There is something compelling and disturbing about the case of Rachel Dolezal, the white woman who successfully passed at being black – so successfully that she headed up the Spokane, Washington chapter of the NAACP, before her parents outed her as white.
Let’s ignore the personal aspects of the story. The inevitable made-for-TV movie will cover this – the admittedly fascinating question of why did she do it? Even more compelling is the public reaction to her trickery. If Dolezal’s successful passing as black offers little more than a textbook truism that race is a social construct, the outrage and confusion that followed, once her trickery was uncovered says far more about the nature of racial politics.
The first thing to note is how messed up this form of politics is. A lot of black commentators are angry because, by claiming blackness, Rachel Dolezal took away speakerhood positions from black people. This is true and this is depressing. I’m reminded of my research a few years ago into US Jewish supporters of Palestine. I once interviewed the head of a local Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) chapter – a thoughtful and very funny woman. About twenty minutes into the interview – I started asking her about her Jewish background. She laughed and told me she wasn’t Jewish, why did I think she was?
That floored me and I asked her awkwardly, well… why are you in a group like Jewish Voice for Peace then? Her reply was to tell me to be realistic, that she’d be taken much more seriously if she spoke – not as a Jew (which she never pretended she was) but as someone representing Jews. I couldn’t deny that reality. In the US, perhaps more than elsewhere, the claim to ethnic representativeness bolsters one’s claims, whatever these claims may be. Small wonder that other people than Rachel Dolezal ground their positions on this claim. Small wonder too that these people have reacted so angrily to her undermining their credibility to speak from ethnic personhood.
There is something fundamentally wrong about a form of conversation where your ability to speak – or rather, to be heard – is to a large extent predicated on your ethnic origin. I’m not slagging off the NAACP or black activists for this – they didn’t create this system and are merely trying to manoeuvre their way through it. This is known as strategic essentialism – the way that oppressed groups essentialise their identity for strategic reasons – in order to coalesce as a group and to provide a platform from which to fight these oppressions. This type of identity politics may well be the least bad option when fighting racial discrimination. But the question arises if some of the anger directed against Dolezal is because unwittingly, she exposed the pretences underpinning this strategic essentialism – the nakedness of this particular emperor.
For say what you like about Rachel Dolezal, but she has unsettled the easy racial categories. It’s disheartening to see article after article snarkily praising her for her hair, as if that was it. As if, once we can isolate and fix the feature that allowed her to be black – it was her hair – then the problem is solved and we can re-erect the racial barriers that keep us secure, if not safe. The problem is that it was no one feature, not her hair, nor her skin colour, nor her political claims which allowed her to be black. It was that she performed being black as well as any other black person. Recall, she wasn’t found out by her fellow black activists. If her mom hadn’t told on her, she could still be black today.
Of course, Rachel Dolezal didn’t just claim blackness as an incidental aspect of herself. With the zeal of the convert, she claimed her blackness as her defining characteristic (which in a twisted way it was). Essentialising her blackness, she used it to exclude whites from campaigns such as Black Lives Matter. Once found out, Dolezal has doubled down, claiming now to be transracial and to ‘identify as black’. Inevitably comparisons have been made between Dolezal’s claims and transsexuality, particularly in the wake of Caitlyn Jenner’s recent coming out as transsexual in Vanity Fair.
Some have argued that there is no real difference between Jenner and Dolezal. Why can’t Dolezal be black if Jenner can be a woman? Or rather, as those attacking trans women have it – if Dolezal is not really black, then why is Jenner a ‘real’ woman? “Imagine the reaction”, an op-ed in the New York Times prophetically asked before the Dolezal story broke, “if a young white man suddenly declared that he was trapped in the wrong body and, after using chemicals to change his skin pigmentation and crocheting his hair into twists, expected to be embraced by the black community”. The fact that there is a difference may lie in the way that feminism – seeking to loosen rather than strengthen gender categories – is less tied up in the knot of strategic essentialism. Feminists by and large accept that Jenner can perform her version of femininity if she wants to, and can be as real a woman as any other. The performative nature of gender is accepted, to an extent. But the performative nature of race is another matter. Nobody wants to go there.
Another difference is that Caitlyn Jenner never tried to trick anyone, Rachel Dolezal did. And people are angry that they’ve been tricked. Tricksters aren’t supposed to work this way – it’s supposed to be the colonised or racially oppressed tricking and getting their morsels of revenge from their oppressors. Just as there is a strong Irish tradition of using linguistic dexterity to fool the Brits, so too is there a similar culture of trickery among US Blacks; central to Afro-American tradition was the stories of the signifying monkey, who through trickery would sometimes, though not always, get the better of the powerful lion.
There is something offensive about tricksterism working the other way – the privileged white woman tricking black people, taking away what little they have, their claim to their blackness. Dolezal’s exploits has been compared to the way white people used to put on blackface. Blackface was not simply a way to demean black people, but also to try and be like them – or at least to be like what white people imagined black people to be like. But Dolezal’s was a form of blackface that fooled black people too. In the end, this successful trickery could be the most unsettling aspect of the business – by being a trickster Rachel Dolezal most closely grasped her fantasy and perhaps a wider white fantasy of being black. The angry reaction to this trickery may be less the emperor’s rage that he is naked, and more the terror of ordinary people that they aren’t even covered by their skin.
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