Color is not a human or personal reality; it is a political reality
The Fire Next Time
In 1948, Pulitzer Prize winning author, Ray Sprigle published an article entitled, “I was a Negro in the South for 30 days”. A little over a decade later, in 1961, John Howard Griffin published a book entitled, Black Like Me, based on his experience as a white man who had been deliberately altered to appear as a black man moving about Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia in the Jim Crow south. Eight years later, in 1969, Grace Halsell published, Soul Sister, The Story of a White Woman Who Turned Herself Black and Went to Work in Harlem and Mississippi. It seems some white Americans have always harbored a fascination with intimately experiencing the grit and grandeur of black life in America. Curiously, during the turbulent era of racial segregation and Jim Crow, these experiments had some value in that they allowed white folks to tell other white folks, who listened only to white folks, about the injustices heaped upon black people. We have, however, thankfully turned that corner and the racial landscape for black Americans no longer requires interpreters.
This is not the blog I necessarily wanted to write. Initially, I viewed the story of Rachel Dolezal as a media puff piece aimed more to provoking than educating. I, like the rest of America, was first made aware of her saga when a reporter pointedly asked her, “Are you African-American?” The dazed, shocked and confused look on her face elicited a curious sympathy and I felt badly for her. She seemed genuinely befuddled at why someone might ask of her this basic question about her racial identity. I was willing to give this woman, who by all accounts had served the NAACP admirably, the benefit of the doubt despite the growing story that was swirling around her. Then something happened, Rachel Dolezal decided to speak publicly.
Each time she opened her mouth, she contributed to the confusion. She responded to specific questions with vague, convoluted pronunciations that further complicated the narrative what was developing about her. She seemed, at once, not fully present in terms of understanding the significance of what was happening yet cunning in her ability and willingness to fully leverage the national attention. She also seemed duplicitous as she feigned a misunderstanding of why her declaration that she “identified as black” was simply not enough to quell the controversy. Everything about her, her affect, her body language and her carefully crafted responses suggested, at least to me, that she fully understood that she misrepresented who she was racially while she worked in a context where that very identity required authenticity. She was now prepared to protect her lie.
I do not accept her subtle efforts to cast herself as a modern pioneer redefining the conversation on race and identity. While her work with the NAACP should be applauded, if it was as significant as claimed, it nevertheless occurred while she operated under the guise of someone she was not, and she knew it. Authentic work requires one to show up authentically. Every time Rachel Dolezal advocated for racial justice or fought for equality she did so knowing she harbored a secret which, at its core, would fundamentally change the dynamic of the fight if revealed. Black America does not need duplicitous white woman as advocates.
Predictably, there are those who seek to defend her actions by asking us to focus on her good work. The goodness of her work is not and has never been questioned. Nor has anyone questioned the assumption that she is a wonderful mother to her two African-American sons. What is at question is her character and the manner in which she chose to present herself to the world. Comparisons to Caitlyn Jenner are inevitable but misguided. Bruce Jenner was open about his struggle as a man and his ultimate desire to live authentically. Rachel Dolezal was not. While I am ill-equipped to intelligently weigh in on the internal struggles of a white woman who identifies as black, what I do know is that had she presently herself as the white woman that she is , there would be no story. From the story presented in the media, we are to assume that Rachel Dolezal lied by omission and deceived those with whom she worked and there is nothing admirable in that. She showed up in a way that she was not and although we have come to better understand the complexities of fluid identities, an authentic existence should at least begin with acknowledging the truth of who and what one is. Once admitted, one might then re-imagine oneself into the identity that most fits.
While some might assign some nobility to Rachel Dolezal for willingly assuming the identity of a black woman and fighting mightily for racial justice, there is nothing noble in her actions. Ultimately, her white skin and the privilege assigned to it allowed her to repudiate her assumed black identity anytime it became uncomfortable. She will most probably sign a lucrative contract to write a book on her experience as a black woman and again we are left to marvel at a white woman giving voice to the experience of being black in America. The irony of that makes me shiver.
In truth, the real story here has little to do with racial identity and everything to do with honesty, integrity and living authentically. This is also not about, at least for me, a wholesale condemnation of Rachel Dolezal. She is a mother with two sons who love and cherish her and I would not want to contribute to a castigating narrative about their mother. She is not a bad person, what she did, however, cannot be condoned. This is a woman who lied; who stepped into spaces where her racial identity especially mattered and deceived in order to solidify her gravitas, like when she taught a course on the history of black women and hair or had the audacity to declare, “I actually don’t like the term African-American” The tanned skin and curly locks were all part of her orchestrated fiction. It was deliberate and strategic and she used her deception to assume an authority about black life that was appropriated and not honestly lived.
The more I read about Rachel Dolezal, the more annoyed I become which is why I have written this blog post as a catharsis and it is my last word on this matter. While we are distracted by this headline, a young white male walks into a historic black church in Charleston, South Carolina and unleashes gut-wrenching hatred taking nine black lives. This is the story that matters and requires our attention and collective action not the frivolous duplicity of a misguided white woman.
Title taken from Sonia Sanchez’s Homecoming (1969)
Sharon D. Raynor
Just had a fascinating conversation on this very topic with a colleague. What a distraction indeed but lends itself to discussions about the intersections of privilege, race and class…that move beyond the academy. The happenings at NCCU and their quickly increasing discrimination lawsuits touch on a few of these points. Thanks for sharing.
Tony; A critical and on point perspective on the ‘Rachel’ distraction. As we have heard on so many occasions, “Let the church say ‘Amen’!”