In a country where being black increases your likelihood of being unemployed, poor, rejected for a bank loan, suspected of wrongdoing and profiled as a criminal, being arrested or even shot by police, the mind boggles at the decision of Rachel Dolezal some years ago to begin posing as an African American woman. Yes perhaps blackness helps when you’re looking for a job in an Africana Studies department, selling your own African American portraiture art, or hoping to head up the local NAACP branch—all of which appear to have been the case for Dolezal—but generally speaking, adopting blackness as one’s personal identity and as a substitute for one’s actual whiteness is not exactly the path of least resistance in America.
And so, cognizant of the rarity with which white folks have tried to pass as black over the years—and in all likelihood for the above-mentioned reasons, among others—many have chimed in as to the personal, familial and even psychological issues that may lie at the heart of her deceptions. Not possessing a background in psychology I am loathe to spend too much time there, but having said that, it strikes me that there is an important, largely overlooked, and quite likely explanation for Dolezal’s duplicity, and one the importance of which goes well beyond her and whatever deep-seated emotional baggage may have contributed to her actions. Indeed, it has real implications for white people seeking to work in solidarity with people of color, whether in the BlackLivesMatter movement, Moral Mondays in North Carolina, or any other component of the modern civil rights and antiracism struggle. It is one I hadn’t really thought much about until I read something yesterday, a comment from one of her brothers (one of the actual black ones, adopted by her parents), to the effect that while Dolezal had been a graduate student at Howard, she felt as though she “hadn’t been treated very well,” at least in part because she was never fully accepted—she the white girl from Montana who paints black life onto canvas, and quite well at that—at this venerable and unapologetically black institution.
And what does a nice white girl from Montana do when the black folks don’t welcome her with open arms? Well, while I (in an earlier iteration of this essay) gave her credit for at least not chalking it up to “reverse racism” (as many a white person might), it appears I spoke too soon and was far too ecumenical. Turns out, she did just that: filing suit against Howard for “reverse discrimination,” claiming that her whiteness is what prevented her from obtaining a faculty gig and caused her art not to be as prominently displayed as that of black artists on campus. While the suit was dismissed and she was forced to pay the school’s legal fees, the incident provides some insight into the motives behind her subsequent journey into blackness. At worst, it means her transition to black identity was a sick kind of payback—as in, “I’ll show them. If they won’t treat me right as a white woman, I’ll just become a black woman”—in which case it was all about her. At best, she had a change of heart and decided she wanted to work as an ally but still felt she could never be really accepted as a white woman in the battle, or at the very least didn’t want to take the time and pay the dues needed to earn it.
At the very least, and even in the light most favorable to Dolezal then, she apparently discovered at Howard (and much to her shock and dismay) that it isn’t enough to love black culture and profess one’s solidarity with the movement for black equality; that indeed, black folks don’t automatically trust us just because we say we’re down; that proving oneself takes time, and that the process is messy as hell, and filled with wrong turns and mistakes and betrayals and apologies and a healthy dose of pain. And I suspect she didn’t have the patience for the messiness, but armed with righteous indignation at the society around her, and perhaps the one in which she had been raised out west, she opted to cut out the middle man. To hell with white allyship (or as my friends and colleagues Lisa Albrecht and Jesse Villalobos are calling it, “followership”), to hell with working with others; rather, she opted to simply become black, to speak for and as those others. It was her way of obtaining the authenticity to which she perhaps felt entitled just because of her sensibilities, and which she felt had been denied her by those whose approval she sought. It is a more extreme version, to be sure, but of a piece with those white folks who think dabbling in eastern religion makes us more spiritual, that donning beads and dream catchers in our rear-view mirrors makes us indigenous, or that blaring the loudest, brashest hip-hop beats in our stale suburbs renders us hard and street and real, in some way that isn’t possible within the confines of white normativity.
Setting aside the vindictive and narcissistic “payback” angle referenced above, perhaps Dolezal genuinely believed that rejecting whiteness, not merely in the political sense but even in herself was a righteous and even revolutionary act. But it was neither. It is revolutionary for real black people to rise up against whiteness because they possess a deep and abiding sense of the risk involved in doing so, not from having read about it, but because it is etched in their DNA, in the cell memory passed to them by their ancestors. For real black people to challenge whiteness and the horrific consequences of white supremacy is to demand my people shall live, even if I must die. For white people, the revolutionary act is not blacking up and pretending to share that historical memory; rather, it is demanding that despite one’s whiteness, one places humanity above skin and the conceits of race, to say that my people will live even as white supremacy must die. It is to remain white and yet challenge what that means in society by striving to change that society every day. Conversely, a white person who has lived as an African American since only slightly before the advent of the Obama administration is effectively seven years old in black years, and even then less weathered by what that means than any actual black seven-year old in this country. A mimic perhaps—possibly even a good one—but a mimic nonetheless. And mimicry is not solidarity.
Most disturbing of all, there was another path, however much Dolezal showed no interest in treading it. Whether intended or not, make no mistake, by negating the history (and even the apparent possibility) of real white antiracist solidarity, Dolezal ultimately provided a slap in the face to that history by saying that it wasn’t good enough for her to join. That the tradition of John Brown, of John Fee, of the Grimke sisters, of Anne and Carl Braden and Bob and Dottie Zellner, just to name a few, wasn’t a meaningful enough heritage for her to claim. She wasn’t willing to pay her dues, to follow the lead of people of color. She didn’t want to do the hard and messy work, struggling with other white folks and challenging them, which is, after all, what SNCC told us white folks to do in 1967, and what Malcolm had already said shortly before his death. She wanted to be done with white folks altogether, to immerse herself in blackness; yet, as a white person, she knew she could never do that fully. And so, instead…this. Instead, she rejected the very notion of white allyship, in herself or others, so much so that she recently objected quite strenuously to my coming to Eastern Washington University to speak, because in her estimation a white person cannot speak legitimately about racism issues concerning black people. While letting the irony marinate, consider the deeper and more disturbing revelation here: eschewing antiracist white identity, Rachel Dolezal felt that her only option was to become black. It is testimony either to her own sad denial of the potential of real solidarity (in which case, shame on her), or her lack of knowledge about that history (in which, shame on us as a society for not having taught it), or perhaps a bit of both.
There is a lesson here for us, for we who are white and care deeply about racial equity, justice and liberation, and the lesson is this: authentic antiracist white identity is what we must cultivate. We cannot shed our skin, nor our privileges like an outdated overcoat. They are not accessories to be donned or not as one pleases, but rather, persistent reminders of the society that is not yet real, which is why we must work with people of color to overturn the system that bestows those privileges. But the key word here is with people of color, not as them. We must be willing to do the difficult work of finding a different way to live in this skin.
That is the crucible of whiteness for us, and trust me when I say, it is more than enough for us to bear, and exactly as much as we must. We need not pretend to the burdens of others in order to get busy making our whiteness, though still visible, no longer relevant to our place in the world.