So listen, I set aside June for being away and writing other things than blog posts, but I keep getting pulled back to this story which is complex and related to some other writing I’m doing…so here I go.
You’ve heard, or at least partially taken note of, the Rachel Dolezal story by now. Rachel Dolezal, pictured above – as an adult, presenting as “black” and on the right, as a young white girl – is at the center of a controversy that is set to last for days if the trending hashtags for her name, #AskRachel and #transracial are any indication.
She’s in all kinds of hot water because she lied and misrepresented her racial background to a number of institutions and organizations, most recently to the Spokane NAACP. Dozel also holds a position as professor in Africana Studies at Eastern Washington University. Her page on the university website says that she “holds a Master’s degree from Howard University,” and this apparently is where part of this story began. When Rachel applied to Howard University to study art with a portfolio of “exclusively African American portraiture,” the university “took her for a black woman” and gave her a full scholarship. Among the courses she teaches now are “The Black Woman’s Struggle” and her faculty profile lists “the intersection of race, gender and class in the contemporary Diaspora with a specific emphasis on Black women in visual culture” among her research interests. Since about 2007, she has been identifying herself as “black”.
A local Spokane-area reporter, Jeff Humphrey, questioned Rachel Dolezal about a photo she posted on her Facebook page of an African American man that she identified as her father. The interview ended after Humphrey called her on the question:
“Ma’am, I was wondering if your dad really is an African-American man,” Humphrey asked.
“I don’t understand the question,” Dolezal answered. “I did tell you [that man in the picture] is my dad.”
“Are your parents white?” Humphrey asked. At that point, Dolezal removed the microphone, ended the interview and walked away.
Following up on the story, the Washington Post reached out to her parents, Lawrence and Ruthanne Dolezal of Troy, Montana for comment. They said Rachel Dolezal is their daughter and that they are (all) Caucasian. Ruthanne Dolezal said the family’s ancestry is Czech, Swedish and German. She said the family does have some “faint traces” of Native American heritage as well (put a pin there – I’ll come back to this). When she took a position with the Spokane Office of Police Ombudsman Commission, Rachel Dolezal said she had several ethnic origins on the application, including white, black and American Indian.
Part of this story is also about transracial adoption and a family at war. The parents, Ruthanne and Lawrence, adopted four black children who are siblings to Rachel. And, now, Rachel is in a court battle to adopt one of those siblings.
The Trouble with White Womanhood when Caught Passing for Black
How do can we make sense of this complex story and what does it mean about white womanhood? As longtime readers here will know, I’ve been doing a series for about a year and a half now on the trouble with white womanhood and white feminism. Through that lens, there’s a lot that this story can tell us about what’s so troubling about Rachel Dolezal’s passing for a black woman.
Access to Resources, aka ‘Theft’
First and foremost, the trouble with Rachel Dolezal passing as a black woman is that by doing this she’s taken resources away from another person who is structurally situated as black (in addition to having phenotype that goes with that structural position). So, just looking back at her resume that we know of from 2007 – she got a full ride scholarship at historically black Howard University — an education that would have gone to an otherwise black person.
She got a faculty job (albeit part-time) at Eastern Washington University in Africana Studies, which also might have gone to someone who was actually African American or African.
And, most recently, she got a position as the President of the NAACP in Spokane. This could have gone to a white person (there’s a long history in the NAACP of white leadership, going back to the founders), but in running for that position she misrepresented herself as black. And don’t think people in the NAACP were completely fooled. The past president of the Spokane NAACP, Mr. James Wilburn, said in an interview that a few members of that group discussed her background before her election late last year. “It was discussed among close members to me, and we kept it like that,” he told the Spokane Spokesman-Review. It was Mr. Wilburn, who is black, that Dolezal defeated in the election for NAACP President.
The Lying & Erasure of Black Women
By passing as black, Dolezal told not just one lie, but a series of lies about herself and her past. In an interview from Februrary, 2014, Dolezal was asked about her upbringing.
“I grew up in a very religious family that used corporal punishment as a way to keep their kids from going to hell. … I got beaten with wooden boards and spoons a lot and had to do manual labor jobs like digging potatoes or pulling thistles and weeds, whereas my siblings, who were darker, … were beaten with a baboon whip … and sometimes [my parents] would call the cops on them to get [my siblings] in trouble if there was a sibling disagreement in the teen years. Another punishment was to be confined to your room for up to 2-3 months … with nothing but a mattress and a Bible. You were let out to use the bathroom and eat.”
No one knows if the abuse she alleges happened, I hope not. No child should have to endure that. She may be referring to her adopted siblings here, but by attributing the differences in her family of transracially adopted children to the fact that some “were darker” and she was “light skinned” suggests a different reality.
I don’t know what a “baboon whip” is. This is the only reference to “baboon whip” I could find online (please enlighten me in the comments if you know more). But the suggestion here is of some deep, and deeply messed up, racism if this actually happened. If it’s true, it’s an appalling anecdote about the white parents of black adopted children and she should tell that truth. If it’s not true and is another one of the lies that she made up to cover her own elaborate fiction, then that speaks to a disturbing psyche at work.
These two – theft and erasure – are the cornerstones of white, settler colonial tactics, and Dolezal used these in perpetrating this fraud. That’s enough right there to call it a day on this story, but there’s so much more.
Colorism & White Privilege
For a black woman, Rachel Dolezal is light-skinned. And she has green eyes. These two phenotypical facts give her an advantage in the U.S. whether she chose to mostly move through the predominantly white culture, or through mostly black or Native American culture, because there is colorism,
Colorism, or skin-color privilege, is the idea that “white is right” and all sorts of advantages just flow to people with lighter skin tones. As an example of this, the “brown paper bag test” was commonly used among African Americans in the 1900s to exclude darker hued bretheren from clubs, organizations and institutions. If a black person was lighter than the brown paper bag, they were deemed sufficiently light enough to gain admittance or acceptance. While this is no longer an overt practice in black institutions, remnants of this practice – a legacy of white supremacy – linger in various ways.
In her rather rapid ascent through the black community from Howard University student in 2007 to NAACP chapter president in 2015, Dolezal no doubt benefitted from colorism. I have no doubt that part of the work that Dolezal intended to do was to challenge white privilege, yet it’s white privilege in the form of colorism that’s implicated in her rise.
Passing: Transracial is Not the Equivalent of Transgender
Passing as a different race has a long history in the U.S. Bliss Broyard’s memoir (One Drop) about her father, Anatole Broyard, tells the story of her father’s “hidden history.” Anatole, a Creole of mixed racial ancestry, was light enough to pass the “brown paper bag test,” and eventually severed ties with his darker-skinned kinfolk in order to pass for white. But this sort of passing doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Anatole who was an author and for many years the book review editor at The New York Times, passed as a way to navigate and succeed in a white dominant society. If you’ve read the book, you’ll know that ultimately it wasn’t his racial ancestry that his daughter found so troubling, it was the lying.
James McBride’s memoir, The Color of Water, is about his discovery at age 26 that the mother he believed was black was in fact a white Jewish woman. His mother cut all ties with her white family, married two black men, had a dozen or so black children (they didn’t identify as biracial) that she raised in Red Hook, Brooklyn. He subtitled the book “a black man’s tribute to his white mother.” She didn’t lie about her past, she mostly just didn’t want to talk about it and let people assume her racial identity. It was until McBride coaxed her into telling her story that it came out. At one point in the book, she says that at some point, “she crossed over” into the black community, but she did this mostly by living in a predominantly black neighborhood, raising black children, and serving in a black church.
Conservatives and a few white liberals have been quick to jump on the discussion of Rachel Dolezal’s passing to make an argument, or at least raise the question, about “transracial” being the same as “transgender.” It’s not a simple analogy. If you want the advanced course, there’s this thoughtful article by Leslie Bow at Signs from 2009 (paywall and a long read), which offers a nuanced consideration of what she calls a “twinning” of “transgender” and “transracial” in order to understand “both interstitial subjects with rights and the abstract nature of interstitiality, the political valance of ‘representing’ between the dominant symbolics.” I told you it was the advanced course.
In plainer terms, sure people can “pass” along racial lines (Anatole Broyard, James McBride’s mother) just as people have “passed” as a different gender, but that doesn’t erase the social structure that shapes these choices. Cisgender people dominate the world, just as white people dominate U.S. and colonial societies. The power structures of gender, sexuality and race operate in different and intersecting ways, and simple “if this, then that” type analogies are inadequate to the task of understanding what it means to pass or transition.
Going Native and “Faint Traces” of Native American Heritage
Ruthanne Dolezal says that their family has “faint traces” of Native American heritage, sprinkled in with the other Czech, Swedish and German ancestry. This is, I want to suggest, another lie but one where Rachel seems to be telling the same story as her parents. There is a long, long history of “playing Indian” among white people as Philip Deloria and other scholars have pointed out.This is connected to other examples of “going native” among white women and white feminists that I’ve discussed before, here and here.
In the case of Rachel Dolezal, she appears to have “gone native” in her acquisition of blackness as part of her identity (that’s her in the photo below, second from the right).
But, like the putative memoir of by Margaret Seltzer a white girl supposedly raised in foster care and sold drugs for the Bloods in South Central L.A. that turned out to not be true, Dolezal’s back story doesn’t pass the truth test. Why are white women like Seltzer and Dolezal compelled to tell the stories that make them seem down with blackness and indigeneity? At least part of it has to do with what cultural critic bell hooks describes in her essay “Eating the Other”:
“The commodification of Otherness has been so successful because it is offered as a new delight, more intense, more satisfying than normal ways of doing and feeling. Within commodity culture, ethnicity becomes spice, seasoning that can liven up the dull dish that is mainstream white culture.”
Because of the intense and centuries-long anti-blackness of U.S. culture, there have been relatively few instances of white people deciding to pass as black. However, there many, many examples of white (and some black) people trying to pass as Native American. In fact, there are so many examples of this type of cultural appropriation, I started a Pinterest board with a bunch of these images.
The Education of Little Fraud
The relevant example in U.S. history for understanding the Rachel Dolezal story, is Asa/Forrest Carter and The Education of Little Tree. Asa Carter was a white supremacist, a KKK member, and ardent supporter and sometime speechwriter for Alabama Governor George Wallace. Asa Carter wrote Wallace’s infamous, “Segregation Now, Segregation Tomorrow and Segregation Forever,” speech that he delivered to block school desegregation. Carter became disaffected with Wallace as the governor turned away from his more ardent segregationist supporters. Carter left Alabama, moved to Texas and re-invented himself as a novelist. Originally, he took the nom de plume Bedford Forrest Carter, a direct reference to KKK-founder, Nathan Bedford Forrest. He then dropped “Bedford,” as as Forrest Carter wrote a novel Gone to Texas, which later became the film The Outlaw Josie Wales. His second book was published in 1976 as a “memoir” was supposedly about his upbringing by his Native American grandparents, The Education of Little Tree. Similarly, Rachel Dolezal’s story of her upbringing was that she was “raised in a teepee” and “hunted food with bows and arrows” (see also, “The Lying”).
Carter’s memoir has been exposed as a lie over and over again, but it still routinely makes “recommended reading lists” (including Oprah’s) from time to time. Part of why this fraud of ‘Little Tree’ persists is because Carter struck a nerve among white readers. In 1997, Paramount even made a film out of the book. As scholar Shari Huhndorf explains the narrative:
“In the film version, Granpa Wales – still the repository of Indian knowledge – is now racially white. Early on, he explains: ‘I was born white…but when I met your Granma…we was married, and I begun to see the world through Cherokee eyes.’ He becomes, in the words of another character, a ‘white Injun.’ Importantly, the film neglects any mention of the Indian Nations or any other communities of Native people bound to a particular place. Its narrative thus concludes not with Little Tree heading for the Nations (although this proves a false hope in the book). Rather, he heads to the woods with Willow John, the one who was ‘the magic, ‘ to learn ‘all there was to know about being an Indian.’ Countless New Agers…follow Little Tree’s path by journeying into the woods in search of Native wisdom.
In the New Age, in other words, Indianness has been transformed in American popular culture into an abstraction, into pure knowledge, into an essence divested of the histories and the presence of Native people. Indians, it seems, can now be fully possessed by white society” (Going Native, 2001, p.160).
In Rachel Dolezal’s case, I think that “blackness” works in much the same way that “Indianness” does in the film version of The Education of Little Tree. Blackness here, has been transformed into an abstraction, into pure knowledge, into an essence — and set of hairstyles — that are divested of the histories and presence of black people who can now (and again) be possessed by white society. Like Granpa Wales who configures himself a ‘white injun’ who has ‘begun to see the world through Cherokee eyes’, Rachel Dolezal may believe that she sees the world through a different set of eyes.
It may well be, as her father explained in an interview, that after Rachel Dolezal’s experience at Howard University and her involvement in social justice work led her to be “assimilated into [black] culture so strongly that that’s where she transferred her identity.” Perhaps so. And, had she lived her life out like James McBride’s mother did, having and raising black children in a predominantly black community and serving in a black church away from any kind of media (or Internet) attention, she might have “crossed over” with little more than whispers.
But this moment, right now, is a really challenging one in which to just cross over into another racial identity without anyone noticing.
This Moment Right Now: Visual Digital Culture, Black Twitter, #WhiteTears and Trolls
As Lisa Nakamura has so deftly explained, we live in a visual digital culture which is governed by “racio-visual logic.” The Internet is a visual technology, Nakamura reminds us, a protocol for seeing that is interfaced and networked in ways that produce a particular set of racial formations. Within this visual digital culture, it is unfathomable that someone could become any kind of public figure and not have childhood photos appear. The fact that Rachel Dolezal believed that she could be in a public role, like leader of a local NAACP chapter, and not have her past revealed speaks to the depth of her self-delusion.
She also seriously underestimated the swift ferocity of Black Twitter. Once #RachelDolezal became a hashtag, the speed of uncovering her past was lightening quick. As Sanjay Sharma observes, racialized hashtags form and change meaning quickly on Twitter and as Sarah Florini notes, it is a powerful resource for the performance of black cultural identity. But make no mistake. Black Twitter is does not suffer fools, or minstrels or racists, lightly. Misjudging the powerful force of Black Twitter, and not having much of a following among black folk on Twitter, were part of Dolezal’s undoing.
Jon Ronson, defender of another white woman at the center of a Twitter firestorm (Justine Sacco, part of what prompted me to launch this series), has also been quick to jump to the defense of Rachel Dolezal. Perhaps no surprise since his main point seems to be coming to the aid of white women. If I were to predict what happens next, I would anticipate that there will be a lot of coming to Rachel Dolezal’s defense, clucking about her hurt feelings and you can find that all under the hashtag #whitetears. Meanwhile, black women on social media get regularly attacked, dragged, and their lives threatened and there seems to be little concern about this by the likes of Ronson and others wringing their hands about “public shaming” via social media.
And, finally (I know – so many words!), whenever there’s a trending hashtag with as much activity as this one, especially one about race, there are bound to be trolls. This time, the trolls are the 4chan boys who are trying to disrupt the conversation. So, you know all that mess about “well if, transgender then transracial…” Yep. 4chan trolls. All hail to @FeministaJones for pointing that one out:
— Effie Write (@FeministaJones) June 12, 2015
The whole #wrongskin hashtag is one started by right-wing trolls who want to disrupt any complicated or nuanced discussion about race and racism. Contrary to the simplistic minds of such trolls, the Rachel Dolezal story — whatever the rest of the story turns out to be and there are plenty of unanswered questions — illustrates once again that we need to think more critically and in more nuanced ways about white womanhood.