By now perhaps you’ve heard that Ms. Can’t-stop-doing-the-absolute-most Rachel Dolezal has changed her name. She has decided that the secret to once again hoodwinking folks into believing she’s Black is to give herself a full-on Africanified name. She now wants y’all to call her Nkechi Amare Diallo.
I wish I was joking.
I wish I had a barf bag.
Can someone please come get this woman? Gather her up and show her exactly where to take her seat? Lead her by the hand — or perhaps by a handful of her struggle weave — and put her in the corner with a sugar teat where she can sit down and shut the fuck up. Forever.
I was pissed when I saw this “news” item yesterday. Why can’t this woman stay out of my feed? Why can’t she just disappear already? Why doesn’t she get that her 15 minutes are past, that they were never really her 15 minutes in the first place but some time she stole from actual Black women all-over-the-damn-where?
It made me so tired. So angry. And then more tired.
I set it aside. I chose not to write about it. I cranked out some fluff about popcorn instead. But I still have her kanekalon mess stuck between my back teeth.
So I’m posting a revised-and-finally-finished-after-being-ignored-for-two-years piece I wrote when Dolezal’s hideous story first broke.
Color, Culture, and Clown White: Rachel Dolezal, Blackness, and Misogynoir
For 54 years, I have been Black. Never a question, for me or anyone else. It’s been an easier and more comfortable truth at some times than at others, but it has always been a truth. When my sister and I put cardigans on our heads to playact long, straight hair, I was Black. When white friends looked right in my face and told me they didn’t see me as Black, I was Black. When I relaxed my hair, I was Black. When I let a make-up counter lady talk me into buying foundation shades too light and when I wore that ridiculously clownish color out in the street, I was Black.
This woman is Alice Tillis, my great grandmother.
She is Black, just not as visibly as I am. She wouldn’t have called herself “Black,” but I am of her. As is true for many families of the diaspora, my relatives can fill every space on the black-to-white spectrum.
There are many reasons for this, but the first is racism, is the power and greed of White Supremacy that supported the triangle trade, that put African women into the hands of white, rapist slavers.
And so my great grandmother, whose father was the Scottish man who enslaved her mother. Because, also like many people in the diaspora, I don’t have to look back too far to find enslaved relatives.
* * *
I managed to be a semi-silent observer of the infuriating insult that is Rachel Dolezal. But she’s back in the news. I have to be irked by the sight of her face in my feed yet again, staring out at me, by turns smug and self-pitying. Biting my tongue on all the things this woman’s behavior calls up in me allows her to silence yet another Black woman. And she’s had that power for too long.
Shortly after her fall from grace, a friend was on a dating site and sent me a screen cap of a white man’s description of the women he wanted to hear from. At the bottom of the long list of must-haves was this cleverness: “The only black women who should reply better be black like Rachel Dolezal.” Yes, exactly that. The only Black women this asshat will date are the kind who aren’t actually Black at all. Thank you for the heads up.
After the original story broke, an NPR news host let us know that he’d be discussing the case later that day. He asked if race was color or culture and suggested that he’d get to the bottom of it on his show.
And I wondered if he was really that ignorant or if he just fell in love with the alliteration.
Because race isn’t color or culture, and we all ought to be grown up and honest enough to know better than to say that at this point in our history.
My great-grandmother and me
We aren’t the same color, and we most definitely haven’t lived the same culture. We are still, however, the same race.
Of course we are. Because race has not one thing to do with color or culture. Race is about the power structure that works for, affirms, and upholds White Supremacy and the power of white privilege. Period.
Rachel Dolezal isn’t just a liar. She is, fundamentally, a white supremacist. She knows that, as a white woman, she can pantomime blackness and get away with it, reap the benefits of it, and never have to deal with the negatives. She knows that, as a white woman, the dominant culture of this country will protect her, even as she runs around in black face.
She is the ultimate user and benefactor of white privilege. She can choose to act as though race is fluid, and she can do that because she is white. Crossing that line works because she is white. It’s easy enough to see that such an attempted crossover wouldn’t work for me if I woke up tomorrow and claimed to be white because I “feel” white, but remember how obsessed America was when Mariah Carey hit the scene, how relentlessly the media dug and dug to find out what she “was,” to set the record straight on whether or not she was “part black.” The idea that this woman could keep her history to herself and just be a musical artist who was judged based on her songs was unacceptable. She wasn’t allowed to tacitly pass as white, if that was even what she was attempting. White America had to be the arbiter of her whiteness. White America gave Carey the thumbs down. Loved her music, but she would not be allowed live on the “fair” side of the line. Carey isn’t alone. The same media frenzy was sparked when Nora Jones arrived, when Amos Lee arrived.
As many have pointed out, there have been Black people who have crossed the color line, left their histories and families behind and passed for white. This truth is held up as an example of how not unusual or troubling Dolezal’s story is. To everyone making that point, you’ll just have to miss me.
People not of the dominant culture who pass their way into that culture are hoping to access some of the ease, opportunity, and safety denied them by a society created to value and privilege whiteness. They are hoping they will finally be able to get a job based on their merits rather than being denied one based on their color. They are hoping to have no trouble getting a hotel room, or a seat at a lunch counter, or a decent education. They are hoping to be able to bump into a white woman and not be lynched.
Dolezal, however, elbowed her way into the sphere of people this society works to hold back and keep down, and has chosen to set herself up as deserving a generous share of the limited opportunities available there.
White Supremacy has always held tightly to about nine-tenths of all possible goodies. Rachel Dolezal looked over at the portion begrudgingly allowed to non-white folks and decided to skim the cream off the top.
Black women sift to the bottom of every social value hierarchy diagram. There is too much truth in Hurston’s “mule of the world” line. Thanks to the steady drum beat of the White Supremacist narrative, Black women have forever been seen as pack animals and brood sows. As such, our lives – and deaths – are routinely counted as less if they are counted at all. And yet Dolezal came for us.
Dolezal has pantomimed Black womanhood for profit. She could maybe have been an ordinary white woman in the world and achieved some level of success, but she could occupy positions of power and status as a black woman precisely because of racial prejudice and anti-black misogyny: White Supremacy and the long heavy shadow of internalized racial inferiority. If she were an extremely light-skinned Black woman, Dolezal could reap rewards on both sides of the color line. So much winning! She isn’t crazy. She knows exactly what game she’s playing and exactly how to play it.
Even in her exposure, she continued to profit – all those TV interviews, the book deal that (of course) eventually came, the movie rights that will surely follow. Exposure took very little away from her. And her whiteness allows her to continue to claim that she is black. A Black person passing for white risks numerous losses if discovered, not least among which are loss of family members, loss of employment opportunities, loss of safety and protection. And discovery would never be defended as angrily and vociferously as it has been in this case. Dolezal has, ultimately, risked nothing. She can choose to be a white woman and enjoy her privilege outright, slipping back into the cloak of her original life. She can choose – as she seems determined to do – to stand her ground, continue to assert that race means only what she says it means and that the rest of us can go to hell … another gift of white privilege, as white people have always and ever been the arbiters of who is and isn’t white.
Whichever choice she makes, she will continue to profit, will continue to find any number of supporters and defenders … even as actual Black women continue to fight on all fronts to be seen, heard, valued, protected.
A friend asked why I was so angry, so disgusted. She wondered what I thought Dolezal had taken from Black people, from Black women. She sees the story as a nonsensical distraction from real issues.
And that’s true. Dolezal is a distraction. But even with the truth of that, it’s dangerous to ignore the fact of her story. What she’s done and the hateful noise she generates with her claim that she is the one who has forced America to talk about race … all of it needs calling out. To dismiss her is to once again paper over the emotional, political, and social damage done by racism in this country.
Dolezal played into racist tropes to strengthen her position and profit from her dishonesty. She used white privilege to enter the space of Black women and call it hers. She invented a history of racial violence and abuse, claimed to be the victim of racial hate crimes, and held these “facts” up as her racial and cultural bona fides. She changed her skin color and hair to support her performance. She claimed a lived experience and expertise in a history that she hadn’t lived or experienced. And in the exposure of her fraud, she claimed to be inspiring the first real, national conversation about race, as if the Black Lives Matter movement hadn’t opened that conversation a year earlier and sustained it ever since.
Every move she’s made has taken space from Black women. And that is the bit stuck in my teeth, the affront I can’t get clear of. There is already such limited space for Black women to occupy that having any of it occupied by a white woman silences us, erases us. All of the good work on behalf of Black people that Dolezal’s defenders pointed to when they scolded those of us who were angry could have been accomplished by a white person … and could have shown an excellent example to other white folks of what it means to be an ally. Instead, Dolezal has chosen to be usurper rather than ally, has decided that she does a better job speaking for Black folks than we do for ourselves.
This ugliness is a good reminder of how active and vigilant White Supremacy is. Look away for a moment, focus your energies on the several aggressive and violent fronts from which Black people are attacked, and different territory will be annexed, another tongue will be cut out. Who knew we needed to worry about this type of encroachment? Well, now we do. This is the conversation Dolezal should be sparking, the conversation she has sparked for me: how do we protect ourselves, even against attacks it makes no sense for us to imagine. Thanks Rachel.
In 2017, I’m on my #GriotGrind, committed to writing an essay a week.
I’ve fallen behind, but I’m determined to catch up!
It’s the 10th annual Slice of Life Story Challenge!
Head over to Two Writing Teachers to see all of today’s slices!
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