Rachel Dolezal, former Spokane, Washington NAACP chapter President, has been the talk of discussions across social media outlets to political think-tank blogs. In summation, Dolezal has lived the past ten years of her life as a black woman- getting a graduate degree from an HBCU to working for racial justice in the NAACP- only to be unveiled by her parents as a white woman.
By and large, the opinions of so many have been on the negative side, proclaiming what Dolezal has done as a perpetration of blackness. But is it this simple? Is there another way to think about this? Below is my take to that end: that I may indulge whoever reads my perspective on what is “right” about this picture.
I. Her compassion
Ten years! Dolezal has committed herself to this role for a decade (if not longer). The messy part (I think for most) is in her performance of blackness. Yet, I think it is important to remember the work she has also been doing. I think it would be one thing if Dolezal put on this identity and went on to become a black actress performing in black-ploitation films. Yet, she has dedicated her life to the work and mission of the NAACP. Before that, she received a graduate degree from Howard University. To that end, one thing that cannot be questioned is her compassion for racial justice.
II. Her consistency
From what has been gathered through news sources, this identity development for Dolezal has been the on-going result of experiences she has had even in childhood. Dolezal has black siblings (and was the only white child), has been educated about race and black topics at Howard University, a premier historically black university, and was “doing the work” for racial justice through the NAACP. She has also (however questionable and murky) taken on a biracial identity. Connected to her compassion, everyone- from her siblings to her parents- have said the same thing: Dolezal has been consistent and insistent in developing her black identity since before graduate school (and possibly since she was a child, according to a statement made by her mother).
III. Her color
Dolezal disowned her (white) father and claimed to have a black one. She chose a realistic color and a realistic story. Not just that- but she chose black. Finally! Someone in this world who wants to change their color and they go, not only for a tan or for white, but the identity of being black. Dolezal is not stupid- she knew what she was giving up and getting into when she decided she wanted to be a black person. We know what it means to be associated with being black. While there are complexities to this notion, namely the complicated history skin complexion and the fact that Dolezal performed and was viewed as a light-skin black woman, she chose black. I think that says some (quite possibly in the positive) about her motives and/or intentions.
IV. Her choices (and what she reminds us all about choice)
Dolezal chose to be black. Was it to make closer her connection to her siblings? Was it to do work that (had the potential) to end racism, in a radical way (giving up whiteness)? In a world of white supremacy and skin lightening cremes, we all (especially us dark-skinned folk) feel the resistance to blackness in white spaces- which is the reality in most of America. Even in black communities, for decades (if not centuries), black folks have been trying to lighten their skin either through interracial mixing or chemicals. There is an overall tension with (and some would argue a hate for) blackness in the world. Should it then be interesting that a white person decides to give up their whiteness to become black?
In the matters of all human existence and how people choose to live their lives, I am pro-choice. Whether it be about how one has sex to how one engages in monogamous or polyamorous relationships to whether a person utilizes plastic surgery to attain the body they want: I am pro-choice. I believe everyone, at a fundamental level, has the right to do with their bodies as they choose. It does complicate things when their choices are connected to histories of trauma, oppression and ownership associated with those particular parts of the human experience. But is not all of who we are (as individuals, groups, and institutions) walking markers of those histories? Do not we all employ (to some extent) the performances of varying cultural markers to legitimize who we say we are? It is also complicated, I think, in part because we have seen (time and time again) the co-opting of “black culture” and “black bodies” by white people for their benefit, but to our detriment. But is this the same as that?
V. Her challenges (to us)
Lastly, I have been challenged to think about a few things since this has occurred. First, Dolezal has challenged me to think beyond ownership and authenticity of race and skin color. Can I, as a black person, claim ownership over blackness to the extent that I can say what is blackness, who is black and who can be black? As a gay man, haven’t I experienced the same with regard to who qualifies for marriage or what a family looks like? Have not other groups also experience this type of identity dominance and imperialism?
She has also challenged me to think about the parallels between gender and race identity- not by any means to assert that gender identity questions are THE same as race identity questions, but to (at least) consider that the journeys one can go through as it relates to identity and transition (if one chooses) can extend to that of race as well. The question is: Is it possible to embrace people who choose to be different races, especially when that race happens to be black? Can a trans-racial movement exist? Be legitimate? Is that a possible step toward our liberation toward a world without racism?
I have to also be critical of the critics by asking one simple question: What have you done? Is this event in history just another opportunity for you to shun another person in a funny meme or quirky status? While this story is fraught with potential mis-steps on the part of Dolezal’s, what kind of work have you done or are doing for the advancement of all people and in particular, anti-racist initiatives? Does this have to be the nature of people when they make decisions that may not be fully thought out: that we take one moment and shame and defame all their efforts they may have been in our benefit?
Dolezal has also challenged me to remember that race (and racism), like identity (and identity development) are not issues of black and white nor can their be simply analyzed in such a simplistic way (in black and white; overly simplistic binary oppositions like right vs. wrong). There is so much more to what we (as living organisms) can become and what we are. We should use our history and reminders of evolution as an encouragement to (at best) believe that identity diversity can have infinite possibilities.
Lastly, Dolezal’s story has reminded me to think about the similarities between how we have criticized but too have been criticized. As people belonging to groups that have at one time been relegated to the discussions of politics and science in the (de)legitimization of our existence, I think we owe this event more than a quick judgmental analysis, simply calling this betrayal of one’s genetics or a outright mimicry of blackness in blackface. We have, at some time, been told who we are, how are bodies should exist and be used. Again, I am not suggesting that this is the same as other identity struggles, but it can be an opening to a discussion about the possibilities of choice and identity for all of us, regardless of the ways that we take on identity.