When the story of NAACP Chapter President Rachel Dolezal first came out, I didn’t know how to feel. She was a white woman portraying herself as black. A life was fabricated, including the accoutrements of blackness (whatever that meant). As the facts emerged, we seemed to get a picture of someone who was consciously masquerading as something she wanted to be, but wasn’t. Many people rallied to her defense because of all the “good she did”.
She was down for the cause – and I’m down with that. But at what cost?
The discussion raged online. There were discussions on her motivations, straw men built to justify her actions, and some well thought out conspiracy theories (FBI informant for CointelPro was my absolute favorite). Its even kinda believable given past US government programs, but I was a little skeptical. I’m sure they could get a spy who didn’t need a constant supply of Hawaiian Tropics.
The level of the fabrications and comments from her family about “blowing her cover”, cast even darker shadows on her fight to be the ally she was trying to be. Made it hard to believe though I wanted to. And I do believe she felt that’s exactly what she was, an ally. She was also a liar.
In the end, she lied (a lot), may have pretended for her own gain (white savior complex), violated the trust of the people she claimed to want to help, probably helped people in the process. Alas we may never get answers. Not soon anyway.
Earlier this morning – Rachel Dolezal resigned.
“I am delighted that so many organizations and individuals have supported and collaborated with the Spokane NAACP under my leadership to grow this branch into one of the healthiest in the nation in 5 short months. In the eye of this current storm, I can see that a separation of family and organizational outcomes is in the best interest of the NAACP.
It is with complete allegiance to the cause of racial and social justice and the NAACP that I step aside from the Presidency and pass the baton to my Vice President, Naima Quarles-Burnley.”
In her declaration she stated
“This is not me quitting; this is a continuum. It’s about moving the cause of human rights and the Black Liberation Movement along the continuum from Resistance to Chattel Slavery to Abolition to Defiance of Jim Crow to the building of Black Wall Street to the Civil Rights and Black Power Movement to the #BlackLivesMatter movement and into a future of self-determination and empowerment”
Right on! I can be down with that.
She may honestly feel that. Its a good reminder that besides her personal struggle, we still have much to address. That doesn’t mean that the questions should go away. I mean, we struggled with this one. Black identity, in particular, is complex. The conversation of “what black is” went from racial construct, heritage, culture, music, art, tradition, food, our collective struggle, a combination – to just skin tone and our noses — (really).
Can we adopt people into our culture and if we do, does that entitle them to call themselves black? And what does that mean today in America? We said Black was beautiful and we knew what that meant in the seventies when it was prominent, but what does that mean now? Are we going to allow others to put on this costume and call themselves black? We have many a person that would go the other way. But what if this really is an indication of what could be real for others? I look at my daughters and I see Black because society sees black, but what if society didn’t?
The conversation should continue, but let me impart five lessons I’ve learned from this so far:
1. Some of you all are just WRONG with those memes. Seriously, they ranged from too damned funny – to a little mean.
2. Identity is complex. If we as “black people” struggle with it, then we need to give our allies a little room to struggle WITH us. We’re going to have to give them a little latitude to ask questions and be wrong, yet not allow them to be dismissive about it. A really good point was raised in a conversation with an older colleague: it’s – funny how everyone knew what black was when it was time for a sip from the water fountain or seating arrangements on the bus, but when a white person’s black all of a sudden its ambiguous?
In all seriousness though, we’ve got a lot of swirl going on, cultural mixing, etc. Some of it is genuine and not always appropriation. Truth. While I do believe the rest of the questions are steeped in privilege or ignorance (lack of knowledge), some people are so disconnected from the struggle of defining identity that they really just don’t get it.
So a little patience.
3. Trans(X) ≠ Trans(Y). Race is not Gender, let’s just not conflate the two when arguing. I wouldn’t know what blackness was if people didn’t tell me or if I didn’t experience it. I could be black but brought up culturally white without ever knowing it. Sure I have some differences in hue and physical structure, my history may be a little different, but that’s minor. So race is a construct. So is Whiteness. In fact its a modern phenomenon with no real roots in antiquity. It didn’t exist. We became black when others chose to become white.
In isolation, we’d not understand those differences. Race is superficial. But when someone knows that their outside body doesn’t match who they are on the inside, that’s different. It’s innate. I found many arguments rooted in transphobia, trying to discredit Caitlyn Jenner by equating the two. If “Bruce can be Caitlyn” then “White can be black” or “Up can be down”. Regardless of where you fall on that issue, it’s a false equivalence. Argue for or against Caitlyn on its own merits. Don’t prop.
Oh – and she wasn’t transracial when she decided to sue Howard (as a white person) for reverse discrimination, so we can kill that noise.
4. Race doesn’t go away because you don’t see it. Its a great ideal if everyone agrees to it. Pass on the construct and agree to a new social contract, but we’re not there yet! It also gave some of you really racist folks an out. If you take away race – we can’t scream racism, which we know would still exist.
Convenient. I saw that FOX …
5. Good Deeds alone don’t excuse a lie (not of this magnitude). From false pictures, to coercing her family’s silence, Mrs. Dolezal built an identity that, though convincing, was still fraudulent. To maintain it, she needed to enlist silence from her family and anyone who knew otherwise. She placed an unfair burden on them. Foul! Sure, Rev. Al is upset at the parents for coming out as late as they did and questioned their motivations, but can we get back to a little bit of the accountability?
She did this.
She lied about who she was, taking away a job and possible scholarship from others who may have had no other options. That wasn’t fair either. Who is to say they wouldn’t have been BETTER? The NAACP was founded and supported by a rainbow coalition. She could be white, feel black, identity as black, still be white, etc., – we’re accepting, but when you lie and ask others to lie for you, it’s the asterisk beside your stats.
My final thoughts. She’s gone. I really want to see her in the fight. We need GOOD allies, but we need honesty. I’m not saying a fib here and there isn’t dismissible. I don’t get to judge her morality. Lies are part of humanity, but something this big can derail and detract from other business. Not that we can’t focus on more than one thing, its just that this could’ve been avoided. You don’t have to be me to empathize with me. There is no need to go “deep cover”. Our plight, our rise, our victories can be shared not only as a people, but as a collective. Everybody can rise.
When there is less oppression, inequality, and injustice, that’s an advancement for all of society. Yes race is real “now”, but just as Rachel didn’t let it define her – maybe there is an iota of wisdom in there. Something that we can learn…
Don’t let your whiteness define you. You can be more! You too – are somebody! Orange you?