It is hard to fathom the lengths that Rachel Dolezal, the president of the Spokane NAACP chapter, went through to convince people that she was black. From the estrangement from her parents after she married to the marrying of a black man. The fact she was accepted to Howard the Historically Black College because they thought she was black. The elaborate concoction of a narrative that landed her not just the job with the NAACP but a post teaching Africana studies at a university. The social media storyline that made people think her adopted brother was her son and another random character as her Dad. Either she is incredibly creative working on a project or a few books short of a library.
Whilst many people chortled or shared outrage at her swift dodging of the question as to whether or not she saw identified as African American, few cottoned on to the fact that while she did not define herself with that label she clearly saw herself as black. Regardless of the level of her sanity this is troubling.
History clearly shows there have been many white advocates who have used their privilege and advocacy to speak out on civil rights for black people. From the founders of the NAACP to Rosa Freeman Keller, Gloria Steinem, Jean Bennett Smiley, to Abraham Joshua Heschel to name but a few. What they clearly did was use their position to advocate and become activists around addressing inequality. Never once did they shun their whiteness, but rather embraced it as part of their humanity. Recognising they had a different skin colour and the societal advantages that brought by using that as a platform to make change.
The problem with Miss Dolezal is that she pretended to be what she was not. She stealthily immersed herself in a culture and environment as if she was a recipient of the injustices that come with being black. One of these ruses, the apparent receiving of race hate mail, is what was to become part of her undoing. How are you going to lie and play with something people experience each and every day to try and validate your new identity?
There are those who will not have a problem with this. In fact initially I actually found the whole episode funny. How was it that a historical organisation determined to be a standard bearer for the fight against injustice and inequality could not do a proper background check on one of it’s presidents? Of course after the jump there are always those who had their suspicions but never said anything about it. How is it that she was able to masquerade as none white? Surely her husband could have said something or other members of her friendship circle?
And then it dawned on me this is not funny at all but something of a wider narrative. That of Cultural appropriation.
Ms Dolezal is not the first person to do this. In 1948 the journalist Ray Sprigle wrote a series of articles under the title, “I Was a Negro in the South for 30 Days,”.
Then in 1961 the journalist John Howard Griffin underwent a social experiment. He spent a considerable amount of time under UV lamps and took the anti-vitiligo drug Oxsorsalen to darken his skin. He spent six weeks in this guise, with many of his black and white friends not being able to recognise him. He wanted to experience first hand what it was like to experience being black in the South and never changed his name. His book and subsequent movie Black Like Me
became a hit. He had to move to Mexico subsequently for his own safety and that of his family. One can’t help to think that either this breaking story is along similar lines, although the journalists made it plain to those they knew it was a ruse, but if not this can be seen as nothing other than blackface.
For those who don’t know what black face is, it is the intentional darkening of the skin, usually for entertainment purposes to mock the black experience. Celebrities from Ted Danson to Kylie Jenner, Billie Crystal to Sarah Silverman and even Beyonce have gone down this route and have had to swiftly offer apologies afterwards because they refused to understand the nuance behind the history of blackface.
The history of blackface as an insult, from the minstrels to Beyonce, is clear even if people pretend not to know this, and as the journalist Dodai Stewart stated,
“It’s fun to play with fashion and makeup, and fashion has a history of provocation and pushing boundaries. But when you paint your face darker in order to look more ‘African,’ aren’t you reducing an entire continent, full of different nations, tribes, cultures and histories, into one brown colour?”
Insert African-American here and you get the picture.
Ms Dolezal can be accused of using black face too, although her platform unlike others wasn’t through entertainment. She adopted braided hair, tanned her skin, took on a Southern American lilt (sound familiar) and immersed herself in a organisation whose intention is supposedly to tackle racial supremacy and privlege.
Writing in the Salon Mary Elizabeth Miller sums it up by saying
“So this isn’t about being an ally, or making the family of your choosing, or even how one feels on the inside. It’s about, apparently, flat out deception. It’s about how one person chose to obtain a college education and jobs and credibility in her community. It about allegedly pretending to speak from a racial experience you simply don’t have. “
Complex racial issues need dialogue and cooperation from all sides. It takes understanding and listening but also integrity and honesty. The moment you decide to do otherwise reduces any credibility for you as an ally and undermines the work of those who are busting their arse with none of the privilege that someone like Ms Dolezal will still have when the spray tan fades and the braids are taken out.