Jessica Krug, a history professor at George Washington University, admitted recently to falsely claiming to be black. In her confession, she accepted responsibility for her deception while making note of her mental health issues. This incident has been something of a gift to the right—I learned of her life of deceit from a Facebook post contending that this was proof that there is no such thing as white privilege. While the post simply asserted this claim without any argument, I will present what I take to be their likely reasoning using, as always, the principle of charity.
If there is an advantage to a white person masquerading as black, then white privilege must not be real. After all, if a rational person were seeking an advantage by masquerading as another ethnicity, they would take on the role that would be most advantageous. Since the white Krug masqueraded as black and though she is a liar she is clearly intelligent, then it follows that being white is not more advantageous than being black. Therefore, white privilege is not real (or so one might conclude).
While Krug does refer to mental health issues, she does not claim she took on the black identity because of mental illness. So, it would seem to be a mistake to try to counter the above argument by contending that Krug was crazy and thus gave up her real white privilege. In fact, I think that while her choice was morally wrong, it was a clever choice—a case can be made that her masquerade was advantageous while also arguing that this is consistent with white privilege.
The statistical evidence for white privilege is overwhelming. The idea of white privilege is not that white people have it easy or get everything for nothing. The idea is that a white person will generally enjoy statistically significant advantages over a black person because they are white. Or, rather, that other people give wBut this does not entail that there are no circumstances in which appear black can yield an advantage.
To use an analogy, while it is generally advantageous to be seen as tall (people perceive taller people more positively than short people, etc.), there are circumstances in which being short is an advantage and a short person can take advantage of these circumstances. These cases do not prove that height does not provide a privilege, they just prove that the advantage of height is not universal.
As another analogy, matching the current conception of physical beauty yields many advantages (people perceive the beautiful as being better in many non-beauty related ways). But there can be extremely specific and limited circumstances in which not matching that model can be advantageous. For example, a company might be looking for models who do not match the current conception of beauty. As another example, there are some professional contexts in which matching that conception of beauty could be a disadvantage. But these limited cases do not prove that there is no general beauty advantage.
While the academy still favors white people, there can be specific jobs, awards, fellowships, scholarships, and other opportunities in which being (or appearing) black can be an advantage (or a necessity). For example, when I was at Ohio State a fellow grad student applied for an African-American scholarship. He had dual American and African citizenship and thus seemed to qualify—but he did not because he was a white African-American and not black. There are also certain academic fields where having a specific identity provides more perceived credibility. A humorous example of this is the Black Jeopardy skit on Saturday Night Live featuring Lewis C.K. as a professor of African American Studies at Brigham Young University. It is funny, obviously, because Lewis C.K. is white. In such specific cases, appearing black can provide a meaningful advantage that can outweigh the general advantages of being white. While Krug would probably have been successful in her chosen specialization if she had been honest about being white, this was a very narrow and rare case in which appearing black is likely to have been more advantageous. As such, her case does not disprove white privilege; at best it shows that there are very limited and rare circumstances in which appearing black can provide a narrow advantage.
At this point some on the right might be pleased that I have agreed with their claims that there can be cases in academics in which a black person can gain an advantage because they are black. But they should not be that pleased: all I have agreed to is that there are some very limited cases in which being (or appearing) black can yield a limited and specific contextual advantage. This does not show that whites are at a general disadvantage in the academy. And it certainly does not disprove white privilege.