The internet is abuzz with the fascinating and oh-so-strange story of Rachel Dolezal, the (now former) president of the Spokane chapter of the NAACP who has apparently been faking her Blackness for the last decade. Outed by her parents as white during an investigation of Dolezal’s claims that she had been receiving racially charged threats, these revelations have started a firestorm of debate on race and identity.
For many people, all this discussion seems more like a circus of outrage — the actions of one very possibly mentally ill woman blown way out of proportion. For some, it’s a great insult to black America. For others, it’s a great laugh. For others still, it’s a great injustice to Rachel Dolezal; a woman who dedicated her adult life to racial equality so thoroughly mocked and derided by the people that she has fought for.
This story is about Rachel Dolezal, but it’s also much bigger than her. A white woman passing herself off as black for 10 years may seem too strange to be true, but for many black Americans it’s a story as old as time. And the discussions around her deceptions cut to the core of race and racism in America.
What Rachel Dolezal did in pretending to be black was wrong, very wrong. Many people have talked of her years of dedication to anti-racism as proof that she meant well, even if she was misguided. I argue that this is not true. When Rachel Dolezal started passing herself off as black, she did this to be included in a group that she obviously felt an affinity towards. She went to a HBCU on full scholarship — which her parents claim was given to her because they thought she was black. She taught classes on the African-American experience. She eventually rose to the role of president of the local NAACP chapter.
If Rachel Dolezal did indeed accept a full scholarship to Howard University under the pretext she was black, she took a spot that was meant for a person of color. This isn’t to say that white people don’t belong at Howard. But Howard University was created to give opportunities to black people when no others were available. In a country that still sees large disparities by race in quality of primary education, and family income, an affordable, quality college education is much harder for many black Americans to obtain than it is for many white Americans. Rachel came from a middle class white family and was raised in the privilege that entailed. She may well have taken a spot intended for someone who had overcome hardships she never faced.
If Rachel Dolezal really, truly cared about the black community… she would have stayed in her Whiteness and done the hard and necessary work that white allies need to do.
As a teacher of African-American centered classes at Eastern Washington University, she misrepresented her teachings as those coming from a black perspective, when they were not. White teachers can and do teach African-American-centered courses all the time, and often do it very well. But it’s important for students to know if they are getting first or second-hand perspective. It’s important to know if opinions being discussed come from people who have actually experienced what they are talking about. In addition, according to accounts by white anti-racist activist Tim Wise, Dolezal used her status as a “black” woman to try to prevent him from speaking at EWU, arguing that as a white man, he wasn’t qualified to speak on issues affecting black people. She used her fake identity as a black woman to try to control the education on black issues that her students received.
As president of her local chapter of the NAACP, she led and helped shape anti-racism efforts that directly affect the lives of black people. She did this under the pretense that her input was coming from the black experience. White people can and should join people of color in fighting racism and oppression, but to assume that as a white person, you would be better qualified than a person of color to lead people of color on issues primarily affecting them – issues you’ve never had to face – is not just wrong, it’s insulting.
If Rachel Dolezal really, truly cared about the black community, then she would have known (especially as a professor of African-American studies) how inappropriate it is as a white woman to try to speak for black people. She would have known that Blackness is more than skin-deep. She would have stayed in her Whiteness and done the hard and necessary work that white allies need to do. She would have used her privilege to make changes in the white community. She would have worked to dismantle the system of privilege that apparently had made Whiteness so unattractive to her.
She knows that if her Blackness gets too difficult, she can shed it as easily as she can flat-iron her hair.
But instead she fled. And in fleeing into Blackness and claiming it for her own, she did what so many defenders of white supremacy have done — she simplified Blackness to skin tone and hair texture. She divorced the best of black culture from the struggle that it was born from. She claimed the community, the platform, the music, the clothing, the hairstyle — all without a minute of the fear, oppression and discrimination that black Americans have faced for centuries, and still face to this day.
Rachel Dolezal knows this. She knows she won’t be followed in stores. She knows she won’t be denied job interviews because of the Blackness of her name. She knows she benefited from a middle-class white upbringing. She knows that she doesn’t have to fear the police. She knows that she didn’t inherit a legacy of oppression. She knows that if her Blackness gets too difficult, she can shed it as easily as she can flat-iron her hair.
If Rachel Dolezal didn’t know this, she wouldn’t have faked racially-motivated threats, which it is now highly suspected that she had. If these allegations are true, she took the pain and fear that so many black Americans face and turned it into farce. This wasn’t just a simple play for increased legitimacy either – she was insistent on getting attention for this discrimination, vocally lamenting for years to the public and the press that the authorities weren’t taking the threats seriously enough.
Rachel Dolezal’s actions hurt the black community, not just in the acts themselves, but in the current response from many in the white community that it has received. Countless defenders of Rachel Dolezal have been adamantly insisting that, if race is a social construct, then anybody can be whatever race they want. Like Rachel Dolezal, they are completely separating Blackness from the struggle that birthed it, and in the process invalidating the experiences of millions of black Americans.
For every black American who watches white rappers make millions off of the art form that traces back to call-and-response brought over on slave ships from Africa, who watches major motion pictures of Egyptian pharaohs portrayed with an almost exclusively white cast. Every black American who has been told that their Blackness – their hair, their lips, their skin, their clothes, their history, their music — is bad and wrong, only to have it all repackaged as the latest white trend — we all see what this defense of Rachel Dolezal is: it’s the ultimate appropriation of Blackness.
In a world where anybody can be this one dimensional definition of black, only the privileged few can be white. Blackness disappears, Whiteness remains untouched.
The insistence by so many in the white community that Rachel Dolezal should be able to claim Blackness shows how little white America has cared to know about black America. It shows how one-dimensional many think our culture is. Most importantly, it shows how entitled to our very identities many in white America feel that they are – when everybody knows that Whiteness is absolutely unobtainable for us. In America, race is defined primarily by one’s difference from Whiteness. Rachel Dolezal can get a tan and a perm and pass for black in a world that views Blackness simply as anything darker and nappier than white. Black women can’t go a shade or two lighter and become white, they would have to find a way to remove all of their Blackness in order to pass. In a world where anybody can be this one dimensional definition of black, only the privileged few can be white. Blackness disappears, Whiteness remains untouched.
If we had a world where race was fluid, where the gates to Whiteness as well as Blackness were truly open — that would truly mean the end of race and racism that many are using to justify Rachel Dolezal’s actions. But we don’t live in that world. And we don’t get there with the blackface of infatuated white people. We end racism by acknowledging and appreciating cultural and racial differences and the history that made them while dismantling the system of privilege that places such differences in a hierarchy. We don’t erase racism by erasing black people.