Aside from Rachel Dolezal’s hair deserving a BET award for being so on point, I am still disturbed by this bizarre story. I’m not particularly disturbed at her high levels of delusion, though it would be valid. I’m more so concerned with how delicate our definition of race is in 2016.
One should have the confidence in delineating the differences between black and white, but ever since Rachel Dolezal was outed by her parents, everyone still seems to be confused (i.e. “Is it possible to be transracial” in 2016?). In an attempt to clarify, here are 5 things I learned from Rachel Dolezal that clarify what it means to be Black, white, and gullible in America.
1) The audacity and elasticity of white privilege.
Rachel Dolezal’s last decade of perpetrating herself as a Black woman encapsulates the audaciousness of white privilege and weird elasticity.
White privilege is defined as the societal privileges that benefit white people. Elasticity is the ability of something to change and adapt. White privilege goes to great lengths to defend whiteness at all costs. No matter how crazy white people get, their privilege still manages to protect them. In the case of Rachel Dolezal, she was literally drenched in blackness and yet her privilege still remained intact.
As a white woman perpetrating to be Black, Rachel never actually gave up her whiteness; she only reinforced it. As a white woman who attempted to expunge any association to racism, she did the exact opposite. By disguising herself as a Black woman, she embodied racism by prioritizing her white self over others, occupying space, claiming to be an expert over certain experiences, and arrogantly disparaging anyone who made claims against it.
2) The NAACP is defunct
During the Rachel Dolezale debacle, we saw how useless the NAACP has become in the fight for justice for Black people. In a statement after the racial furor, the NAACP said in a statement that:
“One’s racial identity is not a qualifying criteria or disqualifying standard for NAACP leadership. The NAACP Alaska-Oregon-Washington State Conference stands behind Ms. Dolezal’s advocacy record. In every corner of this country, the NAACP remains committed to securing political, educational, and economic justice for all people, and we encourage Americans of all stripes to become members and serve as leaders in our organization. ”
This statement sums up just how detached the NAACP is. Of course, no one’s racial identity should disqualify them from leading an organization, but one would assume that lying about your ethnicity--whether you want to identify with it or not--should be grounds for dismissal. Unfortunately, the NAACP sees it another way, as reflected in their decision to defend her. This merely confirms how deeply misguided they are when it comes to race. Like, for real? You mean to tell me your version of the advancement of colored people looks like letting a white woman wear blackface inside of your organization? *Sips Tea*
3) Black leaders are too gullible
Rachel Dolezal’s role as the chair of the Spokane NAACP Chapter and quarterly professor of African American Studies at Eastern Washington University conveys the naïveté of Black people in these spaces. Did no one ever once question the absurdity of what was going on? For the Black people in these organizations to never fact-check their leadership explains the unfortunate turn in organizational practices and just how easy they can be compromised without any notice. Where were the guardians? Who are the gatekeepers? And why are they defending her now that the truth is out?
Whether they were aware or not, the Black leaders she was around were far too embracing and because of their failure to do the homework, important Black spaces from the classroom to the board room that should serve as safe spaces to discuss strategy and combat racist practices, are being compromised.
4) We have a poor understanding of racial fluidity
When discussing race, many people forget how fluid it can be in regards to "passing" as another race.
Passing in America has been occurring for centuries and reached high levels during the Jim Crow era, during which lighter-skinned Blacks would routinely escape the racial stigmas attached to being Black (and the violence that accompanied it) to assimilate into white mainstream culture. Rachel Dolezal has done the same thing, in reverse.
Rachel Dolezal feared that she would be persecuted as a white woman for wanting to identify with Black culture, and so to remove her whiteness (and any stigma she felt surrounded it), she felt the necessity to appropriate the very culture she sought to save.
Since race is a social construct with legitimate bearings in biological characteristics, Rachel's Black disguise (bronzed skin, kinky braids, and twists) reveals her misunderstanding of Blackness, altogether.
5) It’s time to redefine what “Blackness” really is
The case of Rachel Dolezal has revealed the ambiguity of blackness. While the perception of Blackness is comprised of a collective Black experience (a history of enslavement, civil rights struggle, etc.), it is so much more. I maintain that American blackness is rooted in our Africanness, not in our shared oppression. Being oppressed doesn’t make you Black; being of African descent makes you black.
When African Americans ground their blackness in the country they were brought to rather than the continent they came from, they forfeit the incontestable meaning of what it means to be Black altogether. Once we root our blackness in the right soil, it will qualify what it means to be Black and put to rest any argument of the experience that surrounds it. The legacy of being Black is something that Rachel Dolezal will never be able to co-opt or replicate.
Black culture is not a costume, nor is it a thematic experience to take part in. Being Black is a part of a very proud legacy entrenched in the customs and practices of West African countries. But in order to safeguard that legacy, Black people have some serious work to do.
That work looks like critiquing the ways that whiteness seeks to replicate and co-opt blackness by redefining and reclaiming the definitions we ascribe to our individual blackness. If not, Black people will continue to get duped in our own spaces and allow the curtains of minstrelsy to open up right behind this one. And I don’t know about you, but my Blackness can’t handle another Rachel Dolezal. Yours shouldn’t have to either.