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Imposter syndrome: why do white American academics pretend to be black?

Jessa Bombalera (above) spent her adult life in a tangled web of deceit and what felt, for some, like betrayal. She is also known as Jessica Krug, the white American professor of African American history who pretended to be black. She recently revealed her deception, causing a media frenzy. Public opinion suggests the Kansas-born Krug crossed a line with her fraud when she confirmed that her career was rooted in a “toxic soil of lies”.

The story is reminiscent of Rachel Dolezal, another white American woman, who identified as black and was outed by her white parents in 2015. What drives people to behave in this way is a puzzle that has even baffled psychologists.

Vanessa, a psychologist, first became curious about masquerading and false identity when, as a teenager, she got to know a young woman working for a family friend who wove a web of fantasy about coming from a famous and affluent family. The young woman’s tall tales of pop stars hanging out at the family mansion, and partying with models from Vogue, bewitched the 14-year old Vanessa, as did the sad stories about family members dying from cancer. This last aspect seemed to be sympathy driven. Eventually, and perhaps inevitably, her myth exploded, and some deemed that the young woman was suffering from mental health problems.

In Jessica Krug’s online confession, she cites a traumatic childhood and mental health issues, explaining but not excusing her actions. It’s effortless for non-professionals to dive in and give explanations for this kind of behaviour, while psychologists and psychiatrists are loath to diagnose those who hit the headlines, for obvious reasons. You cannot diagnose someone you have never met or assessed, and if you have, you are legally bound by client confidentiality.

Mary Trump, however, managed to pull off that feat, providing a real insight into the psychological manufacturing of her uncle, Donald Trump, in her recent book Too Much and Never Enough. She holds a PhD in psychology and saw first-hand the Trump family manoeuvres in its Darwinian race to the top. Others have also written about the President’s narcissism, including American psychologist and assistant professor at Johns Hopkins University, John Gartner, who also wrote a brilliant analysis of another former president, In Search of Bill Clinton: A Psychological Biography.

When all else fails, blame your mental health, the current go-to position. Of course, at times it explains actions and behaviour; at other times things may be more mysterious. Sometimes, there may not be a clear explanation for how mental health problems may have influenced behaviour, and in the case of false identity, it is often ambiguous. Jessica Krug claimed that “mental health issues can never, will never, neither explain nor justify, neither condone nor excuse” her behaviour.

Perhaps it cuts both ways. It is likely exhausting to maintain a concealed identity, significantly if you value authenticity and transparency. Those that hide their real identity feel the need to cover up who they are, and this could be a distressing experience for anyone. It might be socially isolating, which could trigger feelings of loneliness and perhaps feelings of anxiety and depression.

The concept of people purporting to be other than who they are, or who they believe they are, is an interesting one. The idea of the imposter syndrome is prevalent in psychology at the moment, and it’s not uncommon in those who have highly successful careers. It’s a psychological term that indicates a pattern of behaviour where people doubt their capabilities and achievements and have a nagging fear of being exposed as a fraud. And then there’s the phenomenon of social media where some people are compelled to parade their seemingly perfect lives online.

At the first reading of Rachel Dolezal’s story, her claim seemed bizarre at best, but as the narrative unfolded and you understand why she so identified with her adopted black brothers and sisters and not to her evangelical parents, it made sense. She renamed herself Nkechi Amare Diallo because she connected with the black experience, and explained, “I wouldn’t say I’m African American, but I would say I’m black, and there’s a difference in those terms.”