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Why Did This White Woman Pretend To Be Black?

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By Karthik Shankar

Rachel Dolezal, a mixed-race black woman, was a highly admired figure in her community. The President of the Spokane chapter of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) and a part time professor of Africana Studies at Eastern Washington University, she was known for her advocacy on African-American issues. Then a bombshell was dropped when her estranged parents reached out to the media. Dolezal, the prolific civil rights campaigner, is a white woman who was misrepresenting her racial identity for years.

rachel dolezal

With her caramel skin and her permed hair, Dolezal certainly managed the physical traits to pull off the façade. Yet, the crux of the matter is that she chose to leave her privileged whiteness behind. That’s not a decision people of colour, specifically black people get to make around the world. Their skin colour determines their social, cultural and economic experiences for the duration of their lifetime.

American history is rife with light skinned African Americans passing off as white in order to escape oppression or aid in upward social mobility. Anatole Broyard, the late editor of the Book Review section of the New York Times is one of the most notable. However, the reverse is relatively uncommon. Most people don’t choose to bear the racial markers of a community that is marginalised. And in Dolezal’s case she chose it to construct an artificial reality where it played into the stereotypes of black victimhood.

An interview with her before the truth came to light reveals some startling fabrications. She claims her mother and stepfather flayed them with baboon whips which were used during the times of slavery. She also mentions white supremacists who threatened the lives of her and her non-existent son. It’s even likely she forged letters containing racial vitriol directed at her. Pat Blanchfield has opined that Dolezal’s “need to dress up in a position of victimhood while also displaying a degree of privilege and entitlement only serves to further harm those who have actually suffered those wrongs.

Online, the reception to Dolezal has been mixed even within the black community. Some lampooned the whole debate with the hashtag #AskRachel where they posed questions from black pop culture trivia. However, many have supported her; calling her transracial and bringing up comparisons to Caitlyn Jenner who recently transitioned into being a woman. The comparison might seem fair game since both gender and race are social constructs. Gender reassignment is about matching a person’s inner perceptions of themselves to their exterior selves, which doesn’t seem that far off from Dolezal altering her external appearance to match her cultural and political affiliations.

Yet it’s a preposterous idea to conflate gender identity and race. Granted, the cognitive dissonance might be staggering but there are significant differences between the two. Transpeople don’t lie about their identities. They come out as male or female because they identify with a socially constructed gender that is not tied to their biological sex. On the other hand, Dolezal continually invented her past. Race may be a social construct but the skin colour that determines it, is definitely not. Moreover, people who choose to break gender boundaries usually face social repercussions. In Dolezal’s case it enriched her and furthered her political and social career. She got a full ride scholarship at the historically black Howard University, sold artworks that were quintessentially African inspired and assumed the role of a vocal authority figure on African-American issues (She criticised the author of The Help, Kathryn Stockett, for making money off a black woman’s story!).

Ironically, Dolezal in one of her lectures prevented a Hispanic student from talking about her racial experiences because she didn’t look Hispanic enough. What Dolezal pulled off is akin to blackface (a derogatory term for when white performers put on black makeup to act like stereotypical black people in 19th century plays, which carried on to television and Hollywood films). She put on a performance which had no basis in her real life experience – the cultural aspects of black womanhood, the discrimination and the reclamation of identity. Her blackness was a costume she could choose to shed and return to her white identity. Dolezal’s own brother says, “It’s kind of a slap in the face to African-Americans because she doesn’t know what it’s like to be black.

In response to the furore, Dolezal announced she was stepping down from her position in the NAACP in a lengthy Facebook post. What’s sad is that Dolezal’s charade was not entirely opportunistic, given her years of human rights engagement. She could have been a vociferous advocate for black people, as a white woman. That would have been a powerful statement by itself. Yet, for reasons best known to her, she assumed there was no place for a small town white girl in the complex world of black politics.

She co-opted the storied culture of African-Americans, including the violence and oppression the community has historically faced. She did all this without an iota of self-awareness that race is more than a mask one puts on; it’s the sum of centuries of cultural heritage that are foisted onto a person at birth. Dolezal might claim to identify as a black woman, but she can never actually be one.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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