Does anyone remember the old tv show To Tell the Truth? Three contestants tried to guess which panelist was telling the truth about a particular life experience. Two panelists were lying, while one told the truth. While they were all answering the same questions, two of the contestants gave made up answers. At the end of the show, the host would ask for the real person to stand up. So here is my question… Will the Rachel Dolezal please stand up?
Over the past few days information has emerged about a woman named Rachel Dolezal. Certainly you’ve seen it, and if you haven’t you can find out more about the situation here. If you want a good laugh, pick your favorite social media website and search #AskRachel. More on that later. A few readers weighed in on what they thought, those comments were posted to the blog as well. I address a lot of what was said indirectly.
Let’s start with the question on everyone’s mind: Why?
Unfortunately, I cannot answer this. I could come up with something about how attending an HBCU made her appreciate black culture or how her teaching in Africana studies would’ve undoubtedly covered the diaspora. Certainly she has heard the term cultural appropriation as the (now former) president of the Spokane Chapter of the NAACP. Let me repeat. as PRESIDENT OF THE NAACP. I keep waiting on the why to fall out of the sky, or at least out of a press statement from her camp. I have no why. But I do know that there is a lot wrong here. This is not okay. You can disagree with me, but let me explain why this is a problem.
1. Cultural Appropriation
So, for those of you who are unfamiliar with the term, cultural appropriation is what happens when people take an aspect of a culture they think is “cool” without regard to historical context or understanding and take it as their own. Think: Bantu Knots on New York Runways or Miley Cyrus’ use of black dancers with big butts without regard to the sad history of Saartjie Baartman. To groom yourself to appear stereotypically black mind you, (tanning, dark makeup, “natural hair”) is appropriating based on a perception. Second, let’s talk about her natural hair. Natural by definition means not caused by humankind, look at her hair in the pictures of her before she “decided” she was black and after. Then look at the instagram photo that said she was going with the “natural look.” I’m going to take a short walk on a pretty sturdy branch and guess that this is not, for her, “natural.” This is blackface in the 21st century. Except instead of outwardly making fun of black people, she is pretending to be one, while ignoring the consequences of her lies. Which brings me to my next point.
She lied. She lied about who her parents are. She lied about her “black childhood.” She lied about her heritage. She invented a “black” backstory, to imply that we all have the same stereotypical life and perpetuate the stereotype that to be black has to mean going up in a difficult home situation. For some black people this is undoubtedly the case, as it can be the case no matter what your skin looks like. However, the idea there is one idea of what it means to be black is problematic for no other reason than this little detail we have been fighting forever… BLACKNESS IS NOT A MONOLITH. Might I suggest Toure’s Who’s Afraid of Post Blackness for an explanation on why, surprisingly, each black person you know is an individual, is not so-and-so’s cousin no matter how much you “think” they look alike, nor are the racially obligated to like watermelon and fried chicken. She lied, and the lies she told are based on centuries old fictitious stereotypes that harm the movement towards racial justice, that she claims to be fighting for which is my last point, but more on that later.
3. Stop saying transracial
Transracial does not mean what you think it means. And even if it did, you’d be wrong. Transracial is an adoption term referring to when the parent and the adopted child have different races. Saying transracial in the way people are relating it to trans as a gender identity is harmful to trans people. The implication is that if you can choose your gender you can choose your race. Except that people don’t choose their gender. They simply acknowledge that their gender does (or does not) match the gender they were assigned at birth by a doctor who saw biology. People don’t choose their gender any more than they choose their race. Race and gender are both social constructs, however, Rachel didn’t “choose” a race, she chose a stereotype.
4. #Ask Rachel
While some may find it hypocritical, I find this hilarious. Perhaps because these memories take me back to my childhood and in some cases, back to last week. There is not a singular black experience but there is definitely something shared. These posts are, in my opinion, trying to take the edge out of something that hurtful and demeaning, by finding ways to acknowledge that there are somethings we all share that, even if we can’t always verbalize, make us part of a community bigger than ourselves.
5. This is not racial justice
Racial justice looks like people being free to be themselves without fear of retaliation or discrimination based on their race. Which means, that Rachel, a white woman, should be free to be a white woman, who believes that black people deserve rights without having to alter her appearance to be accepted as an ally or an advocate. One of the worst things people can do is to pretend to wholly understand the plight of a demographic you do not belong to. She was passing for black. PASSING. As in what blacks used to do to try to escape the kind of discrimination and hatred that came with blackness and gain the privilege that came along with whiteness. I would like to know how passing for black has ever saved anybody’s life or freed them from bondage.
I firmly believe people should be true to themselves. Appropriation is never true. What is true is that if Rachel chooses, she doesn’t have to worry about being stopped by police because of her race. She can choose not to worry about being perceived angry because that is how the world sees black women. I don’t have that choice. This is white privilege at its finest. A friend of mine wrapped this up in a bow pretty succinctly with a single tweet when she said
“I’m not going to pretend to be a lesbian to join my university’s BGLSA. I’ll just simply be an ally. It’s not difficult. Embrace…”
Perhaps it would do Rachel some good to learn what it means to be authentically you and to recognize that blackness is not a fad or a fashion statement; that depending on the day it a blessing or a death sentence. My blackness does not wash off at night, but Rachel’s does, and that is the very definition of white privilege.