Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past week or so, you’re probably at least vaguely familiar with the Rachel Dolezal controversy. Like that relative that sucks all the air out of a room, the twisted tale has overshadowed no less than three presidential campaign announcements (and, conveniently, the unbelievable police brutality story in McKinney), capturing the attention of a rapt if ill prepared audience.
Just in case you are one of those rock dwellers, let me get you up to speed. Rachel Dolezal was the President of the Spokane chapter of the NAACP. Last week, her parents came forward to reveal that their daughter — contrary to how she presented and represented herself — was actually White.
The story set off a firestorm, replete with bizarre revelations and proclamations from Dolezal and her family. Initially, Dolezal made it clear that she didn’t care what White people thought of her chosen identity, believing they were incapable of engaging in an informed conversation on the subject (which, to be fair, has proven mostly true, but more on that in a minute). As outrage and mockery surged, however, she participated in a series of interviews, during which time she clarified that, regardless of biology, she identified as Black. As she explained to NBC’s Savannah Guthrie, “I am more Black than I am White.”
These explanations were woven between accusations that her parents were not her biological parents, lies about her childhood, and stories that seemed at odds with her self-proclaimed lifelong identification as Black. For instance, in 2002, Dolezal sued Howard University for discrimination against her in an art exhibition… because she was White. And if you ask her siblings, the transformation to representing herself as Black is relatively new; though her parents have stated they noticed the changes in 2006, her adopted brother said it began in 2011.
People of Color have varied and justifiable feelings on the matter. Most of the reactions I’ve seen and read have been negative ones. There are a slew of memes being passed around that mock Dolezal’s “identification” clarification, and the hashtag #askrachel trended with tongue in cheek questions meant to determine just how Black her life experience had been.
Others aren’t laughing. Some have blasted Dolezal, sick over the idea that a White woman would attempt to claim power in Black spheres (Don’t White people have enough of it?!?) through a complex lie, with some calling into question the work Dolezal did while working with the NAACP. There has been rage that a White woman would be so presumptuous as to assume that pretending to be a Black woman with the lived experiences of that identity qualified to advocate as a Black woman, particularly when you using the lie as an educator or leader. Others, such as Western Kentucky University Forensics Coach Jeremy Frazer, sees a middle ground that allows for anger despite accomplishment:
Even if the cognitive dissonance between her work and her lie can be resolved, others take deeper issue with Dolezal’s deception. In an op-ed for the New York Times, Tamara Winfrey Harris skewered Dolezal, providing a detailed history of the “one drop” rule that had been used to prop up miscegenation and segregation laws for decades before pointing out that Dolezal had now used that one drop law to build a sham of a life. Articulating just how offensive the charade was, Harris cast the behavior as a function of the privilege Dolezal claimed to want to dismantle:
In the days since this story broke, many people have been quick to point out that race is merely a social construct — as if that fact changes the very real impact of race on the lives of minorities. The persistence of systemic racism means there are penalties for blackness in America.
Black women — real ones — live at the nexus of that oppression and enduring sexism. The gender pay gap is steeper for them. They are more likely than their white counterparts to live in poverty, to be victims of domestic homicide and sexual assault. If Tyisha Miller and Rekia Boyd, black women who were victims of extrajudicial violence, had been able to slide into whiteness — for just a moment — they might still be alive. (Perplexingly, Ms. Dolezal told Matt Lauer that her decision to identify as black was a matter of “survival.” That is rich, indeed.) But racial oppression is not as easy to shrug off as racial advantage. This is partly because America has spent centuries ensuring that certain people can never be white.
Being able to shift one’s race is a privilege. Ms. Dolezal’s masquerade illustrates that however much she may empathize with African-Americans, she is not one, because black people in America cannot shed their race. We cannot proclaim the black race a nebulous concept, while strictly policing whiteness and the privileges of that identity. I will accept Ms. Dolezal as black like me only when society can accept me as white like her.
Other Black individuals with light complexions — individuals one might not immediately visually identify as Black — are even angrier, as Dolezal’s deceptions create even more treacherous waters for them. As one such woman explained:
I already get asked the dumbest questions you can imagine about race. I think that now, with Dolezal’s little antics, it’s only going to get worse. People already give me the side eye if I tell them that I am biracial. Am I going to have to carry some form of identification? You know people are going to ask me to “prove my blackness” now.
Still others have been kinder, using the term “transracial” to describe Dolezal’s experience. To be clear, the term is being misused; transracial refers to the adoption of a child of one race by a family of another race, and is an arena with its own complexities, which explains why transracial adoptees have been pretty upset with the term being applied here.
Those objections aside, its use is a rhetorical tactic to draw a connection to our emotional reaction to the term transgender. With the timing of Caitlyn Jenner’s grand reveal, the parallels drawn between Dolezal and transgendered individuals have caused an additional layer of tension. Dolezal herself said Jenner’s story resonated deeply with her. The line of argument questions why we accept those who identify as a different gender, going so far as to surgically represent their identity, but cannot forgive someone who chooses to do so in regards to race. After all, both Jenner and Dolezal lived under identities they were uncomfortable with for years. Both committed to projecting what they saw as their true identities in their everyday life, even though they faced discrimination as a result. Parallels, everywhere, right?
Others have quickly quashed that argument. Yes, both race and gender are social constructs, particularly in the way people and institutions interact with the identifications. Race, however, is a matter of biology and genetics, whereas gender is a function of masculine or feminine identification or presentation. A transgendered person is an individual whose sex is at odds with their gender, or who they are as a person. While one may identify heavily with the culture of a different race, the identity associated with race is a lived one, and not one that can be encompassed through changes in appearance. Artist, vLogger, and Black trans woman Kat Blaque does a phenomenal job of breaking it down here:
Yet the story has, at a minimum, spurred conversations about how we conceptualize race and why. In an artfully written essay for the New Yorker, Jelani Cobb discusses how tensions in how race is perceived and evaluated leave room for Dolezal’s choices, instead indicting her dishonesty over those choices. She writes:
Rachel Dolezal is not black—by lineage or lifelong experience—yet I find her deceptions less troubling than the vexed criteria being used to exclude her. If blackness is simply a matter of a preponderance of African ancestry, then we should set about the task of excising a great deal of the canon of black history, up to and including the current President. If it is simply a matter of shared experience, we might excommunicate people like Walter White, whose blue eyes were camouflage that could serve both to spare him the direct indignity of racism and enable him to personally investigate and expose lynchings. Dolezal was dishonest about an undertaking rooted in dishonesty, and no matter how absurd her fictional blackness may appear, it is worth recalling that the former lie is far more dangerous than the latter. Our means of defining ourselves are complex and contradictory—and could be nothing other than that. But if the rubric is faulty it remains vital. The great majority of Americans recognize slavery as a figment of history, interred in a receding past. But, for black people, that past remains at the surface—close at hand, indelible, a narrative as legible as skin.
These are all important conversations, and these reactions of People of Color paint a tapestry of emotion as complicated as this nation’s history with race. These are relevant perspectives, and they deserve our time, attention, and consideration. Yet, in the midst of this significant moment, White people feel it necessary to make the story about them and their intellectual hangups in the most disgusting ways possible.
Tale as old as time.
The problem is that this should be a major learning moment for White America. This is not the time to opine on how this story is proof positive of the worthlessness of the NAACP. It is not the time to laugh about how Dolezal being Black is the equivalent of Caitlyn (referred to as Bruce in these conversations) being a woman. It is not the time to say maybe being Black in America isn’t as bad as some people think. It is not the time to jokingly say you now “identify as being skinny.” It is not the time to debate whether Dolezal was hotter as a Black or White woman.
It is the time to listen as people who have actually lived the life Dolezal has claimed respond to the coopting of their identity. Listen, and listen alone, because even after years of listening, you’re still not going to have enough context to really have an opinion on the subject.
Let me frame it this way: if someone were to steal your identity in a really grandiose manner — I’m talking name, style, speech patterns, career, maybe even getting prosthetics to appear more like you — and experienced great success in doing so, how would that make you feel? How unnerving would that be? How uncomfortable would friends and families who had trusted this doppelganger as you be upon finding out the truth? How angry might you be if your made-up twin tried to insist they were a very real version of you after being discovered?
That person would not be you. They would not have lived your life, but an impression of it. And at any point in time, they would be able to shed their costume and become themselves again. Perhaps that would come at great personal cost to them, but they could always call off the hoax if they so chose. After all, there were no permanent changes. They have options.
Now imagine you’re going through all of this, and the world is laughing at you. The world is justifying your impersonator’s choices by saying they’re being true to their authentic selves. They’re championing the impostor’s cause by saying this is a symptom of a broken society and they are clearly a victim. You’re just tired and sad and scared and angry and confused, and you’re standing in the middle of a storm you didn’t cause and certainly never asked for.
Imagine all of that and you still won’t come close to understanding, because that identity exists only as long as you’ve been alive. The identity coopted here is rooted in centuries of oppression, degradation, determination, and a collective beautiful and indomitable spirit. It’s one that’s been coopted and appropriated time after time after time by White people who don’t even bother to pretend they’re not White and profit tremendously as a result.
You know what? Forget it. Even this analogy can’t come close to explaining how much this is NOT your place to comment as a White person.
And right now, the Black community is in the eye of that storm, with White proselytizers whipping around their world with self-righteous words of so called wisdom, the bite reminding them that their opinions and voices — even on issues that are specific to them — are too often merely tolerated, if not ignored outright.
In other words, White people: shut up and take several seats.