By now you’ve probably seen this picture:
That’s Rachel Dolezal, NAACP activist, Africana studies professor, and according to her parents a white woman pretending to be a woman of color. Move over Iggy, all your problems just got solved, #fixitJesus Amen….
Now let’s be crystal clear. 1. RACE IS A COMPLETELY SOCIAL CONSTRUCT NOT A FIXED BIOLOGICAL REALITY, CULTURE AND ETHNICITY ARE FLUID BUT GENOTYPE IS NOT. 2. White people have been part of our blood and family life since we got here–and not just in the creepy rapey slave owner type way. We have adopted white kids, we have had children with white people, we have even made some white cultural figures a part of our world.
When I was growing up I knew a short, red headed Irish American boy named Brian. Blue eyes, so help me. No surprise to me when we became Facebook friends as adults, that the love of his life is a Black woman. I never saw Brian as a “white kid trying to be Black.” Brian was Brian, and he’s still Brian. We never saw him as being ethnically or culturally separate from us African American kids. He was even MY rival for a spell in African American history class!
But truth…Brian has never claimed to be phenotypically “Black.” He’s never tried to pose as anyone else for his benefit or so he could more easily navigate his complicated identity. You’re a white person with a complicated cultural identity? We get that. What’s problematic is when you slide into positions of authority and influence pretending to be an African American when you are not or put your #whitecomplicatedidentityissues on the same scale as my #blackamericanlivedexperience.
Is this a question of fantasy? Delusion? Is the mantle of being a “strong Black woman” critical to her soul view? Right now a lot of African Americans are confused by this story. Does she want “everything but the burden”? Or is the burden what she craves? We are bemused and befuddled but this is for sure, if Rachel wanted in on the tribe, there were much easier ways to achieve that.
But there are larger systemic issues at work. There are relatively few high profile cases of white people trying to pass for Black. One of the more heart wrenching was the case of James McBride, author of The Color of Water, whose olive toned, curly haired Ashkenazi Jewish mother escaped an abusive household, fell in love with a Black man and passed herself off as a light-skinned Black woman.
We don’t question the perceived good Rachel Dolezal has done for her part of the world through her work in the NAACP (which by the way has always had white member) and as an academic. We have a saying in African American vernacular speak–“cut to the white meat” or hitting a deep spot of no return in an argument or conflict. We haven’t hit it yet. She claimed to be on the receiving end of hate crimes…real, imagined, suspicious, phony? If she received threats who were they impacting, her perceived self or her real self?
Part of it is our refusal to cut to the white meat of our deepest held cultural conceits. The script has been flipped in this case more than flapjacks at a pancake breakfast. When enslaved Africans came to this country it was assumed that “seasoning” them and robbing them of their old ways was a blessing. It was not. In fact, the removal of many specific traditions weakened our family life, self-esteem, sense of communal responsibility and cultural ingenuity. Ethnic traditions became a racialized hodge podge. We lost our ethnic verve – supposedly what drives everyone else to achieve and find their way into the American fabric—and we exchanged it for 400 years of battling for racial justice–to be seen as equal or good enough.
At the same time, what seemed like a great idea for Europeans in America, the loss of ethnic diversity as people began to take shape. You can be free free from your Italian, Irish, Jewish, or Slavic self. You can stop swinging from nooses on street poles, you can cease being told you “need not apply,” and those Old World blood libels are out the window. Over the course of a century, let’s say 1850-1950’s a new whiteness was born. Ethnic particularity died in favor of a user friendly whiteness that with some exceptions gave most European Americans reasonable social mobility. It produced a whiteness that defined normality, superiority and a neutral base on which to build identities as creators and consummers. It also produced a bland industrial whiteness with no flavor. Whiteness became at best, a stew spiced with strong dashes of class and sexual identity flavored with borrowings from the non-white others. I gave up what made me special can I have some of yours?
Meanwhile back in Black America, the culture used scrips and scraps left over from Africa to spice a new stew, a vibrant one based on the constant need for uplift and to respond to oppression. We Black folk inherited a cause-based survival, from cradle to grave. The notion of the “struggle,” is so much a Black New World term you can even find it in Haitian Kweyol or Brazilian Portuguese. Not only that, but an almost universal system of segregation helped encourage an interior world among people of color. Our culture became a response to a call…our language, our music, our religious life, all of it seemed to speak of our need to cling for dear life to our ancient roots, the challenge to prove our equality, the struggle against oppression and the creation of a world that white supremacy and hegemony could not dare penetrate.
If you look at it from that perspective, it’s not hard to go a little soft on Rachel. White culture in America is a victim of its own urge to be Israel Zangwill’s “melting pot.” Black culture despite losing an enormous amount during our forced exile and humiliating assimilation process became meaningful and rich and interesting because it had goals and movements and aspirations. White culture’s urge towards appropriation rather than assimilation is not a surprise, it’s a symptom.
I wish Rachel Dolezal well in her search for her authentic self. Maybe she is the tan sister with the mixed-chick hair. Maybe she’s going to have a change of heart in how she expresses herself. Either way, her contributions for the good have been appreciated and if she wants in on our tribe, her application is already filled out.
Great piece and this is a really intriguing story. Many years ago when I had enlisted in the military, I was asked which race I identified with most. After selecting “white”, the recruiter advised me to select another race and suggested that I would get promoted faster and it would assist him in meeting quotas. I couldn’t bring myself to do such a thing as it was dishonest and felt as if I were taking away an opportunity from someone who could actually use a leg up in a world where discrimination runs rampant. When I heard this story, I cannot help but think that Ms. Dolezal, regardless of all the great work she may have done, stole many opportunities from others in order to sate her own personal desires and that makes her a very twisted and manipulative person.
This is so surreal. First transgenders, now we have a new word tot his Transracial??? Is this supposed to be a thing? Race isn’t something to just go along and claim to be another. God made you who you are and that shouldnt be changed. I feel like this issue is more of a “White person wanting to be black”, but can a “Black person want to be white”? This is very controversial. But I loved the post! Visit my blog as well 🙂
This is exactly why I have an issue with Rachel Dolezal’s situation. I am too tan to want to or be able to “identify” as White, so basically I will never get to reap the benefits of white privilege. She, on the other hand, gets to dab her finger and have a taste of all the amazing things that make up the black experience, without any REAL threat to her socio-economic status. In other words, she can tap out if she ever feels the black experience is getting too real
Nope, nope, nope. I’m usually >>>> HERE <<<< with you, but after laughing all night yesterday, I am now sickened and light-headed with anger as I look over everything Black Twitter has unearthed about her over the past 24 hours.
She stole from black women.
She stole our stories. She stole our trauma. She stole every scrap of our humanity that everyone tries to wrest from us…and often with little outrage from our black brothers.
And she leapfrogged over genuine black women to obtain the positions she's gained through her fraud.
She has stood in front of classes of black women, purporting to tell them how to think, live, and breathe as a black woman. Who knows how many of her black female students, or even black female colleagues, reached out to her looking for a sista who got it, with whom they could collaborate. Who poured out their pain…only for Rachel to write it down in her script for performing as a black woman.
If you look through her social media, she has systematically co-opted everything black women have discussed and discovered about themselves (her Instagram post about going natural is the most sickening thing ever).
She is a liar, a fraud, and a deceiver. And she is thoroughly unrepentant about her actions and the havoc she has likely wrought.
It’s cool lol
I feel you though lol..she needs revocation
This is an amazing statement. As a white woman I can’t tell you how often I feel “flavorless.” You nailed it for me. Thank you!
Thanks Michael I was expecting something else, but not quite sure what. Interesting perspective nonetheless.
Reblogged this on those terrible twenty-twos and commented:
Messiness is inevitable in racial identity and, maybe, useful since it exposes the fault lines in the sometimes prejudiced popular logic. I’m a white mom with a black son, two white daughters, and a gorgeous rainbow of grandkids. When we adopted our son, a black acquaintance told us we were committing genocide. Since he was two years old and in his third foster home, that seemed weird and extreme. How could his remaining in foster care affirm his blackness or further marginalize the race? So we ignored her. Our kids are, theoretically, Jewish. Why? Because that’s what we were born and, in spite of the fact that we’re atheists and they have only a passing acquaintance with their religion, they are Jewish (and would agree) because Hitler told the world that we were born with that “defect” and couldn’t erase it by choice. So if you’re born black, by someone’s else’s racial yardstick, you can choose to pass for white if your skin color allows it, but if your skin color refuses to conform to their yardstick, they can define you as black. Does any of this make sense? Only in its revelation of some kind of bizarre human tendency to categorize everyone into “tribe” or “stranger.” What this woman feels about her identity only she knows. If she made the choice out of a calculated desire to take advantage of race to advance her career, she’s contemptible. If she made if because she had four black siblings and she was fully theirs in soul and spirit, then she’s black. And, Michael, you are always a joy to read. Thanks.
after reading this I have a better perspective on why we might not take it so hard on Dolezal but i also feel that what she did was deceptive and took away opportunity from those who might need it most i.e. when she took that scholarship and when she took a position of power that could have gone to a black woman. There are very few opportunities for black women to advance and the NAACP provides one platform for that. She should have been open and honest about her ” transition”. It would have been difficult but it would have been more meaningful.
Too many outright lies. Too much exposed cray-cray. It’ s one thing to find your own style and to build an identity; it’s another to fake it.
Hi there! I just found you in my quest to uncover and qualify the deeper origins of maafe, the Senegalese/Gambian peanut stew. It was on a vegan dinner site making reference to your work in African American foodways. l must admit I find it odd that most of the top search results had sites that were not of Senegalese or at least African origin promoting this dish. Having said that, it is one of the most popular “out of Africa” dishes and I am glad to see it celebrated across all borders. But I digress.
This is the most sensible article I have come across concerning our “trans racial” sister (no disrespect to the trans community). Whether Rachel actually “comes out” as white remains to be seen, but it seems she needs to return to her whiteness and come back out as black before her transformation is accepted fully.
Two snaps! What stuck out the most for me are these lines, “our culture became a response to a call…our language, our music, our religious life, all of it seemed to speak of our need to cling for dear life to our ancient roots, the challenge to prove our equality, the struggle against oppression and the creation of a world that white supremacy and hegemony could not dare penetrate,” this understanding seems to get lost or severely muddied when discussing why we Black people are upset about this ordeal, and other issues that flirt with cultural and identity appropriation.
I love your work. This has been discovered, from a “Facebook nostalgia-look-back-at my posts” and it was one my sister had shared that you had written famously about Paula Deen! It was incredible, I was so impressed by your talent and writing and description of racism, and all that goes along with the wrong-ness of it, in this world. Thank you. I am hooked. (I love to write, but notice I am too stunned to do my usual editing that I am often quite OCD about!).
I like how you pose questions. I wrote about this on my blog.
I don’t see what’s with all the brouhaha? If a white woman wants to identify with us blacks (African- Americans) folks, then more power to her. I’ve seen and heard of more than I can counts, blacks AA’s do unjustly things far worse things than this women has.
Everyone one like to blame and cut down the police for shooting an unarmed black guy, but people refuse to focus on the fact that these guys getting killed had put themselves in the predicament they found themselves in. Our people have been taught to point the finger but not at themselves for the wrong they do.
I for one, as a black man am sick of our people putting themselves into this situation and then their love ones playing the blame game as if their children were so innocent. If black person truly innocent of a crime is killed by the police then I’ll be upset, but too many of these people killed in the news are clearly guilty of some sort of crime, but no one in the family wants to admit the truth, that their child was bad.