But she does seem to be an unraveling puzzle that continues to elicit curiosity, outrage, and comment. From Mia McKenzie’s discussion of Blackness and Blackface, to Kai M Green’s willingness to give Rachel a little more benefit of the doubt in discussing the similarities of race and gender constructs, to Lisa Marie Rollins’ explanation of what transracial actually means, plenty has been said already. It is a story with endless complexity.
While I find all of this interesting, what interests me specifically about this situation is the white shame of Rachel Dolezal’s identification as Black. In her interview with Melissa Harris-Perry earlier this week, Rachel Dolezal clearly self-identified as a Black woman. Her interview revealed a belief that all one needs in order to identify as Black is to “feel” and “live” the “Black experience,” which of course implies that she believes herself to be able to determine and author what is the “Black experience.”
Darnell L Moore, who believes that Rachel’s identification is indeed “cultural theft,” states that there is “a stark difference between racial indeterminacy, or the idea that race is not fixed and individuals may have multiple racial identities, and racial misrepresentation.”, What he points out, more importantly, is that:
The fiasco is a glaring example of white privilege in action. During a moment when so many are finally speaking out about the unceasing police abuse brutalizing Black Americans… news of Dolezal is now taking up much-needed space in media and public dialogues. The constant re-centering of racial conversations on whiteness and the excessive focus on white lives are two of the most prominent features of white privilege.
And there is white privilege at play in this story. A lot of people have pointed out the white privilege of Rachel’s decision to pass herself as Black, and have especially highlighted the difference between her “passing as Black” and the passing as white that has been done by Black folks in the context of a country that has systematically enslaved, lynched, murdered, and mass incarcerated Black people. Amanda Seales is quoted with “a friendly reminder that a Black person passing as white was once a criminal offense.” The joke on the street is that the consequence for Rachel’s passing as Black, given our society’s pattern on rewarding white people for their harms against marginalized communities, will be a book or movie deal.
For Rachel to say that her passing as Black was in some way linked to her survival (as she did) feels disrespectful because the forces that threaten the survival of Black folks under a system of white supremacy should not be compared to the the threats (real or perceived) that Dolezal experienced regarding her identity. And to say that one only needs to have “a spiritual, visceral, instinctual connection” with another culture or ethnicity in order to identify as that culture or ethnicity is to deny the reality of the many people who cannot pass, or who do not have that choice, or that privilege.
But there is still something deeper here about whiteness that is not being addressed.
In Black Looks: Race and Representation, bell hooks states that the “commodification of Black culture by whites in no way challenges white supremacy when it takes the form of making Blackness the ‘spice that can liven up the dull dish that is mainstream white culture.’” In another piece, Consuming Commodified Blackness (page 21), bell hooks relates this to the experience of whiteness, which is what has been less critically discussed in relation to Rachel Dolezal: “There’s a way in which white culture is perceived as too Wonder Bread right now, not edgy enough, not dangerous enough.”
What is interesting is the possibility that Rachel coded her experience of herself as Black because it was not, perhaps, plausible for her to conceive that her experience could be held within the realm of whiteness.
Many have spoken to the positive impacts Rachel could have had in the struggle for racial justice through an accountable relationship with her whiteness. This is true, of course. For her to have held her own experience and identity, to have been in deep and authentic relationship with Black folks, to have struggled for racial justice, to love Blackness without fetishizing, consuming, or appropriating it, but to remain white, would have supported a shifting in what is defined as white. That would have been revolutionary. But she didn’t do this. She left whiteness as it was, and instead positioned herself within Blackness. As Mia McKenzie puts it, “I hear people saying that Rachel Dolezal hasn’t done any harm and this isn’t true…To put Blackness on as a costume and parade around does harm to Black people. In particular, what Rachel Dolezal has done is harmful to Black women… It’s insulting…Appropriation isn’t solidarity.”
But what’s also true is that whiteness and white supremacy are pathological, and Rachel is not alone in wanting to distance herself from it (we actually just discussed this in our last monthly dialogue). Our culture is lacking in a mainstream understanding of the historical and categorical ways that colonization has taken hundreds of cultures and created this thing called whiteness, vacuuming almost all of the radical, indigenous and complex narratives and histories out of it. Whiteness is a painful thing to own.
And the more you understand and face the realities of whiteness, the more it feels like carrying around the plague. Rachel’s brother, Ezra, described Rachel’s actions as “self-hating.” I admit there are many times I have hated my whiteness, even wished I wasn’t white, just so that I could be spared of the responsibility of repairing the centuries worth of damage my ancestors have done. In this way, Rachel is the shadow of white people, and perhaps this is why it is so easy to throw her under the bus, and to make her a spectacle and an individual rather than a manifestation of the sick world in which we live. She is one epitome of collectively disowned white privilege. She is a manifestation of white shame, akin to every white woman wearing a headdress at a music festival, because she cannot find anything within her own culture to make her feel unique, beautiful, and worthy of love. And so she finds it, however ignorant, harmless, or malicious her intention, within another culture. As Rebecca Carroll elaborates, “it’s apocalyptic, white privilege on steroids: ‘Look at me! Look what I can do! I can just take this race and culture because I want it!’ It’s a hyper-internalized colonization mentality.” While we must hold her (and every person) accountable for the individual choices that have been made, we must also recognize that, in some ways, she is connected to every colonized white person who looks to other cultures for the answers.
This is, in fact, one of the mechanisms of colonization: to force people to abandon their own cultural practices in order to survive. Criminalize and punish them for displaying any cultural uniqueness (this can be seen in many examples – everything from mob violence against the Irish, to forcing First Nations peoples and immigrants to abandon their own languages in order to learn English, to the increased risk of violence that Muslim people face if they wear hijabs). And, once we are completely assimilated and subsumed by colonization, well, then those who stand to make a profit shine a mirror on our emptiness – on the big hole that colonization left inside us. Offer us an array of mass marketed, highly consumable, one-size-fits-all, exotic cultures and identities available for purchase, to be put on by choice, but void of history, context, or connection to ancestors.
The tidal wave of Rachel Dolezal will eventually roll away, but the collective illness and the fragility complex that produced her will linger until white people collectively own the shadow of our shame. As Ali Michael puts it,
It seems like a good warning. The ‘Rachel Dolezal Syndrome’ is a potential pitfall for any white people on the journey towards recognizing the truth of what it means to be white and accepting responsibility for it. But we cannot not be white. And we cannot undo what whiteness has done. We can only start from where we are and who we are.
If we, each and every white person, do not actively work to redefine the defaults of whiteness, to address the damage we have done, to reclaim the beauty, the strength, and the outrageous crimes of our ancestors, to learn to be in deep relationship within our complicated identities and communities, and to commit to dismantling the white supremacist, capitalist patriarchy and all systems of domination and exploitation, then we are the reason that Rachel Dolezal is inevitable.
**Many thanks to Zara, Kelley, Ellen, Lissa, Julia, and Desi for feedback and editing. And to Desi also for inspiring me to write it. Thanks also to WNC dialogue spaces for feeding these ideas.