Rachel Dolezal and Her “Lie” of Blackness

Dear Dwonna:

What do you think about what that white woman in eastern Washington who was pretending to be black?

Signed,

Gabriel

——————————————-

Dear Gabriel:

For those who are unfamiliar with the story, here’s a brief synopsis:

Rachel Dolezal, a 37-year-old president of the Spokane chapter of the NAACP, a Howard University graduate, and a part-time professor of African American Studies at Eastern Washington University, has claimed for years that she is an African American. Last week, a white couple from Montana came forward to say that Dolezal is their daughter and that she is actually white. “There seems to be some questions of how Rachel is representing her identity and ethnicity,” her father Lawrence Dolezal said. “We are definitely her birth parents. We are both Caucasian and European descent—Czech, German and a few other things.”

According to Mr. Dolezal, while she was a student at Belhaven University in Jackson, Mississippi, Rachel became involved in Voice of Calvary, a “racial reconciliation community development project where blacks and whites lived together.” “You speak and sound and act and take on the mannerisms of the culture you live in,” Mr. Dolezal said. When she applied to Howard University to study art with “a portfolio of exclusively African American portraiture,” the university “took her for a black woman” and “gave her a full scholarship.”

“And ever since then,” Mr. Dolezal said, “she’s been involved in social justice advocacy for African Americans. She’s assimilated into that culture so strongly that that’s where she transferred her identity.” “But unfortunately,” he continued, “she is not ethnically by birth African American. She is our daughter by birth. And that’s the way it is.”

Here’s a link to the story if you want more information:

http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2015/06/12/spokane-naacp-president-rachel-dolezal-may-be-white/

So, what do I think about Rachel Dolezal pretending to be black? I confess that I have mixed feelings about this. If race is socially constructed, as most anthropologists argue, then what’s wrong with her constructing a “black” identity into her 20s and 30s? What does it even mean to be black? Must we stay assigned to a racial group—until the day we die—because of whom our parents (say they) are, or is it ok to self-identify with a group you more closely align with when you become an adult?

Some of my Facebook friends have suggested, as Rachel Dolezal’s adopted brother has, that her pretending to be black is racist and akin to blackface. “Back in the early 1900s, what she did would be considered highly racist,” Ezra Dolezal said. “You really should not do that. It’s completely opposite—she’s basically creating more racism.” To these folks who believe this, STOP. NOW. Those who performed in blackface were doing it to belittle, to degrade, and to objectify the black community about which they were making fun. Rachel Dolezal was not doing that; from what I have read, she was pretending to be black so that she could be a better ally to the African American community. The black community needs more allies, even those who are not *really* black.

Many people also seem fixated on what they see as Rachel Dolezal’s lie about her blackness. One FB friend wrote, “She’s a liar; what’s to be on the fence about?” while another wrote, “Having a personal style is one thing; lying about it is another.” Yes, I guess technically she lied about being an African American woman (though she did put on her application that she was white, black, and Native American), if being African American is only about how much melanin one has in her skin. The United States has had a tumultuous—but most often an arbitrary, ridiculous, and absurd—relationship with race and what it means to be black, and at one point, all one had to be was 1/32nd black to be considered black.

Is anyone certain that Rachel Dolezal isn’t at least 1/32nd black? And, does it really matter that she gave up her “whiteness” to “pass” as an African American woman if she did this in order to help the black community? As my friend Andrew wrote, “Aren’t we and don’t we become what we identify with and relate to? I don’t think she is hurting anyone. She has probably developed the ‘background’ to make her more effective in her role. She most likely gets less resistance when relating to black society by molding herself to become part of what she fights for. The bottom line should be does she do a good job?” Yes, Andrew, that is what should matter most, not the race and ethnicity of her birth parents.

I do agree with my friend Randy who believes that the one mistake Rachel Dolezal made was in not better explaining her decision to pass for black. Do we know if she has struggled with her racial identity, much like Caitlyn Jenner said she struggled with her gender identity? Why is it such a stretch to believe, that, just like Caitlyn Jenner said she always felt like she was a woman trapped in a man’s body, that maybe Rachel Dolezal has felt like a black woman trapped in a white woman’s body? Who has she really harmed by passing as an African American woman? I’ve been black for more than four decades, and although I can’t speak for every black person in America, I can assure you that Rachel Dolezal has not harmed me or any other black person by reverse passing. Moreover, I’m still waiting for my white friends who have claimed that she has harmed the black community to explain to me the damage she has caused.

Some people have said that Rachel Dolezal gained an unfair advantage by pretending to be black, and I have to admit that this is one of the first times I’ve heard that being black is, in general, an advantage to being white. Did Rachel Dolezal get her job as president of the Spokane NAACP only because she said she was black? I doubt it, since the NAACP has always been a multi-racial organization that was founded in 1909 but a coalition of prominent black and white civil rights leaders, including W.E.B. DuBois, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, and Mary White Ovington. Did Rachel Dolezal get her part-time teaching position in African American Studies at Eastern Washington University because she said she was black? I doubt that, too, since African American Studies has been open to white and non-whites for years. (In fact, my school—Austin Peay State University—recently hired a white woman to teach African American history and a Japanese man to teach African American Studies.)

If we simply look past her skin color, Rachel Dolezal is probably “more black” than I am. I was born and raised in Moline, Illinois, and it is the home of the John Deere Tractor, which should tell you how white the community is. At Butterworth Elementary, I was often one of two black students in my class, and at Wilson Middle School and Moline Senior High School, it was not uncommon for me to be the only African American student in my class. When I went to the University of Iowa, there were more professors who had volunteered to mentor the incoming black students—300—than there were actual black undergraduates enrolled. I now live in a mostly-white neighborhood in Nashville, Tennessee; I go to a predominately white Catholic Church; I hate watermelon, Kool-Aid, and fried chicken; I’ve been told I sound like a white woman; I can’t sing or dance; and almost all of my friends are white (well, gay white men to be exact). I love sushi, Air Supply, Barry Manilow, Neil Diamond, Judge Judy, “Matlock,” “Murder, She Wrote,” and “The Golden Girls.” Even my white friends like Greg Thompson think I should have my black card permanently revoked. (Maybe Rachel Dolezal has the black card that so many of my friends have revoked from me?!?!)

Though my skin color is part of who I am, it is not the sum total of who I am. The same is true for Rachel Dolezal. Who is and who isn’t black and how we define blackness is more complicated in 2015, and though some have accused her of appropriating black culture, she’s certainly not exploiting black culture in the same way lots of other white folks have. By passing as an African American, Rachel Dolezal has gained entry into a life many white folks would never, ever choose for themselves. She seems to have used the privilege of being able to pass for black—certainly no one who looks like me could ever pass for white—to try to do some good.

My point is that blackness just isn’t about how much melanin one has in her skin, and we need to get beyond the “well, she lied” part about Rachel Dolezal. I think that it’s admirable that she was willing to shed her “white privilege” in order to fully immerse herself in the black community in order to be an advocate for change. Having “lived” as a black woman for years, I can only imagine that Ms. Dolezal has experienced what many of us have. While she may not have been “born” a black woman, my guess is that by saying and creating a persona as one, she has come to “experience” life as a black woman and she knows what it’s like to be profiled, to be judged, to be stereotyped, and to not be given the benefit of the doubt.

I think that what most confuses some white people who read this story is why any white person would choose pass for black. Some have suggested that Rachel Dolezal did this for power, but I’m still not sure what “power” she gained. There is no indication that she shed her “black” skin and went back to being white when it was convenient; she seemed to “live” the life as a black woman for more than a decade until her parents outted her. I’m sure this concept of reverse passing seems so foreign to a lot of white people because they can’t imagine giving up all the benefits of being white (and please, white people, don’t act like you’re not aware of the benefits and the privileges of your whiteness). The fact remains that whiteness and white privilege have been violently protected in this country, but too many white folks have spent too much time calling her a liar and questioning her “true” motives while racism lives on in this country.

Rachel Dolezal has said that she “considers myself to be black” and that she “feels black,” and that should be the beginning of a discussion about what it means to be black and what it means for a white woman to spend years of her life passing as a black woman. I think most black folks don’t care that much that this white woman has been passing for black since she’s has used her newly racial identity to help the black communities in which she has lived.

While the nation continues to be distracted by this non-story of a white woman passing for a black woman, black men and women still face a very real and present danger every time they encounter a police officer of any hue. Too many black folks live in neighborhoods where black-on-black crime is rampant and criminals are unapologetic. African American children are often forced to attend low-performing schools with teachers who are mostly there to earn a paycheck, and too many black children are born into unstable homes without a married mother and father.

Can we please focus our attention on the racism and prejudice that ails black America and this country in general and not on this white woman who sometimes wore dreadlocks and put on too much self tanner so that she could misrepresent—i.e., lie about—her race? As Paul Mooney said, “America is racial. America was founded on race. Race is America. The code name for America is ‘race.’” Let’s stop castigating this white-black woman in eastern Washington, and let’s start spending our time figuring out how to help black children—well, all children—create lives that are meaningful and in service to others.

Jan NAACP

P.S. I failed the “Are you Blacker Than a Rachel Dolezal” quiz. 😦

Here’s a link so that you can see how black you are:

http://theurbandaily.com/2015/06/12/askrachel-rachel-dolezal-quiz/

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