As a black woman, what should I make of Rachel Dolezal?
Is Dolezal black because she successfully duped people into seeing her as black? And what do her ideas about blackness tell us about how whites understand my culture?
These are tricky questions. Dolezal was an advocate for the black community. And she wasn’t just a foot soldier in a social justice organization. She devoted considerable time to advocating on behalf of black people, becoming head of the Spokane, Wash., NAACP.
But she also appropriated a black identity to gain status and influence in a community that isn’t actually her own. Pictures of her feature large kinky afros or blond braids and locs, often pinned into intricate updos. Her nails are long and brightly colored; her jewelry large and chunky. In photos, she arranges her very glossy lips into a pout, as if to present them as full.
In interviews about her background and upbringing, she tells stories about hunting for her own food, enduring physical abuse (replete with beatings dictated by skin color) at the hands of her parents, receiving racial hate mail during college, and setting up a “braiding service” to help black girls around her feel better about their hair.
In these stories and images, I see blackface—she gathered limited and stereotypical notions about black female aesthetics, using them to inform a “black woman costume” to wear out into the world. At the same time, Dolezal’s background story of extreme austerity, abuse and trauma also reflects the cultural deficit lens through which America reflexively views black people in general, and black women in particular. For Dolezal, authentic black life must be impoverished, tragic and almost unbearable.
In peddling this narrative, Dolezal misses the actual day-to-day psychic tolls that accompany blackness. Not every black person has grown up poor, witnessed a cross burning, or actively joined (much less headed) a civil rights organization. Rather, the experience of blackness more often includes subtle, but more indelible, phenomena: the learning, as a child, of racial narratives of inferiority; the frustration of navigating a society where education about white supremacy (and how it intersects with gender, class and other constructs) is withheld; the labor of black caregivers who cultivate resiliency and pride in their little ones despite the experience of racial struggle.
Blackness is also an intergenerational experience and a historical consciousness borne out of racial struggle, but one that has also produced valuable cultural and intellectual expression, human ingenuity and reinvention, and importantly, pride. Our resilience is borne out of childhood that yes, presents challenges and exposes us to stigma, but also results in a lived, day-to-day racial experience that enriches our lives and informs the world; an experience to which Dolezal may not fraudulently lay claim, whether or not people believed her farce. She engaged in a superficial deployment of blackness, but her choice does not legitimate her anemic hold on a social construct neither assigned to nor actually experienced by her before her lies began.
To label her assumed identity acceptable or authentic because she effectively played into extreme stereotypes about clothing and experiences is to buy into the flawed assumption that Blackness is only about how one looks and behaves. And if blackness, and the black experience, is only performance, then what follows is the dangerous and incorrect assumption that blacks would be better off if they performed differently; if, in fact, they performed more whiteness.
For Dolezal and, I fear, many other whites, blackness is mere stereotypical performance: jewelry, nails, and hair; extreme stories of abuse; civil rights work as racial bona fides. It is not exposure to a racially hostile world, or the mental work of cultivating dignity, fortitude and hope in the face of that hostility. Nevertheless, I hope the conversations we will surely have in the upcoming days about her “transracial status” will help us understand the difference between, as one tweeter put it, “transitioning into a character,” and “transitioning out of the character you were wrongly assigned.” As a social construct with no biological or physiological basis, Dolezal was neither incorrectly assigned her whiteness at birth, nor subject to the social experiences — good and bad — of blackness in her developing and formative years. Rather, Dolezal merely performed, appropriating a character. I am disheartened by what the discards of her costume say about what she understood blackness to be.