The firestorm over Rachel Dolezal continues to hold people’s attention. As Jessie detailed in her post about Dolezal, the President of the Spokane, Washington NAACP, has presented herself in her adult life as African American (or at least as bi-racial, claiming to have an African American father). Last week her birth parents, both white, told the media that Rachel is, in fact, white – and they illustrated with pictures of her as a child with long blond hair, very fair skin, and blue eyes, a stark contrast to how she looks as an adult:
After some media became aware of her biological parents and the childhood photo, one reporter challenged her, asking about the man she had claimed was her father (an African American man) and asking her directly whether she was African American (at which point Dolezal walked away from the interview). Through a newly established Twitter account, Dolezal has said she will to make a longer statement on Monday.
As these incidents have become public and the issue has begun to receive a great deal of reaction and commentary, there has been much talk about race being socially constructed, about how culture affects our choices about appearance, intellectual pursuits, and ethnic identification. There has even been comparisons between Dolezal’s choices to present herself as African American and the gendered choices of transgendered individuals – this leading to considerations of whether Dolezal might be “transracial”. Most centrally the theme has seemed to be that this is a “complicated” issue concerning race, culture, and racial identity.
As a white woman who grew up in and lives in a black community and family, and as a scholar of race and racism, I received many requests to comment on the issue. At first I was dismissive, because I felt that this was a far less complex issue than many have suggested—but as the requests have continued, and the discussion about this case has proliferated, I felt it necessary to add my voice. Rachel Dolezal doesn’t represent, for me, the difficult question that many have suggested. Yes, race is socially constructed. And yes, we all take on elements of the culture in which we live and love. However, race and culture are constructed in connection with social structure, in this case a racial structure organized around white domination – a fact that is quite frequently missing from racial analyses and is sorely missing from the discussion of this woman. From my own experience I can say that being a white woman in an African American community and family, and having to negotiate my racial identity in a social structure characterized by white domination, is complex and challenging – it is challenging to have cultural elements to your life that don’t match the way people racialize you. It is challenging to have the expectations of others become a critique of your identity. It is, most importantly, challenging to know how to handle the fact that I continuously receive white privilege while those I love do not, to repeatedly see those I love experience racist oppression and even violence, and to try to negotiate that contradiction in my most intimate family relationships.
One of the most complex elements of my life is negotiating the dynamics of being critical of white supremacy, repulsed by the structural reality of white privilege, power, and authority, and at the same time being always unable to disassociate from a social structure that views me as white, and is ready to benefit me with the privileges of whiteness. But – because I abhor white domination and the racial oppression that characterizes our society, I realize that this is an essential negotiation that I must undertake, continuously and with reflexivity.
And this is NOT what Rachel Dolezal has done. No. Rachel has engaged in an act of masquerade. She has darkened her skin, she has permed and colored her hair. She has pretended that she did not grow up with all the privileges of whiteness. She has taken resources from the Black community in the form of a scholarship from Howard University, an Historically Black College/University. (And no, this is not the same as African American people passing as white so they can gain access to white resources – because our racial structure is based upon white supremacy and the denial of resources to people of color – one of the reasons universities like Howard exist). She has rejected the hard work of trying to negotiate a racial identity that sometimes makes her an outsider in the very community in which she wants to belong – and in doing that she has reified white power, she has made a mockery of the lived experiences of black women in the United States, and she has abrogated her responsibility as white woman who cares about equality. It does not matter if she works in civil rights, it does not matter what she has done for racial equity – her reification of white domination remains, and it belies all of her other efforts.