With racial tensions continuing to boil over in the United States — and as police brutality, racist killings, and the discussion of the importance of race have been on the lips of an increasing number of folks — we have been presented with an odd case of a racial impersonator. Rachel Dolezal, a white woman who has built her life around identifying as a black woman living in Washington state, has become the new face of ongoing racial tension. While many people attempt to dissect the plausibility of someone actually being “transracial” (the term incorrectly applied to describe identifying as a different race), it is necessary to understand the grave implications behind such a spectacle and what they mean for racial identification, especially for those who identify as mixed-race.
A quick recap of the Rachel Dolezal controversy: It recently came to the attention of local news outlets in Spokane, WA that the city’s National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) chapter president, Rachel Dolezal, was not black. Her parents, both of whom are white, came out and said that their daughter was indeed white, and that the person whom Dolezal claimed to be her son was, in fact, one of her black adopted brothers. When confronted with the question, “Are you African-American?” by a newscaster, Dolezal attempted to dodge the question until she finally left the interview altogether.
From there, more and more details began emerging about Rachel Dolezal and her past. Dolezal claims she began identifying as black as a 5-year old, when she would draw herself with brown crayons. She described the ways in which her parents allegedly punished her as similar in severity to the punishment faced by enslaved Africans hundreds of years ago. Whether through the hate crimes she claims to have faced, or her supposed life-long black experience, Rachel Dolezal seems to believe that her true identity is that of a black woman.
Naturally, this story went viral in a matter of days, with people either supporting Rachel Dolezal or completely rejecting her attempts at pursuing a black identity. Many people became outraged at the audacity that a person would need to attempt to adopt the black identity, to darken her skin and change her hair in order to be seen as black. But this is exactly what she did: she was good enough at her masquerade to be considered “black enough” to be believable, something that many folks who have black ancestry have a hard time doing without being questioned.
Beyond her alleged “black” childhood, Dolezal claimed many different reasons she identifies as black. One of those reasons is that she grew up witnessing — and, in her eyes, experiencing — racism and racial discrimination, and she wanted to do something about the injustices she was seeing. However, rather than act a white ally, as many folks in the black community would prefer, Dolezal decided to become a voice in the black community herself and transform her identity.
While her care for the advancement of equal rights and equal respect is an important quality for anyone to have, she is enacting her white privilege and entitlement. By making a decision to “become” black and get to where she is, Dolezal essentially said that she could do a better job at fighting for racial equality than folks who actually have the black heritage and black experience she so desperately seems to crave. She decided to replace black folks who otherwise might have been able to take the positions she has taken in order to feel that she was doing all she could do for the cause of equality.
Beyond the issue of her impersonating a member of a different race, another question has arisen from this very strange story. The concept of being “transracial” has been a trending topic for the past couple of weeks. What those who support Dolezal say is that she is a white woman with a black woman inside her — that her “true identity” is that of a black woman. Folks who believe in this story liken Dolezal wanting to be black to Caitlyn Jenner’s transition into identifying as a woman.
Those who keep using the word “transracial” do not really know what the term means. The term refers to children of color who are adopted by white parents; such adoptions are called “transracial adoptions.” Transracial has nothing to do with being of one race and “transitioning” into another, but everything to do with the conflict one feels when one is raised by white parents and experiences life as a person of color.
Dolezal is enacting a modern form of blackface. No longer referring simply to minstrel parodies, the term “putting on blackface” is used more broadly to refer to folks, particularly white folks, who use different forms of clothing, vernacular, and even body modifications to impersonate and “embody” blackness. Some recent examples of this phenomenon include Iggy Azalea, a white rapper who has gotten various forms of plastic surgery and uses African-American Vernacular English (AAVE) in her music — despite being from Australia — and lesser-known V-Nasty, an Oakland-based white rapper who wears stereotypically African-American clothes and feels she has the right to use the N-word because she grew up in a black neighborhood.
What Rachel Dolezal has done, though, goes far beyond what others have done to appropriate blackness without having to suffer the consequences of actually being black. Dolezal wanted to be black so badly that she changed her hair and darkened her skin, lied about who her children and father were, took positions of high regard and power that could have been filled by black women, and replaced black women because she felt she had the right to do so. Dolezal took this modern form of blackface to an entirely new and very, very low level.
To the folks of Spokane, to the folks at Howard University, and to other folks elsewhere in her life, Rachel Dolezal was “black enough” to successfully replace black women. Her skin was just “dark enough,” her hair was just “good enough,” her use of black boys and men to portray her family was just “believable enough” that very few people questioned her identity. A woman who wants to change her racial identity from white to black — a change that only a white person could easily achieve — has a higher social status than light-skinned black and mixed-race folks who have to struggle on a daily basis to have their experiences believed. I wrote recently about my experiences as a mixed-race man — experiences in which I was either not white enough to be white or not black enough to be black. It is not as easy as claiming one or the other. One must reconcile both identities and continue to explain one’s heritage.
For Rachel Dolezal to be able to “become black” with some makeup and hair styling is a true testament to the powers of white privilege and white supremacy. Her ability to successfully identify as black for so long with so little pushback is a direct form of body terrorism against not only the black women she attempted to replace, but also against the folks who do not have the privilege of ignoring the consequences of attempting to embrace the racial and ethnic heritage they have actual historical ties to. I hope, then, that those of us dedicated to radical self-love and to social justice can use this terrible example of body terrorism as an incentive to never let it happen again.[Headline image: The photograph features a woman of color with curly black hair, dark eyes, and hoop earrings. She is wearing a black top and she is smiling into the camera.]
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