Fellow White Liberals- We Created Rachel Dolezal
First off- who is Rachel Dolezal? She was until recently the president of the Spokane, Washington chapter of the NAACP- the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. She is also a professor of Africana Studies at Eastern Washington University. For ten years she has been presenting herself as a light-skinned African-American woman, but recently both her parents came forward to the press and said essentially- Ahem, we’re her birth parents, and this is our ancestry, and African it ain’t (well other than the all humans eventually come from Africa part) To be clear I think Ms. Dolezal was wrong to misrepresent herself to Black communities, and the way she treated her family members (both her parents & brothers) makes me a little sad inside. I suppose some people would say, hey screw identities/labels, and race, she can be whoever she wants to be, and what matters is the activist & academic work she’s done.
I’m not going to spend too much time self-righteously condemning her, because I think this is a time for anti-racist & social justice-y white folks to reflect. Because while Ms. Dolezal may have creating her identity, we created the culture that made her possible. The culture of All Identities Are Valid, Create Your Own Reality, and Everything is a Subjective Social Construction. Granted, I still do affirm that many categories like race and gender are social constructions, but I do not deny biological differences in human beings such as variation in skin color and anatomy. But the facts of biology and the meanings and stories that humans assign to these variations over the course of history are two different things. The social consequences of being assigned a “race” at birth are very real, even if the divisions between the races are often arbitrary. Based on the “one-drop rule” of American culture that goes back to slavery, even 1 distant ancestor of African origins could give Rachel Dolezal the social license to identify as Black, while the same amount of Latino, Asian or Native American heritage would likely still mean she was white. I am not sure who or what is the deciding factor in why this “rule” is still used, and certainly it’s much less of a factor in determining people’s identities.
Now, I’ve spent a lot of time in mostly white activist-y groups (or non-activist groups with a progressive slant, like the Pagan subcultures) Whenever race is discussed, there is always a mixture of white guilt, ritual confessions of racial “sins” both individual and collective (especially directed awkwardly towards any person of color who happens to be present!) and earnest attempts at white ally “guidelines” or rules. I’ve heard people apologize for growing up in all-white towns in Iowa that left them “culturally illiterate”. I’ve witnessed much hang-wringing and self-flagellation about the lack of diversity in both membership in leadership of various organizations. I’ve also wondered about what types of diversity are we talking about- and not talking about? Would I get more “diversity points” as a woman of color than I do currently as a white bisexual Pagan woman with invisible disabilities? I “know better” though, than to bring these things up.
I’ve voluntarily attended multiple workshops and panel presentations about white privilege and allyship, and speeches by David Roediger and Tim Wise, both authors/leaders/activists in whiteness studies and white “allyship”. I’ve read many books on racial issues. And I still don’t really know How to Be a Good White Person. Mostly I just try to be a good person in general, and try to stop worrying so much about saying and do the Wrong Thing. Mostly I try to make an effort to listen to people from different backgrounds from myself, and do what I can to help their voices be included. I think American culture has plenty of ways to encourage people of color to become neurotic self-doubters and self-haters on the basis of their skin color and ethnic culture, but for white folks signing up for these neuroses is largely voluntary. So any whining we do is understandably, not going garner much sympathy. And it’s not really helping anyone, including ourselves. Guilt eats away at your stomach, not at injustice. We also aren’t sure what we’re supposed to be culturally. Rachel is “part Czech, German, Swiss and possibly Native American”. Did her parents talk about any of that when she was growing up, and learning to admire the cultures of their friends and neighbors? Beyond a few family recipes, I suspect not, like in many “white” families. It doesn’t matter where we come from, we’re all Americans now. Except, I forgot to tell you honey, but no, you can’t be Black. Or Indian. Or Asian. But I don’t know what to tell you to be instead. Just be a “regular” American!
So no, I’m not surprised at all at by Rachel Dolezal. I can see why she did what she did, even if it was dishonest and an “easy way out” of the endless unspoken “Well, WTF am I supposed do?” questions that lurk in white “allies” minds.