By now you have seen all the interwebs rants, memes, and craziness regarding Rachel Dolezal. This is the woman who is head of the Spokane, WA NAACP whose parents “outed” her as White. Whew…I can’t believe I wrote that last sentence. In fact, I can’t believe I’m writing THIS blog. Last week we were focused on the assault on a group of Black teenagers in McKinney, TX and specifically the take down of a 14-year-old Black girl in a bikini by a White police officer. This week we are looking at how a White woman transformed herself into a Black woman. For me, this is less about Ms. Dolezal than it is about America’s deeply conflicted sense of itself around issues of race and the problem of ongoing anti-Blackness.
For centuries light-complexion Blacks have “passed” as White. The primary reason for doing so was to escape the harsh treatment meted out to Black people in the society and to enjoy the privileges of what White means in America. There have been those instances where Whites have identified culturally with African Americans—think, Eminem, Teena Marie, Johnny Otis (if you don’t know him look him up). More recently Tom Hanks’ son Chet has decided he’s “hard core” from the hood. That would be the hood of Beverly Hills with a Northwestern University education. Heck, former President Bill Clinton was once declared Black (and he has Divine 9 fraternity street cred to boot). However, the only person I recall documenting a racial transformation to attempt to experience what it means to be Black in America is John Howard Griffin who published the book, Black Like Me that chronicled his transformation into a Black man in the 1950s in an attempt to understand what it felt like to be Black in the US.
Ms. Dolezal, according to her parents, is perpetrating fraud. She is pretending to be something she is not. But is she REALLY any different from the hundreds upon hundreds of cultural appropriations we see regularly in this country?
Everything from augmented lips, butts, tanning beds and salons, and curly hair represent the love-hate relationship that White America has with blackness. It finds blackness simultaneously seductive and titillating AND repulsive and disgusting. Unfortunately, this moving back and forth between love and hate has serious consequences for how we are treated. From my own professional (and personal) vantage point it has devastating consequences on how our children are treated. The fact that our children’s childhood is truncated due to this love-hate dynamic is harmful and hurtful. Our cute kindergarten babies are transposed into men and women by 3rd grade and quickly find themselves sanctioned for the slightest school infractions. Our teenagers are considered “thugs” when they behave immaturely and make the same mistakes that I see my White college students make after a football game and too much beer. Incidentally, my White college students are never thugs—they are “pranksters!”
I see people calling Ms. Dolezal, “trans-racial” and I have no idea what that means. Transgender, as I understand it, means that someone has a physical sexual assignment that runs counter to their gender identity…e.g. a woman trapped in a man’s body. But are we saying Ms. Dolezal was a Black person tapped in a White body? If that’s the case, I’d like to be trans-SES…a rich person trapped in a poor body. And, while I’m at it I’d also like to be trans-vertical…a tall person trapped in a short body. Ms. Dolezal made a decision to represent herself in a particular way and deny her own racial heritage. That does not make her trans-racial or post-racial or non-racial. It makes her a White woman pretending to be Black…end of (her) story. The bigger issue for me is when is America going to come to grips with its nonsensical relationship concerning race and stop rating and ranking people because of it and doling out reward and punishment based on it?
Ms. Dolezal’s affectation of blackness is probably going to land her a lot more celebrity and perhaps money but it is not going to stop the next assault on a Black child or adult. It is not going to impact mass incarceration and the utter disdain far too many people (White and Black) have toward blackness. The only thing I can imagine saying to Rachel Dolezal is “Bye, Felicia!”
Stay Black & Smart!