In the fallout

Illustration of seven people walking alone and towards a red sky, on a flat expanse full of fissures.
Cameron Opartkiettikul/Staff

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My cursor blinks at me from a blank email draft. I don’t know what to say. My chest feels as though the words are stuck inside, pushing to get out but failing to find their way to my mind or my fingertips. I close the email window.

 

— — —

Jessica Krug made news recently when it was discovered that she had been pretending to be Black her entire professional career. Labeled “Rachel Dolezal 2.0,” Krug had also used her falsified background to add legitimacy to a career centered on Black experience, hers as a professor in Black studies. The emergence of another high-profile scandal of this nature indicates that these are not isolated incidents but a new kind of fraud on the rise. Having followed both of these incidents, I was curious as to why they happened. What would drive someone to go so far as to lie about who they are for the sake of a career? I didn’t realize, though, that this was a question that would soon hit much closer to home.

— — —

I met V at debate camp during my senior year of high school. I’ll call them V, not to protect their identity (anyone who reads this and knows V will recognize who I am talking about), but because I’m not writing this as a hit piece. V’s secret is already out and they’ve already been very publicly discredited.

I’m writing this for me and for others who are caught in the fallout of these scandals. Where are we left? How do we pick up the pieces when our trust in someone goes up in flames, when we realize we don’t even recognize the person left behind in the ashes?

I met V only briefly that summer, but they seemed nice enough and genuinely invested in their role as an educator. After camp, I followed them on Twitter along with the instructors I had worked with more closely. I always knew V to be Italian, as I remembered someone telling me that they weren’t a person of color, so I operated under the assumption that they were white almost the entirety of the time I knew them.

I started following V’s account more closely as they became more involved in research on right-wing extremism and counter-violent extremism. I found their work insightful and it inspired me to begin researching the far-right as well.

It was only recently that I began to notice V making references to mixed or racially ambiguous people being the targets of harassment with increasing frequency. At first, I didn’t realize they were including themself in that category. In the few weeks before a Medium article was published stringing together a timeline of their shifting claims to a different ethnicity, it became increasingly apparent that they were laying claim to some form of Black identity. I was confused, as I distinctly remembered V as white, but figured maybe I had been mistaken, or maybe V had just never been open about their background before. Until the accusations against them, I brushed aside these concerns. I never doubted their work or that they were acting in good faith.

Mostly, I appreciated the spirit in which V seemed to approach their work. They focused on constructive community projects, mutual aid and street medic work and on trying to understand the motivations of people involved in “alt-right” groups in order to find strategies to prevent people from being drawn to extremist ideologies.

These aligned with my own ideals of prison abolition and restorative justice work because of the core belief that we can create a world without prisons, that humans are at our core redeemable and that we will eventually be able to cut fascism off at its roots rather than being cornered into fighting those who would cause us harm. If those of us who are sheltered by our own ties to whiteness could stop people from ever becoming white supremacists, if we could eliminate the draw of right-wing extremist groups, we could stop having to fight people in the street and depending on jails to keep us safe. If we could reach out and connect to people, to remind them of love and care and their own humanity, maybe we could stop them from turning to hate.

It’s hard (and sometimes dangerous) to help and care for someone rather than just cutting them off, and it requires a lot of faith. It requires faith in humanity and belief that whiteness does not have to overshadow a person’s humanity, that people can be reached and redeemed rather than always being a lost cause once they reach some arbitrary point of no return and that they can become a part of the project of dismantling white supremacy themselves.

It’s hard (and sometimes dangerous) to help and care for someone rather than just cutting them off, and it requires a lot of faith.

V’s betrayal cut deep because it flies in the face of all of these beliefs. V distanced themself from whiteness through obfuscation and outright lies most likely driven by a sense of white guilt. Not wanting to be marked with the taint of whiteness and the history of injustice that it carries, they fled to spaces that are places of refuge from whiteness itself.

I don’t think V was operating out of malice or an intent to hurt people. I think they, like many of us who benefit from our proximity to whiteness, just didn’t think about how much harm not owning up to that proximity (and rejecting it outright) would cause.

Although I claim Asian American identity because I am haafu (half Japanese), I look white to many people and grew up in a half-white family, so I am less of a target of racism because of that. I am closer to whiteness than many of my Asian American peers, and I can choose to acknowledge that and still work toward destroying white supremacy and whiteness as a signifier itself.

V knew that hiding from their white identity would contradict the very ideals V espoused, the same ideals that helped me stop shying away from my own white-coded privilege. By pretending to be something other than what they are, V rejected the very premise of their own work: that people need to act in solidarity in order to dismantle the systems of oppression that prey on all of us, and that love and care should be the fundamental motivators of our work. If V didn’t believe they could accept their whiteness while working as a community leader and organizer, why should any of us believe that their ideas of solidarity and understanding each other would work?

Why wasn’t love enough for V?

— — —

We don’t have time for this. Part of my reaction, the part that I felt not on behalf of myself but on behalf of the vision I thought we shared, is anger. How could V be so selfish? This firestorm around them has done more than burn bridges between friends and allies; it’s cast doubt on their work as well. Genuine criticism is being lost in a flurry of personal vendettas finding a foothold at last.

Instead of just sticking to their admirable work of distributing medical supplies to street medics, working with a mutual aid group and researching the far-right, V chose to insert themself into spaces that were not theirs to occupy and to leverage an identity that was not theirs against detractors. This casts doubt on all of V’s work, on all that they built, and it is all tumbling down.

— — —

As I’m writing this, I’m finishing a weekend coaching some high schoolers at a debate tournament. I’m in the same position of mentorship that V was in when I met them; I’ve come full circle in a sense. I’m not the perfect coach. I don’t even debate anymore. The teams I work with, though, inspire me to try my best. They, for whatever reason, look up to me, and I never want to let them down. To me, that means being as open and honest as I can with them and trying to help them not make the same mistakes as I have.

I don’t know what drove V to do what they did. The public apology they have offered still seems in part like a retroactive attempt to justify their actions as confusion over conflicting family narratives. The trust I had in them is shattered. Their betrayal has me doubting my own deep-seated beliefs and watching as the work they did is, deservedly or not, being ripped to shreds online.

I and others who trusted V and followed their work are left to pick up the pieces around us. I’m not sure where I will be left after this, or if I will have the faith I need to continue researching the far-right. I’m not sure how any of us who are dealing with these incidents will sift through the rubble of these relationships. We’re just left in the fallout, looking for answers.

Contact Saya Abney at [email protected].