Every white ally has a little bit of Rachel Dolezal

Every white ally has a little bit of Rachel Dolezal June 14, 2015

white messiah photo

By now, just about everyone has heard of the white woman Rachel Dolezal who’s been passing as a black woman in Spokane, Washington while teaching African American studies classes at the local college and chairing the local NAACP chapter. Many black people are understandably outraged by Rachel’s actions. The right wing is having lots of fun comparing Rachel’s “trans-racial” identity with transgender identity. When I look at what she did from the perspective of a white ally, I’m convicted by the ways that I’ve tried to validate myself through my relationships with people of color. I suspect that every white ally has some stories of when they pulled a Rachel Dolezal, even if none of us went as far as she did.

Have you ever taken one of those overseas mission trip photos? You know, the white messiah photo, where you’re in a village in Haiti or Sierra Leone, and dozens of black kids are sitting in your lap and loving on you. Above is a white messiah photo of me in the Dominican Republic. I genuinely loved those kids, and I genuinely wanted to remember my time with them. But I was also a little bit too enamored with myself for being semi-fluent in Spanish (unlike those other white people who go on mission trips), and the kids validated me by getting in my personal space like we were family even though I’ve completely forgotten their names. When you’re a white ally, it feels so good to be validated by people of color.

I remember the man who said, “Are you sure you’re not a brother, Morgan?” when I was part of an activist coalition with him in Saginaw, Michigan. I remember the time when my high school student Ieshia called me the N-word in a note she wrote on my blackboard the last day of school. It was the biggest compliment I’ve ever received from a student. I remember the way that my almost all Latino youth group a few years later told me I had a “brown heart” and started calling me Morgan Lopez. I thought my Spanish accent was so “natural” until I heard a recording of me preaching in Spanish. I could only listen to that recording once. It was so embarrassing. I sounded so incredibly white.

When white people learn about systemic racism and start to see all the ways that our peoples’ ideology has been shaped to justify racism, it’s understandable for us to feel ashamed that we’re white. Since we don’t have any perspective on the very real humiliating and dangerous experiences that people of color have gone through in their lives, we sometimes wish that we could just “become” not-white like them. We understand race in terms of abstract existential legitimacy. White means privilege which means illegitimacy which means that I have less credibility points than people of color.

Sometimes white allies compensate for our sense of illegitimacy by making ourselves the loudest voices in the room dissing those stupid other white people. There’s a game within identity politics called the “oppression olympics” where you get a point according to how many oppression categories you can claim. But I’ve noticed over the years that identity politics is mostly a game played by allies trying to out-ally each other. People of color and other marginalized groups just don’t like it when their allies talk over them and make themselves the experts on realities they haven’t lived through.

The reality is that white people have been deeply harmed by the hidden ideologies generated over the past several centuries of modern racism. We haven’t been harmed in the same way or to the same degree as people of color, but we have been left with a deep sense of shame and a need to justify ourselves. So we create rigorous meritocracies for our self-justification. Some people self-justify according to the meritocracy of “family values.” Others self-justify according to the meritocracy of “social justice.” Any worthy cause can be made toxic when we make it all about our need to feel legitimate.

That’s why Jesus said that we have to lose our selves in order to gain eternal life. As long as we are self-justifying our way out of shame and illegitimacy, we are living in a form of hell, whatever meritocracy we use to measure our validity. I suspect that salvation may take a different shape for people who aren’t wrestling with the particular form of shame that I’ve received from centuries of white supremacy. I just know that the more I accept God’s unconditional love for me, the less I behave obnoxiously in an effort to prove that I’m one of the good white people. I have no idea why Rachel Dolezal did we she did. I just hope that somebody will be there to love her unconditionally so she can come clean and start a new chapter of her life. And I have to remind myself that I’ve got a little bit of Rachel in me too.

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  • ViewersCourt

    white supremacy? Your knowledge of “history” doesn’t go back very far. You’ve got a long ways to go before you understand truth and real humility.

    • So because I contradicted your ideology, I’m not really humble. I see…

  • Deanna Weber

    Thank you so much for your truth and your humility. You have absolutely resonated with me, as someone who considers herself to be a good hearted white ally. It’s a fine line we walk between true service and the need to validate ourselves. Thank you so much for your honesty.

  • Jon Altman

    As I’ve commented elsewhere, this does not resonate with me. My commitment to justice and inclusion has almost always placed me in a minority. Getting “warm fuzzies” from those who are oppressed is not motivating to me.

  • Jan

    I believe I’ve seen this played out just recently.

  • ceejaygee

    It was their music that pulled me in. I loved their blues, their R&B, their black gospel, their soulful rock n roll. I wished that white musicians could express the same feelings in their music. I don’t recall wanting to be “one of them,” but I was envious of their freedom of expression, primarily in their music. Very few white musicians ever mastered a true cross-over sound. It moved me.

    I’ve never felt guilty about something I didn’t choose. I’ve felt ashamed for some of the insensitivity of the white people around me, but I’ve noticed that those who are insensitive and sometimes downright abusive in their attitudes toward our black friends and neighbors are also very insensitive to women or poor people or other disadvantaged minorities. I’ve come to realize they are very insecure people who are afraid of not being in control. It’s what happened when we elected President Obama. They could no longer contain their fears and insecurities.

  • KoreanKat

    “Since we don’t have any perspective on the very real humiliating and
    dangerous experiences that people of color have gone through in their

    This warped perspective is at the heart of so much of what is wrong with the ‘social justice’ movement. As a non-white woman I can say being a woman causes me far more concerns in terms of both frequency and intensity, from body image to concern about sexual assault, than being Korean does in contemporary America.

    The reality is that racism is placed up on a pedestal far above misogyny, homophobia, ableism, agism, and other prejudices. Same-sex relationships were only fully decriminalized just over a decade ago. LGBT people still have NO comprehensive federal civil rights protection, something even religious people (a voluntary ideological affiliation) enjoy. Rape and domestic abuse of women, as women, remains the most common identity-rooted violence in America by orders of magnitude. Would you rather be black or wheel-chair bound your entire life? Et cetera.

    The racial narrative is just becoming so strident and unhinged that it risks turning mainstream liberals off entirely, including many non-whites who don’t look on modern America and see a systemically racist nightmare. But of course Critical Race Theory is inimical to liberalism in its very core, so that is hardly a surprise.

  • Father Thyme

    Clayton Bigsby. (Dave Chappelle)

  • baffledlife

    How odd, I don’t feel guilt or shame or need to humble myself before any race or people. I will continue to help others when I have the opportunity but I’m very proud of Western Civilization and how it has benefited the world throughout history. Perhaps our time has passed but we will have left a wonderful legacy.

  • Evergreen

    Is it ok to love being white? Or is that bad?

  • Cynthia Astle

    Good post. Picking up for UM Insight.

  • grumpygirl

    Hmmm, I suppose I’m a “white ally” because I recognize systemic racism. I voice my opinion against it. I’ve never taken one of “those” pictures to pretend I’m a “white messiah”, although I would certainly want a photo to remember the people I was with if i went on such a mission. I don’t feel guilty for being born “white”, it wasn’t my fault any more that it was anyone else’s fault for being born with any skin color. I’m half Mexican-American, I clearly inherited many more European genes than Indio genes. Does that make me less Hispanic in my ethnic origin? Um, no, although I’m a “white ally”, and I don’t have a bit of Rachel Dolezal. When we happen to be born into a position of privilege, it’s not our place to feel guilty. However, it is our DUTY to recognize our privilege and to not consider ourselves better because we have it. I’m sorry you feel that way about yourself.

    BTW, the issue with Rachel Dolezal is that she is a liar, not that she is a “white ally”.

    • The point of this post is not to bash white allies but to call for self-examination about our motives for what we do. I don’t think there’s a human being alive who doesn’t engage in some form of self-justification. It’s a particular temptation in solidarity activism to make it about you instead of the people you’re standing with.

      • grumpygirl

        There is no shame in feeling good about doing something good for other people. It becomes a problem when you use it to make yourself feel better than other people. There is no shame in using one’s privilege to help other people, we should feel morally obligated to do that. The issue, to me, is to remember to be humble about our abilities and accomplishments and not be ashamed of them. “White Guilt” doesn’t make any more sense than pride or guilt for who we are in any way.. Self examination is good, but please speak for yourself. Your title is “clickbait” to tag everyone in social justice and activism as making it all about themselves.

        • I don’t disagree with anything you said. And I would maintain that the proper response to the shortcomings of people in the news is not to wag my finger at them to feel better about myself but to look at how I have sinned similarly. In this case, I think Rachel Dolezal’s behavior calls out things that all white allies do on a much smaller scale that we need to examine and grow through. Part of this comes from my basic Christian belief that everyone is a sinner. It’s not about wallowing in guilt but accepting our imperfection as a premise so that we don’t waste emotional energy being defensive and self-righteous.

          • grumpygirl

            I agree with what you say EXCEPT Rachel Dolezal’s behaviour (sin?) is to have blatantly lied about her roots. She probably did it to fit in to the life and career she chose, and I genuinely think she had started believing the story she created for herself. She was doing good work, but deluding herself. People who work as advocates deservedly feel good about themselves, but the misrepresentation of herself finally caught up with her.