On Rachel Dolezal

[Content Note: Appropriation; racism; disablism.]

Rachel Dolezal, president of Spokane's chapter of the NAACP and a professor of African studies, has reportedly been misrepresenting herself as a black woman for years. There is background here and here.

There are, quite understandably, a lot of people—and I am among them—who are angry that a white woman essentially donned blackface in order to do black activism, accepting positions that otherwise likely would have gone to a black academic. There are a lot of people who have lots of questions.

There are a lot of people defending her, often in deeply mendacious ways. Like suggesting it doesn't matter what her "real race" is, because she's doing good work (a contention based, at this point, solely on her own claims). Or suggesting that race is just a social construct, anyway, so it makes no difference who she claims to be. Which elides so many realities about race in the United States that it is difficult to know where to begin. I will simply note, for now, that treating race like a costume has nothing to do with race being a social construct.

And of course there are jokes on social media. So many jokes.

Not all of these jokes are equal. Jokes made by aggrieved black people who are using humor to process a theft of their identity, and some of the jokes made by white anti-racism activists, are not the same as jokes made by the white people who don't actually give a fuck about the complex racial issues of this story and for whom Rachel Dolezal's appropriation scheme is just another "weird" news story to briefly penetrate the shallowest levels of their consciousness.

Anyway. Dolezal's fraud was vast, and her reasons for it are not entirely clear.

She may have strictly been a cynical opportunist, but, as many people have pointed out, Dolezal could have done the same anti-racist work, and potentially gotten the same jobs, as a white woman—especially in Spokane, which has a small black population.

Maybe she wanted attention. The unraveling of her fraud began with investigations into her claim of being victimized by multiple racially-motivated hate crimes, of which police suspect she was the perpetrator. She claims to have survived childhood cancer, of which there is seemingly no evidence. There are a lot of red flags that suggest profoundly desperate attention-seeking.

She is estranged from her white biological parents (who publicly called her bluff, and the reasons for their timing is unclear, too), and calls a black man her dad, although no comment from him has yet been forthcoming. She has also taken guardianship (though her parents dispute it is legal guardianship) of two younger adopted brothers who are black, to whom she now refers as her sons. (And who do not support her fraud.) She is married to a black man, with whom she was supposedly raising them. There is a common and studied dynamic in transracial adoptions, typically white parents who adopt children of color, in which the white parent(s) struggle to navigate—or simply careen head over heels past—boundaries around exposing their adopted children to their cultures while not themselves appropriating those cultures.

(There is also appropriation of the term "transracial" to mean a white person who feels their true identity is as a person of color, which is erroneously equated with being transgender. Equating what Dolezal has done, for whatever reason, with being transgender is appropriative, wrong, and gross.)

Naturally, in the search for understanding why Dolezal perpetrated this fraud, there has been an abundance of suggestions that she is mentally ill. And maybe she does have a mental illness which contributed to her appropriation of a black identity, but there is no mental illness that causes someone to do this. If she is mentally ill, it is only part of the context, it is not the exclusive reason.

The likelihood is that a number of factors underwrite Dolezal's fraud—some combination of the above, all of the above, other reasons altogether. She has a lot for which to answer.

In the meantime, I hope she will stop this fraud. I hope she will stop saying [video may autoplay at link] that she is black. If stopping this behavior requires therapeutic help, I hope she will seek it. And I hope she will apologize to the people she's harmed.

A couple other things I hope: I hope white people will stop policing black people's reactions to this story, and stop denying them their right to be fucking angry. I hope that no one will give Rachel Dolezal a book deal or a movie deal or any kind of deal to "tell her story" and handsomely reward her for her gross appropriation and exploitation.

And one last thing: I hope that white people, and white women in particular, will not use Rachel Dolezal as a shield against interrogating our own habitual appropriation of black culture. I hope that we will not use her extreme, outlying example of appropriation as a threshold by comparison to which lesser appropriations are minimized if they fail to elevate to this heinous benchmark.

Instead, I hope we will see that what Rachel Dolezal has done is one end of a spectrum on which all white appropriation of black culture and identities falls, and use it as a reminder that we must be vigilant about resisting appropriation ourselves, rather than pretending that her next-level shit excuses the rest of us.

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