In the midst of increasingly candid discussions about race, privilege and cultural appropriation, not a better example of those three issues at play has arrived in the form Rachel Dolezal.
The 37-year-old president of the Spokane, WA chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People came under fire on Thursday for her racial presentation. Despite the fact that NAACP seeks to be a diverse organization and does not discriminate in its hiring process, Dolezal felt compelled to present herself inauthentically as a black woman when she is, in fact, white.
The discrepancy came up in KXLY interview with Dolezal, in which she was unable to confirm that she is black, despite presenting herself as such. In contrast, Dolezal’s mother and father, Ruthanne and Lawrence Dolezal, were able to confirm that their daughter is white. Dolezal’s parents provided their daughter’s birth certificate and released pre-“transition” photos to the media.
Conversations regarding race in today’s society are touchy. Perhaps that is why none of Dolezal’s friends or coworkers pried upon meeting the black man she presented as her father and her adopted black brother. Still, Dolezal’s evasion in declaring her race, particularly in an interview about her personal experience with hate crimes based on race, deserves scrutiny.
Again, the NAACP does not hire based on race, so the problem with Rachel Dolezal is not her white heritage. The problem is that through tanning, make-up and black hairstyles, such as braids and dreadlocks, Dolezal disguised herself as a black woman in order to infiltrate the black community.
How can you claim to be a champion of people of color when you clearly don’t respect people of color? How can you head a chapter of one of the most influential pro-black organizations in what is, essentially, blackface?
Regardless of whether Dolezal feels like she identifies with the black community, she does not get to identify as a member of the black community. As a white woman, Dolezal does not get to “transition” into a being a black woman.
Some who have heard of Dolezal’s story compare her appropriation to the veritable transitions that transgender people undergo. On the contrary, race is not a social construct in the same way that gender is. Gender is more mental and psychological, whereas race is not. Talk of transracial identities are transphobic in that they seek to invalidate and erase transgender identities. In addition, entertaining the idea of a transethnic identity is racist: it gives people a pass to steal and bastardize a minority culture. We should praise Dolezal for her interest in social issues and her work with the NAACP, but we should not be lauding Dolezal because she wants to play dress up. Black culture is not a costume.
Like Native American headdresses at Coachella, like henna and bindis as soft grunge hipster staples, like ponchos and tacky mustaches on Cinco de Mayo, like the baby hairs on Givenchy’s runway, Dolezal’s masquerade is inherently racist. The appropriation is so extreme and deep-rooted that it can not be passed off as artistic expression.
This is not flattery, but an act of violence. Dolezal spits in the faces of minorities who have experienced oppression based on their identity. Dolezal spits in the face of all brown girls who balance society’s expectations of them due to their race and their racial community’s demands of them as women. Dolezal spits in the face of those, such as Rekia Boyd, Lamia Beard and Dajerria Becton, who have faced the wrath of the police due to their existence as black women.
There is always that fine line between appreciation and appropriation. While it is possible that Dolezal succumbed to the social pressures of attending such a formidable HBCU as Howard University, that does not excuse the extent to which she has inverted black culture and left a stain on the NAACP’s Spokane chapter. At best, Dolezal will speak and shed light on the mystery surrounding her racial presentation. Hopefully, coming to terms with the way she has hurt, instead of helped, the black community should serve as a sufficient wake-up call for Dolezal.