White women have not so much shoved themselves into the spotlight as strived to take over the role of the light technician and the bulb itself.
On September 3, 2020, author and professor Jessica A. Krug—who had frequently gone by the name Jessica La Bombalera—published a post on the website Medium admitting that she had spent the majority of her career pretending to be Afro-Latina, despite being born white and Jewish. Attributing her years-long deceit to a mix of entitlement, childhood abuse, and unspecified mental illness, she called on the internet to cancel her, never specifying what she would do with the money and ascension she had gathered from book deals, academic prestige, and speaking engagements.
When I first learned about Jessica Krug, it was from a tweet describing her story as “weird.” But I didn’t find it weird. Living in a social and political ecosystem in which white women are constantly chasing the prestige (ugh) of oppression, this seemed par for the course. Not only a brain-child of Rachel Dolezal, Krug’s violent and heinous attempts to center and ensconce herself in the discussion about racial and gender disenfranchisement felt like a natural growth out of a larger trend. Most of the examples of this trend are less egregious than Krug’s decades-long masquerade, but they are nonetheless foundational to understanding the boldness and the entitlement that could allow “Jess La Bombalera” to (poorly) salsa dance her way towards a dominant discursive position.
In a world where Claire Lehmann of right-wing rag Quillette can tweet about so-called “blancofemophobia”—defined as “prejudice against white women, as exemplified by dismissing the beliefs, attitudes, or behaviors of white women with phrases such as ‘White women white womening’”—there’s a clear movement by our translucent pretend allies of all political stripes to pervert and assume as their own our struggles, for profit, clout, or whatever self-congratulatory bullshit that satiates their appetite for attention.
There are so many non-Black people who inhabit spaces that aren’t for them: people who get to claim firsthand knowledge of systems that don’t affect them, people who get to choose whether they’ll be adjacent to the oppression, people who are lauded for this adjacency, even as they use that position to cross lines, lanes, and, in the case of Jessica Krug, full-on highways.
And what makes this all so insidious is that it rarely rears its head so nakedly as in the cases of people like Lehmann, Krug, or Dolezal. Often it seems goofy, poorly calibrated, but it’s platformed and funded nonetheless.
I wasn’t surprised by Jessica Krug. Because white girls have often convinced themselves and others that they have the monopoly on being held down, using phrases such as “women and minorities” to ensure their continued membership in what they seem to see as the club of oppression. This ongoing recentering on the narrative ensures them a dominant voice, and the ability to drown out Black women, trans women, indigenous women, and more. It’s a violent charade that, even when not outrightly harmful, takes the stage with a sort of hubristic absurdity.
Which brings us to the 2019 Netflix masterpiece, Tall Girl.
Tall Girl tells the story of a girl who suffers from, well, tallness. At 6’1, she walks down the halls of her high school, constantly plagued by things like “How’s the weather up there?” and biting insults such as “Taller Swift” (I would’ve gone with “Cream Abdul-Jabbar” myself, but that would’ve required this film hiring a better writer). She develops a mutual attraction with an Aryan Swedish boy who is also tall, but she ultimately finds true love in her short friend, who has carried his textbooks around in a milk crate in hopes he might one day stand upon that crate so he can kiss her. You know, because she’s tall. Did I mention that?
On its face, Tall Girl is harmless—absurd, shallow, but harmless nonetheless. The film is a comedy, but it’s an instructive one. It creates heightened situations, but it takes every single one of its themes and conflicts seriously. It’s a Saturday morning special, a confused farce, and a tedious and pretentious meditation on how hard it is to be a skyscraper adonia.
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Beyond that, the film holds and presents even more uncomfortable ideas. Not only is Jodi’s (the tall girl) main male tormentor a Black boy, but her best friend—who forgoes any characteristics beyond wanting to go into fashion instead of medicine and constantly comforting the main character—is a Black girl, Fareeda. “Every time someone asks that dumb question,” Black Best Friend says in response to someone asking how the weather is up there for the umpeenth time, “it chips away a little part of her soul, which chips away a little part of my soul.”
It’s hilarious (read: wildly infuriating) that Tall Girl’s Black best friend barely exists as a character on her own. Instead, she mainly functions to field the “anti-tall bigotry” that her white friend faces—a receptacle of Tall Girl’s trauma, as previously mentioned. Tall Girl doesn’t even do the minimal work to create parallel narratives or intertwined struggles between Jodi and Fareeda. The latter’s main agony, frustration, and wish is that one day her friend will love “all 73 inches” herself.
As if that would really be a challenge.
While Jodi comes from a family of beauty queens disgusted by her height, lead actress Ava Michelle Cota has worked as a model who walked the runway at New York Fashion Week when she was only 15 (after a lauded stint on Dance Moms). This is not to charge Cota with the failures and cruel mistakes of the film’s messaging, but only to acknowledge the ridiculous irony that comes with pretending that the features of a white model deemed attractive by the eurocentric beauty standards that rule the entire world would be treated like the centerpiece of a PT Barnum freak show, and the majority of the world would simply go, “Well, obviously! That certainly tracks.”
Taken together, these issues, inconsistencies, and goofy-to-the-point-of-offensive errors reveal the rotting floor that undergirds painting a conventionally attractive blonde-haired cisgender white girl as a victim. Her height is discussed by her family as a health risk, as if to escape the reality of the aforementioned Western standards. She is also framed as undesirable in contrast to her older sister, who is shorter and, thus, more feminine, invoking the abusive language that those same standards leverage against Black women, language that violently degenders us. Cruelly and manipulatively, however, that language is here transposed onto a figure, a person, a character, who is unlikely to face the violence of anti-Blackness and misogynoir in any venue, realistic or fictional.
Sure, it’s tough to be a Black girl. But I guess that pales (pun intended) in comparison to being the white Tall Girl.
Tall Girl was released a year ago and, while it’s been rightfully mocked since the day the official trailer first dropped, it represents only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the ways in which white women have wantonly and shamelessly co-opted the cultural cognizance of oppressive structures. In the year since Tall Girl bumped its head on the doorframe of oppression discourse, shorter and uglier versions of the solipsism that the film invites have scurried into the conversation.
Consider the term “Karen,” which entered the world as a jab against white women who felt it was their God-given right to demean poor, largely non-white service workers. Not only is “Karen” apparently racist, but some white women have deemed it a full-on slur. White women who have comfortable jobs and overstuffed portfolios from working in journalism or finance or politics are exempt from criticism because misogyny means a BIPOC individual calling a white woman out on her bullshit.
So what is appropriate then? Well, Hillary Clinton is strong because she told BLM-adjacent protestors to run for office rather than criticizing her endorsement of her rapist husband’s crime bill. Elizabeth Warren lying about being a Native American woman and using that to get jobs and accolades is also fine, despite the fact that she has no actual tribal affiliation to the Cherokee Nation and recent DNA tests revealed you could hold her Cherokee blood in the space between the cuticle and the nail of your little toe.
In each of these cases, we see a manipulative and self-serving desire to remake the gravity of the conversation around who is genuinely a victim of culture, society, and history. Whether it’s claiming an identity to which one has no right to, or reworking the language that’s oppressed Black men and women and nonbinary individuals to apply to oneself, white women have not so much shoved themselves into the spotlight as strived to take over the role of the light technician and the bulb itself.
This all brings us back to Jessica Krug, who, in calling for her own cancellation in that godawful Medium post, sought to mediate the true impact of what she’d done, litanies of self-hatred be damned. Excavating that deceit would take a far greater word count, and her pillorying should come at the hands of those she directly lied to and harmed, those she stole appointments and book deals from. Still, in a way, her gaslighting can be seen as the ugliest endpoint of the more ridiculous and absurd examples that I’ve cited here. After all, if a white woman is so confident that it’s her right to center herself in the universe of modern oppression, it’s only natural to feel that one also has the right to claim not only the space but the skin and the soul of those most oppressed. To cannibalize them and assume their position as a sort of self-serving moral nutrition. Perfect, then, that she tried to justify her actions by saying they were a response to trauma.
Obviously, it’s unlikely that any one person is going to watch Tall Girl or read a tweet from Sady Doyle and suddenly decide to go full Soul Man, but the feeling of entitlement to a major place in the current discussion of oppression can only ultimately end in the theft—both figurative and literal—of the oppressed’s identity.
While all women are made to weather the violent storm of misogyny, white women hold a unique spot in that they can also leverage their unquestioned womanhood to oppress nonwhite, specifically Black, women, and their willingness to coronate themselves as the arbiters of the conversation—the focal point of any and all discussion—only serves to further silence so many others, others who have already been silenced for far too long.
All of us seek solidarity and liberation. All of us hope to stand and fight. But decentering Black women is not a pathway towards any meaningful rejection of the violence faced. White women need to stop stealing our faces, stop stealing our voices, and realize that, with heads already held high, they can’t claim to be the tallest.
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