A lot of media attention has been placed on Rachel Dolezal, the now former NAACP leader in Spokane, WA, for pretending to be black. A lot of very smart people have said important things about her actions. Jessica Williams on the Daily Show said “we need allies not replacements.” And this is certainly true. So why write another article about this phenomenon? Here’s why.
When I first read about it, I had three reactions: 1) it was wrong and how could anyone be questioning this with the #transracial 2) anyone trying to attempt to understand her actions would likely be labeled negatively in the same way that psychologists are who try to understand the actions of killers 3) why aren’t more people talking about why she did it?
The Social Construction of Race
Race is invented. There is no biological reality to race. There is a biological reality to the skin color of a person. That is caused by a certain level of melanin in the body. However, correlating that level of melanin to a racial classification is a socially created definition of identity. Given this and the fact that more people are aware of the social creation of race, some people want to say that because race is socially constructed it is not real. The lack of biological foundation for this social construction does not make it socially unreal. A social construction is based on accepted social norms. The people in a group (society) accept (often unwillingly) what certain things mean. Race is incredibly real in the United States. People who are identified as black by others are disproportionately targeted by the police, make up more of the prison population that is proportionate and face many other forms of racial disadvantage and discrimination. Individual people do not get to choose their racial identification because of the way race is socially constructed in this country. Race is defined by how others view you. Therefore, Dolezal’s actions were wrong because she was trying to deceive. She was trying to get other people to see her race in a way that they otherwise would not. This is lying. It was deliberate, conscious and took a lot of effort. I think lying for its own sake is wrong. However, her lies are wrong not just because she was deceiving others but because she was doing so for her own gain. In her role with the NAACP, she may have done good things. Yet this does not excuse taking this opportunity away from someone who does not have to pretend to be considered black in society. The whole point of the NAACP has been to help preserve and create opportunities for racial minorities in the U.S.
If this doesn’t sound like a big deal, then to me that is because white privilege makes this seem less important than other offenses. On the other hand, how often do you hear certain people yelling about “those people” taking “our” jobs? Often, this claim is based solely on a perception that immigrants are taking something away from white Americans. Recently, there has been outrage over the killing of black people by police. There have been efforts to raise awareness about this issue over the past year. This is a life and death issue. Some people want to make it seem as if black people are causing this to happen because they are resisting arrest. The use of the word “thug” has become normalized in the media to describe black suspects and victims alike. This is a hugely important issue. In comparison, some white lady masquerading as black might just seem weird. And it is truly weird. It is difficult to understand, and while it may not engage the same life or death level of importance, it is important because by dismissing it as merely weird or trying to explain it as #transracial, we lose the ability to be aware of the unfathomable extent of white privilege. To me, this behavior characterizes someone who felt entitled to help. She felt she knew how to address racial discrimination better than those who have actually lived through it. White people who are dedicated to social justice and racial equality need to be just as critical of this woman as they are of the police who killed Eric Garner. We can’t stand for it, because while it is different, it is still wrong.
Articulating an Identity
What #transracial seems to try to capture is that identity is something that one can construct and articulate in the way one wishes. However, when articulating an identity, especially one that is based on how others view you in relation to established social norms, it is important to be honest about how you want to be seen differently. If she wanted to identify as black or as in support of a concept of racial solidarity, then she should have done this without subterfuge. It takes bravery to go against the grain and try to establish an identity that is in opposition to what is socially expected. By hiding and manipulating people, she was not articulating a “transracial” identity. Instead she was co-opting the established identity of others for her own purposes.
Understanding vs. Sympathizing
I have no sympathy for what Dolezal did. I condemn her actions regardless of their motivation. But I do want to attempt to understand why she did this, because I think attempting to understand the unfathomable is important. In addition to the motivations of professional and monetary gain for herself, I think one reason why Dolezal did this was because of community. Her comments about identifying as black and her positive experiences with black people indicate that she was looking to articulate an identity of which she could feel pride and that offered her a feeling of belonging. Marginalized people often attempt to establish a sense of solidarity that helps them to rise above their negative experiences. This solidarity can be a beautiful thing even though it is inspired by pain, loss and the need to come together to cope and address their collective situation. There are few communities of such solidarity with ethically sound motives within white America. So I can understand that it was hard for Dolezal to find this type of community. However, co-opting the marginalization of others to feel part of a greater purpose is hardly the answer. She did not have to pretend to be black to support or work for the NAACP. If the leadership position she sought was intended to provide an opportunity for those often excluded, then perhaps she should have sought to lead a different organization or started her own. I suspect that these actions would have been more difficult in some ways. It would have been harder for her to articulate an identity in these contexts. It might have been more difficult to work with a less established organization or start her own, but anyone who is really committed to social justice isn’t afraid of hard work. And if that was too much work, then I think that once again reveals that massive extent of white privilege.
So where do we go from here? I think part of this is that we need to start talking about leadership. This might seem like an odd conclusion. This entire thing seem to do with race and white privilege – what does leadership have to do with it? The kind of leadership that is promoted in the U.S. is based on position, hierarchy and authority. It is about accomplishing specific things that mark success. The people who want to lead in this way sometimes have to accept tradeoffs. If someone wants to be a leader, but isn’t willing to step on other people to get to those positions, he or she is going to have a harder time reaching some of those positions. What does that say about the value of leadership? If the only way to feel that one is making an important difference is to have a certain title, what does that say about the structures of equality even within organizations dedicated to justice? Our leaders – white, black, male, female, and everything else – need to be people who can stand the scrutiny of their decisions. This one example of lying may not seem like a big deal to some not only because of white privilege, but because of the privilege of power in general. Have we gotten used to be lied to by bankers, by government leaders, by media pundits, by churches, by schools – all covering up scandals or spinning events for their own purposes – that when one person lies we consider it, however weird, something to be expected?
Life and Death
As I noted above, my second reaction to the story of Rachel Dolezal was that anyone trying to attempt to understand her actions would likely be labeled negatively in the same way that psychologists are who try to understand the actions of killers. Thus, I’ve made a deliberate effort to make it clear why I am interested in understanding her. The murder of 9 churchgoers at the AME church in Charleston by Dylann Roof provides another horrific case of racially motivated murder for psychologists and the general public to try to grapple with reaching some type of understanding. Many people have commented about how the “mental illness” trope is so quickly and easily trotted out for white killers, but black suspects and offenders for a variety of crimes are just as quickly and easily labeled “thugs.” Sympathy is something extended exclusively to white perpetrators. I have no sympathy for Roof. And again, I think it is important for people to try to understand what happened. Many people have also been very clear about stating that the reason for this was racial hatred. I agree with that. However, I also think that as true as it is one of the reasons why some white people are quick to trot out the mental illness rationale is that killing people over racial hatred seems so unfathomable. Killing people in a church is even more unfathomable. On the one hand, it is good news that people find these actions incredibly difficult to understand. The majority of people are not killers. And yet this does happen, and it happens all too often. White privilege is often used to describe the types of access and actions that are unconscious and unseeable. These are things as a white person over which I don’t have as much control to combat as overt racism. I am less likely to know if the white person interviewing me for a job is more likely to pick me just because I’m white than an equally or more qualified person of color. But one aspect of white privilege that ties it to racism is the sense of entitlement. The sense of privilege and entitlement that Roof felt allowed him to think that somehow his country needed taking back when his whiteness still gives him advantages of access and safety that black people do not experience. He couldn’t see that because of the convolutions of his racial hatred. Racism, of this sort, is especially irrational and illogical. For these reasons, it makes Roof’s actions unfathomable. But we need to see racism not just as “dislike” but as an insidious evil. It is the less violent racism that causes the Confederate flag to continue to be displayed on government building property that fosters this violence.
Again, we must talk about leadership and the value we place in leaders? What does it say about our nation when we have leaders who want to claim that racism does not exist? What does it say about leaders who not only condone but advocate for the right to be racist leaders? I’m all for freedom of speech. I will defend the right of neo-Nazis to speak even though I detest with every ounce of my being everything they stand for and proclaim. However, it is quite different to defend free speech and to expect consequence free speech. How is it possible that any our state and national leaders could continue to subscribe to beliefs and policies intended to marginalize Americans? If that isn’t the biggest proof of white privilege and the continued prevalence of racism, what is?
Regardless of all the evidence that racism is still a fundamental problem, some people still need convincing. Yet they are not open to the idea. They will not be convinced regardless of the amount of evidence presented. I’m done trying to convince people. But I will challenge them. And as an ally that is the first step. Stand up to white entitlement and racism when you see it and hear it. And I will say that as small as some of those actions may be, they are not easy and they are not comfortable. But they are important, and they signal the kind of leadership we need.