By Tim Wise · 15 Jun 2015
In a country where being black increases your likelihood of being unemployed, poor, rejected for a bank loan, suspected of wrongdoing and profiled as a criminal, being arrested or even shot by police, the mind boggles at Rachel Dolezal's decision some years ago to begin posing as an African American. Yes perhaps blackness helps when you’re looking for a job in an Africana Studies department, selling your own African American portraiture art, or hoping to head up the local NAACP branch—all of which appear to have been the case for Dolezal—but generally speaking, adopting blackness as a personal identity and a substitute for one's actual whiteness is not exactly the path of least resistance in America.
Cognizant of the rarity with which white folks have tried to pass as black over the years, many have chimed in suggesting the personal, familial and even psychological issues that may lie at the heart of her deceptions. It strikes me that there is an important, largely overlooked and quite likely explanation for Dolezal’s duplicity, and one that has real implications for white people seeking to work in solidarity with people of color, whether in the BlackLivesMatter movement, Moral Mondays in North Carolina, or any other component of the modern civil rights and antiracism struggle. It is one I hadn’t really thought much about until I read something yesterday, a comment from one of her adopted black brothers, to the effect that while Dolezal was a graduate student at Howard, she felt as though she “hadn’t been treated very well,” at least in part because she was never fully accepted. She was the white girl from Montana who painted black life onto canvas at a venerable and unapologetically black institution.
Now, on the one hand, good for her I suppose in not interpreting her lack of full acceptance by the folks at Howard as some kind of “reverse racism." At least she didn’t take it there, which is probably where some would have ended up. Yet it appears she may have taken it somewhere just as problematic, if less obviously so, and however much better intended the detour.
Allyship involves, at its best, working with people of color, rather than trying to speak for them. I suspect Dolezal discovered at Howard that it isn’t enough to love black culture and profess one’s solidarity with the movement for black equality; that indeed, black people don’t automatically trust white people just because we say we’re down; that proving oneself takes time, and that the process is messy as hell, and filled with wrong turns and mistakes and betrayals and apologies and a healthy dose of pain. I suspect she didn’t have the patience for the messiness, but armed with righteous indignation at the society around her, and perhaps the one in which she had been raised out west, she opted to cut out the middle man. To hell with white allyship (or as my friends and colleagues Lisa Albrecht and Jesse Villalobos are calling it, “followership”), to hell with working with others; rather, she opted to simply become black, to speak for and as those others. Perhaps it was her way of obtaining the authenticity to which she felt entitled because of her sensibilities, and which she felt had been denied her by those whose approval she sought.
It is a more extreme version, to be sure, but of a piece with those white folks who think dabbling in eastern religion makes them more spiritual, that donning beads and dreamcatchers in their rear-view mirrors makes them indigenous, or that blaring the loudest, brashest hip-hop beats in their stale suburbs renders them hard and street and real, in some way that isn’t possible within the confines of white normativity.
I am quite sure that in her mind, her intentions were good; that rejecting whiteness, not merely in the political sense but even in herself was a righteous, perhaps even revolutionary act. But it was neither. It is revolutionary for real black people to rise up against whiteness because they possess a deep and abiding sense of the risk involved in doing so, not from having read about it, but because it is etched in their DNA, in the cell memory passed to them by their ancestors. For black people to challenge whiteness and the horrific consequences of white supremacy is to demand my people shall live, even if I must die.
For white people, the revolutionary act is not blacking up and pretending to share that historical memory; rather, it is demanding that despite one’s whiteness, one places humanity above skin and the conceits of race, to say that my people will live even as white supremacy must die. It is to remain white and yet challenge what that means in society by striving to change that society every day. Conversely, a white person who has lived as an African American since only slightly before the advent of the Obama administration is effectively seven years old in black years, and even then less weathered by what that means than any actual black seven-year old in this country. A mimic perhaps, possibly even a good one, but a mimic nonetheless. And mimicry is not solidarity.
Most disturbing of all, there was another path, however much Dolezal showed no interest in treading it. Whether intended or not, by negating the history (and even the apparent possibility) of real white antiracist solidarity, Dolezal ultimately provided a slap in the face to that history by saying it wasn’t good enough for her to join. That the tradition of John Brown, of John Fee, of the Grimke sisters, of Anne and Carl Braden and Bob and Dottie Zellner, to name a few, wasn’t a meaningful enough heritage for her to claim. She wasn’t willing to pay her dues, to follow the lead of people of color. She didn’t want to do the hard and messy work, struggling with other white people and challenging them, which is what SNCC told us white folks to do in 1967, and what Malcolm had already said shortly before his death. She wanted to be done with white people altogether, to immerse herself in blackness, yet, as a white person, she knew she could never do that fully. And so, instead, this.
There is a lesson here for us, for we who are white and care deeply about racial equity, justice and liberation, and the lesson is this: authentic antiracist white identity is what we must cultivate. We cannot shed our skin, nor our privileges like an outdated overcoat. They are not accessories to be donned or not as one pleases, but rather, persistent reminders of the society that is not yet real, which is why we must work with people of color to overturn the system that bestows those privileges. But the key word here is with people of color, not as them. We must be willing to do the difficult work of finding a different way to live in this skin.
That is the crucible of whiteness for us, and it is more than enough for us to bear, and exactly as much as we must. We need not pretend to the burdens of others in order to get busy making our whiteness, though still visible, no longer relevant to our place in the world.
There is one thing that none of us actually has to mimic and that is being a human being. Mimicking some or other category of human being that is not your own in our currently flawed societies will certainly broaden the life experience of the mimic but it does nothing to remove the flawed assumptions which created the categories that offer the opportunity for mimicking in the first place.