Escaping Ordinary Whiteness: Rachel Dolezal, Jessica Krug, and Hilaria Baldwin and the Men Who Help Them
First, there was Rachel Dolezal. Then, we learned about Jess “La Bombalera” Krug. Since then, there have been several examples of White women engaging in cultural appropriation. However, most recently, Hilaria Baldwin née Hillary Hayward-Thomas has been outed as a Massachusetts Bostonian and not the Spaniard she has claimed to be. In all of these cases, the media has been shocked by White women who have tossed aside their own roots in White American life to seize an ethnoracial identity that is not their own. But rather than going it alone, the men in their lives have played an important role in this process.
You cannot get more colonial than Hilaria Baldwin. Her mother’s family goes back four generations in the United States while her paternal line has existed in North America since before there was a United States. The daughter of a doctor and a lawyer, her family’s White generational wealth allowed them to reside in Beacon Hill, home to Boston’s economically segregated elite. It also afforded her and her family the opportunity to summer in Spain, where her parents retired in 2011. They now live in Mallorca, one of the Balearic Islands, where both Mallorquín, the native Catalan dialect, and Spanish are widely spoken.
Rather than identifying with her actual lineage, Hilaria Baldwin concocted a patchwork Spanish identity forged from the privileges of racial capitalism. Spaniards were the first Europeans in North America, including in what became the United States. Yet Hilaria’s actual colonial background was so insufficient that she has taken on the identity of the first European colonizers. As those who have visited know, Mallorca is an island known for its large numbers of German and British “expats.” Many reside in immigrant enclaves filled with co-ethnics whom they often prefer for mingling with over local Mallorcans. For this reason, there is a rich irony in her wealthy White American family living in Mallorca, one of the most colonized places in Spain. Hilaria Baldwin’s family is so White and wealthy that they have colonized the colonizers.
In my academic research, I have found that indeed Hilaria’s impersonation of an ethnic other is a very White female phenomenon. In Amy Wilkins’ ethnography of high school students, she encountered “Puerto Rican Wannabes” who adopted what they understood to be Black and Puerto Rican culture through clothing, mannerisms, and relationships with men from those communities. France Winddance Twine found something similar among White women in Britain, who became “honorary Blacks” through styling their biracial children’s hair, learning and cooking West Indian cooking, and showing respect for elders, something less common in the West. Similarly, in my comparative study of interracial couples in Brazil and the United States, I encountered several Brazilian negras frustradas as well as a Los Angeles woman nicknamed “White Nigger.” In Brazil, they were frustrated because, despite their affinity for Blackness, they remained White. In Los Angeles, Black male friends jokingly gave a White woman the nickname because, as her husband said, “She’s the Blackest White girl you will ever know. I swear [to] God. She’s got soul and she can handle her own, you know what I’m saying?”
In all of these instances, men are central to these White women’s particular form of “faking the funk.” When we look at Rachel Dolezal, she referred to an unrelated Black man as “my dad” despite her White parentage. Images of her with her Black ex-husband, Kevin Moore, and her former fiancé circulated, providing credence to her proximity to Blackness, despite US logics of race. Similarly, a Black male issued an apology in which he articulated how fellow Blacks had warned him about Jessica Krug, but he repeatedly stood up for her until her secret Whiteness was revealed. Similarly, Alec Baldwin has remarked on his wife’s Spanish ethnicity and accent in the past. While it remains to be seen if a former Spanish partner facilitated Hillary’s transition to Hilaria, she has credited her father with her biculturalism.
In all of these examples, whether drawn from empirical research on interracial relationships or White women who have made headlines, men have functioned as a shield to deflect critiques of their ethnoracial identity. The men in their lives give them legitimacy to pursue the White privilege of an ethnoracial identity their parents did not have. By enabling their lies, their male partners provide mediocre White women with the leverage to catapult into ethnoracial categories that are not their own.
There are many consequences of men providing White passage to new identities. For men of color, particularly Black men, this has been more consequential because it erodes trust across genders in the Black community. In addition, Dolezal was in Africana Studies, a discipline created to carve a space for Black scholars in academia. Krug was a fellow at the prestigious Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, an institution created to house collections of and by Blacks around the world. Hilaria Baldwin was featured several times in Latina, a magazine that was a response to the absence of Latinxs in mainstream media. It is unclear whether she identified as Hispanic for her college application to the highly competitive NYU. The men in their lives provide them with opportunities that their own ancestors either did not fight for, suffer under, or both. While there are many psychological and structural dynamics at play, we should not underestimate the powerful role of a man standing by a White woman.
Dr. Chinyere Osuji is the author of Boundaries of Love: Interracial Marriage and the Meaning of Race and is writing a book about African immigrant nurses.