Rachel Dolezal, Transracialism & What to Learn From Black Allyship Gone Wrong

Screen Shot 2015-06-18 at 11.49.15 AMThe past week has been filled with conversations about the now-infamous Rachel Dolezal, a white woman who has successfully passed as black since around 2006 or 2007. In that time, she has become a known activist, Africana Studies professor, public speaker who specializes in race and gender and the president of the Spokane, Washington chapter of the NAACP. In the wake of the social media fallout that has taken place since her “outing,” I can’t help but ask myself—how did blackness, allyship and legitimacy get to this point?

The work Dolezal has done as a prominent public speaker and activist could have been done as a white woman. But her need to claim a narrative that was never hers crosses a boundary that borders on blackface. Race isn’t performative. You can’t don and then strip off the cloak of privilege. Ultimately this scandal pulls attention away from the countless black women who also commit themselves to scholarship and social change.

Being a black woman, I’ve felt the dehumanizing effects of having my work and merit constantly questioned. Black women are socialized to work “twice as hard” to get to the same level of recognition as our white counterparts, and to know that Dolezal took opportunities that could have gone to actual black women in a society where these opportunities are systematically restricted appalls me.

As was highlighted by #ThisTweetCalledMyBack, a social media campaign forged by women of color, the work of nonwhite activists—especially online activists—is devalued, unnoticed and often plagiarized. The campaign’s Tumblr reads:

There is a refusal to legitimize the words of women of color without the backing of academia, established media, and non-profit monikers … Currently, much of the defining dialogue on activism excludes the very women who have made it possible via sustainable conversations on anti-violence on social media and across a variety of informal platforms.

Insensitive to the fight black women take on to remain in control of themselves and their work, Dolezal challenges that ownership by claiming to be “transracial.” The term “transracial” has been used in the following way by Lisa Marie Rollins at Lost Daughters, a collaborative blog run by women who were adopted:

For those of you who don’t know, and clearly there are a lot of you, the term ‘transracial’ is used in scholarly research, creative writing and cultural work to denote a particular ‘state of being’ for people adopted across race. It also describes a kind of family unit/type of parenting. In other words, it IS a ‘thing.’ It is disheartening and disconcerting to see this term used dismissively as if it does not encompass an entire population of Black, Brown, Native and Asian people across the globe.

Though this piece cites work from a black and Filipina woman who identifies as a transracial adoptee, the context is different. For her, being transracial never meant she was no longer a person of color. She writes: “Even with all the ‘privileges’ of whiteness, even with all the education, the middle class living, camping, fishing, hunting—it never made me white.”

The way in which the term is being used now—to justify Dolezal’s years-long deception—is dangerous. It calls racial legitimacy into question. If transracial theory can be applied to people like Dolezal, then blackness can be debatable, diluted or erased. Transracial theory, in the way that people are misinterpreting it now, can work alongside colorblind ideology to devalue race.

Trans black women, who find themselves bearing the intersectional weight of these issues deeper than I will ever know as a cis Black woman, are especially harmed by transracial theory. In the way that it has been perverted by Dolezal, transracial theory is now a weapon of erasure against Black women, cis and trans alike.

Dolezal’s actions suggest that blackness and black womanhood are costumes or stepping stones to achieve success. She continues to cause damage, still identifying as black and defending her fabrications. And regrettably, she is so rooted in her fetishism that she cannot see the harm she’s afflicting on the culture and community she longs to be a part of. Dolezal’s scandal may work to finally bring about much-needed conversations about ownership versus allyship, working to build the bridges that feminism has forgotten to build.

Screenshot taken from Rachel Dolezal’s interview with the Today show

my headshotCG is a writer, activist, and professional fangirl, originally from New Jersey. She is committed to shifting ideas of diversity, one Internet rant at a time. Her work can be found on her blog, Black Girl in Media

 

 

Comments

  1. I am so proud of your confidence, strength, and writing, CG! Never stop pushing toward that goal! You make very strong points and always leave me with something to contemplate. You go girl…

  2. See, but the thing is that “The work Dolezal has done as a prominent public speaker and activist could have been done as a white woman” is simply not true. (in my opinion). Upfront and honest, I’m a white woman.

    To say that her race played no part in her public speaker position is simply not true. How many times have we heard (recently) that white privilege colors judgments; that people cannot relate to the police brutality people face unless you are african american; and that as a white ally, we need to sit back and be part of the movement, but not speak up as much.

    I distinctly remember articles (maybe not on here, but not sure) saying that white protesters in Ferguson, Cincinnati, Staten Island, were being too close to the front lines, that it wasn’t their protest, that we just needed to be there but let the african americans march in the lead. All those examples of recent past (the past few months) clearly demonstrate that the notion that her work could have been conducted by a white woman. In fact, how racist (yet never addressed) is the demeaning term “white ally?” I can post the many many many links about how to be an ally–not part of the solution–but merely an ally.

    If Rachel spoke up about race as a white woman, speak about the violence minorities face, the institutionalized racism in society, etc.—her opinion would have been not as accepted because she would just be a “an ally” (i.e., not having a true, complete understanding of problem, but appreciating the tangential support).

    I’m not saying what Rachel did was right (it was completely wrong), but it’s also clear that as a white person–hell white people in general–are told repeatedly that we are merely allies, that we can’t understand the problem and should just support silently in the background. I have a feeling that’s why she did what she did. It’s wrong, but her race mattered.

    • Berchmans Keaney says:

      Cool that you took on the narrative of the white guy. Cool that you denounced an activist for human right s issues (who gives a flying fuq what someone is standing up for as longas they’re standing). Cool that you drew the line in the sand between us and them. Cool that you undermined an academic with one source. Super cool that you knocked a peg out from under those who don’t identify as the way “god made them”. Pretty uncool that you did all that from a clear place of monetary and scholastic privilege.

      • See that’s the thing. That’s the entire point! Thank you for exemplifying the problem!

        If as an “ally” we agree and tacitly go along with each and every aspect of the conversation, we are supportive and caring. If at any point we disagree with one opinion, one subtle text, we are denounced as not being female (“took on narrative of the white guy”); not being compassionate (“knocked a peg out from under those..”; and not are segregated from the narrative (“uncool” because of my money and scholastic privilege).

        Nevermind my $75K in student debt and that i am a female because of on opinion noted in the original post (an opinion I think is proven at least partially true by the above response), I get told that my male narrative though female; and my privileged background though I’m surely not, has clouded my judgment–that I cannot be taken seriously in my opinion because this stranger knows nothing about me but imagines her own story. Shocking as the reply is, it’s comical because it proves the point of the post.

  3. Diane Ayers says:

    I felt that what Dolezal did was completely wrong, but I wasn’t quite sure why. I think CG helped me understand what is wrong here. Dolezal could have done all the work she did being identified as a white woman, but she chose to steal opportunities from legitimately black women who have far fewer resources and cannot afford to lose those they have. I think she did it to feed her own dysfunctional psychology because she hasn’t done the hard work of looking inside and accepting who she really is. She hurts other women because she herself is deeply damaged and weak.

  4. Dianne Post says:

    What I don’t understand is why people do not see that the situation is analogous to trans-gender. Like race, gender is also completely societally created to control the “subordinate” class. Women have been fighting against the strictures of gender for centuries. Who said women can’t do math or like dolls or don’t fight? Jenner said his main concern is being able to wear finger nail polish! That is not the main concern of any woman I know not because she can wear fingernail polish but because issues like being free from violence, being able to obtain birth control or an abortion, being able to exercise her own agency, being able to make enough money and support her children are far more important. “Trans-genders” should not define women, nor invade their space, any more than “transracials” can define Blacks or invade their space.

  5. Very well said, CG.

    And in response to Fran, as White folks, there is a time to step back and let folks who identify with communities and causes to be the voice of that movement. Yes, Dolezal would likely have had a much harder time engaging and reforming spaces if she had identified as White all along, and to me, that is a major point in this whole conversation.

    There really is no way to claim that she would have faced discrimination by being written off as “just an ally” because when your social location is a position of privilege (like being White in a non-White space or cis in a non-cis space, etc.) you really cannot claim that you’ve faced some sort of injustice. Recognizing that she would have struggled to enter this space as a White woman should be to point out her location of privilege in that context. So yes, it would have been harder for her to navigate non-White spaces, but it should be.

    Anytime one finds that they are in a position on privilege in a certain space/conversation, it is time to step back and listen. This doesn’t mean that they cannot identify or support the cause–I encourage my male-identified friends who consider themselves Feminists to engage in conversations with like-identified folks (AKA other men). But it’s about knowing how you can progress the conversation and support the movement without silencing others or stripping others of their identity with your own privilege and social mobility.

    I think Dolezal has done meaningful work in her career, but to use racial identity as a performance for your own social gain (and to be able to easily return to a position of racial privilege is she so chooses) is offensive, disenfranchising, and ignorant.

  6. Christina Amezquita says:

    I think blackness is a plausible “performance”. Race like gender is a social contract that does carry an expectation of a performance. Dolezal’s approach lacks integrity and is clearly a bad performance.

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