The 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