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.
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.