I wasn’t going to write anything at all about Rachel Dolezal. I was going to simply dismiss her as a rather confused woman whose personal misery has led her into some profoundly disturbing, unethical, and self-serving actions. In fact, what she did angers me so much that I really don’t want to give her the time of day. So why the hell am I writing an article about her?
The closest I can come is to say that this article isn’t so much about Rachel Dolezal as about one of the primary rules for living peaceably among other human beings: Don’t walk into someone else’s house without an invitation. This rule is so basic that most people learn it before they’re five years old. The fact that Rachel Dolezal does not respect this basic rule with regard to the black community — and, in particular, black women — is a betrayal, a boundary violation, and an index of her privilege.
We have words for entering someone’s house unbidden — words like trespassing and breaking and entering. There is a reason that these words are negative ones. It is no small thing to walk into someone else’s house uninvited. No small thing at all. Imagine if a stranger just let herself into your house while you were at work. You’d be upset, yes? You need to show respect when you enter someone’s home, and the only people who can tell you what that respect looks like are the ones already inside the house.
What Rachel Dolezal did, in essence, was to break into the black community by fraud. She did not wait to be invited; she did not ask what she had to do to earn the trust and respect necessary to enter the community. And the people who are paying most dearly for it, in rage and pain, are black women. Rachel Dolezal broke into their house, and took what is sacred to them — their voices, their work, their blackness — and used it for her own purposes. To justify it by talking about the great work she’s done as an activist is akin to giving someone a pass for breaking into your house and taking your stuff because they fixed the roof while they were there. Sorry. The gating issues are the break-in and the theft, not the helpful handy-man work, which will probably need redoing anyway. After all, the only people I want fixing my roof are people qualified to do it — not a burglar pretending to be a contractor.
Don’t get me wrong: A white woman can do good work on issues affecting black women. But as someone who is perceived as a woman of white European heritage (despite my almost entirely Middle Eastern ancestry), I am not qualified to be an authority on those issues. I am not qualified to make my experience stand in for the experience of black women. I can only be an ally, now and forever. Why? Because I can’t possibly understand what it means to be a black woman. The vast majority of black women cannot pass as white women. They cannot simply take on a white identity. They cannot appear on Melissa Harris-Perry’s show and assert their whiteness or talk with Matt Lauer about how they used to draw pictures of themselves as white people when they were five, so that means they’re white. If I have the power to get a tan and a weave and pass as a black woman, I cannot possibly understand the experience of the millions upon millions of black women who have no power to pass as members of a different race.
If there is one thing I’ve learned from Rachel Dolezal, it’s that I have the power to pass for black if I want to. That would never have occurred to me otherwise, and I am one hell of an imaginative person. The thought of pretending to be someone else just isn’t in my repertoire. But apparently, I could put on the look and get all kinds of respect from folks like Melissa Harris-Perry and the local NAACP. Of course, I wouldn’t do it, for an abundance of reasons — the main one being that doing so would only increase the power of my white privilege, not my blackness. After all, having the power to simply say, “I’m a member of another race because I say so” is a privilege granted only to white people.
To put it succinctly: Having the power to do what Rachel Dolezal did is the very thing that disqualifies white women from doing it at all.
When the story about Rachel Dolezal broke, my reaction was complicated by the fact that being black wasn’t the only identity this woman had fraudulently claimed. In addition to claiming to be black, she has also said she is Native American, Jewish, and Arabic. Apparently, she has a trace of Native American ancestry, but has no Jewish or Arabic ancestry whatsoever. Far from being Jewish, she was raised in a conservative Christian fundamentalist family.
When I saw that she was claiming to be one of my own people, my reaction was anger. I thought, “No. No. No. You do not get to claim Jewish ancestry just because it makes you look… What? Marginalized? Persecuted? Sorry, hon. Marginalized and persecuted aren’t a look. They’re a lived experience. You do not get to claim the lived experiences of my ancestors. You do not get to claim the beauty of my culture. You do not get to claim the historical trauma of my people. You do not get to claim the words on our tongues, the sacredness of our rituals, the touch of our mothers and fathers. You do not get to claim that kind of intimacy.”
I felt all this knowing that Rachel Dolezal’s claims to being Jewish were not the main event, but an afterthought. She had made Jewishness a resume item, nothing more. But if I felt angry about that one brief moment, which took nothing from me at all, how must black women feel about her putting on blackface, pretending to be one of them, teaching others about black womanhood, and taking roles in the community away from them?
Holy God. I’m so pissed off about the impact on black women that I can hardly find words other than, “God fucking dammit with this shit. What in the ever-loving fuck is wrong with people?”
This article is the first time I’ve been able to collect myself enough to weed out most of the profanity.
If you want to be part of a community, then the first thing you have to do is to show that you respect that community. There is no better way of respecting a community than to ask “What do I need to do to enter?” and listening to the answer.
So, all you have to do is ask black women, “How can I, as a white woman, enter your community?”
Black women have been answering that question, loudly and clearly, over and over and over: “If you want to enter our community, you can only do it as a white woman in solidarity with us. You cannot be black. That is a lived experience unavailable to you.”
What is not to understand?
That the world isn’t speaking with one voice on behalf of black women on this fraud is simply another indication of how little people respect black women at all. Instead of seeing folks defending Rachel Dolezal, a woman who was so enamored of whiteness that she sued Howard University for discrimination in 2002, I’d like to see more people start defending the black women whose identity she tried to steal with a tan and a weave.
This woman has betrayed the very people she wanted to join. That is all that matters. The rest is Rachel Dolezal’s identity crisis and family drama, and those need to play out in the privacy of a therapist’s office, not in the public square.
I hope that she and her family find healing. After all, imagine if Rachel Dolezal simply loved herself, just as she is — the white daughter of a conservative Christian couple — and stood proud in the understanding that where she comes from does not determine where she is going. Imagine if she simply embraced herself as a white woman with an upbringing that made her keenly empathetic to those trapped inside authoritarian systems. Imagine the ways in which her love for herself might lead her to protect all that is sacred to others.
I hope she can find that love for herself, but there is little that I can do to make that happen. What I can do is to keep on building solidarity with the black women in my life and in my community — black women whose lineages and life experiences Rachel Dolezal just tried to pass off as her own. Black women need my love and my support, now and always.[Headline image: The photograph shows a black woman with short black hair and dark eyes. She is wearing a black and gray top, and she is smiling.]