Like Wendy Moore, as a white antiracist scholar and mother of biracial (African American/white) children who has spent the majority of her life in intimate relations with people of color, I have been asked a lot lately to give my two cents on Rachel Dolezal. And also like Moore, I initially hesitated to speak, because it seemed so many excellent points had already been made, especially by Jessie’s insightful post: that Dolezal’s experience cannot be neatly equated to being transgender; that being black is not a costume one cannot take on and off at will without serious social and political ramifications (the majority of which the masqueraders seem to obfuscate, deny or not even consider); and that any well-intentioned antiracist efforts Dolezal may have attempted are surely cancelled out by her dishonest cooptation of resources that otherwise would have gone to people of color.
Yet we whites are often fond of playing the good white, bad white game: Bad Kramer from Seinfeld , bad Paula Deen—it would seem we may hold up the “bad white” examples to make our own selves feel better. I may put my foot in my mouth sometimes when it comes to race, but at least I don’t do it to such public and blatant proportions, so that must make me not racist—or so the confused logic goes. At least I’m not Dylann Storm Roof, who committed the brutal anti-black hate crime of shooting 9 people in a Charleston, SC church—although by confused white logic, we may not even be sure if we can put him in the good white or bad white column, since, after all, amidst all the racist propaganda he collected, he also “had black friends.”
Not unlike the white students in my Race classes who eventually reach their oversaturation point in exposure to white racism, stating exasperatedly, “why does everything have to be about race?” (um, because that’s the title of the course? Why does everything have to be about chemistry in your chemistry class?) it is clear that much of white America can only take so much of the media attention on police shootings of unarmed African Americans. It’s harder to play the good white, bad white game with such stories of institutional systemic racism, for several reasons. There’s often not a single/lone culprit. Moreover, as in the case of Baltimore, some of the officers weren’t even white—and boy, do whites get really confused then (because the concepts of internalized and institutional racism don’t typically come up in the good cop/bad cop discussions). And more to the point, we are often told that officers shot because they “felt threatened.” Now all bets are off for the good white, bad white game. The object of the game is to absolve whites of their guilty consciences by focusing on white racists who do “crazy” things that average whites convince themselves they would never do—and what white person hasn’t “felt threatened” by someone who is African American? Given what research tells us about the amount of antiblack attitudes held by a majority of white Americans, including assuming blacks are prone to crime, it’s doubtful that most whites are able to draw such a clear dividing line in their minds between themselves and a police officer who “felt threatened” by a black man.
So what better relief from this cognitive dissonance than to shift the mass media discussion away from such institutional racism and toward a white woman—Rachel Dolezal—who has nowhere near the power of the racial state that will soon likely acquit yet another (and many other) officers murdering unarmed African Americans for so-called “justified” reasons? In the game of good white, bad white, most whites can tell themselves, at least I haven’t lied about my race and pretended I was black. The Dolezal story thus presents a more palatable racism news feed for many whites who may be able to see themselves in the shoes of a “threatened” police officer but can’t ever imagine themselves masquerading as black.
It’s so much easier to put a demonizing face on a single white woman (Rachel Dolezal) who deceitfully stole an opportunity from potentially other equally or better qualified African Americans than it is to do a news story on the scores of whites who everyday take opportunities from equally or more qualified people of color through the “opportunity hoarding” that Nancy Ditomaso describes in her book about mostly all-white job referral networks. So Rachel Dolezal gets to be the scapegoat for confused whites, while the rest of us are deluded into thinking our white privilege and racism is normal and not worthy of public outrage, by comparison.
In Malcolm X’s autobiography, he argues it is no accident that the history books paint John Brown (a white man executed for his role in an 1859 slave rebellion) as a “nut case.” Malcolm X asserts it’s quite intentional that the white power structure doesn’t want the masses of whites to think it’s normal to challenge their own white privilege. Although I do not believe the heroic acts of Brown and the cowardice of Dolezal can at all be equated, I argue in my book Whites Confront Racism (2001), as others have before me, that the historical silence about white involvement in antiracist struggle can leave whites confused about where they fit in. Perhaps in Dolezal’s small town upbringing, and subsequent experience of racial politicization in the context of an HBCU campus, left her with a false dichotomy: be white and part of the problem, or be black and be part of the solution.
Newly declared antiracist whites can tend to distance themselves from their own communities and position themselves as “down with the black people” instead, as a way of assuaging their white guilt. Yet people of color will consistently tell white antiracists that the very thing they most need is for whites to go back into their own communities and talk to other white people about racism. We have a unique position from which to do this, in ways that people of color cannot, since whites so often see them as self-interested or “playing the race card” when they speak the truth about racism. In what I call privileged polemics, we are more likely to be believed by fellow whites when we say, yes, racism really happens. Sad, but true. So in choosing to cut herself off from her white family and ally herself in less-than-forthcoming ways with people of color, perhaps Dolezal was one of those confused white antiracists that did not realize there was a place for her in the movement just the way she is. Dolezal’s actions are certainly not congruent with those of principled antiracists. But fully all of the more respected antiracists will tell you that we white antiracists probably fumble around, fail, and put our foot in our mouths more than we succeed. We are constantly learning, and constantly making mistakes—sloughing off a lifetime of racist conditioning, one baby step at a time. So like Moore, although I cannot personally relate to the path Dolezal has chosen, I’ll let those without mistakes on their track record hurl their stones at her. I can only pray that she (and more importantly many more others) eventually become(s) less confused about what racism is, and why fighting widespread white privilege and mass incarceration (among many other forms of systemic racism) is so much more worth our time and attention than one white woman’s confusion.
Eileen O’Brien is a leading researcher on white anti-racists and Associate Professor of Sociology and Assistant Chair, Social Sciences at Saint Leo University (Virginia Campus)