore.

Factitious disorder is a serious mental illness, which usually manifests itself by the patient deceiving others by appearing sick, by purposely getting sick, or by self-injury. It can also take the form of inventing a false life story to replace a real-life story that the patient cannot or will not deal with. 

Some people pretend that they are Black because they have a psychological need to be a person other than they really are. Some people pretend to be police officers or combat veterans because they have a psychological need to think of themselves as a person other than they really are.

Of course, none of us know if Krug or Vitolo-Hadad have a form of factitious disorder. That is an issue for competent mental health professionals, not pundits and op-ed writers. However, it might be reasonable for the higher education community to temper their criticism of these individuals considering the possibility that what we are witnessing is a form of mental illness. 

Some people are charlatans. Other people are seriously ill. Who are we to judge? Why not let the psychiatrists do their job before we come to any conclusion?


DISCLAIMER! The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of The College Post.