By Max Reddick
Late last night I returned home and logged on only to find the various social media dominated by the news that the Spokane, Washington, NAACP president Rachel Dolezal had been outed by her parents as a white woman who has been passing as a black woman for the last twenty years or more.
After an initial period of disbelief, followed by the hilarity that ensued on #blacktwitter under the hashtag #RachelDolezal, I awoke this morning and began to seriously consider the implications of Mrs. Dolezal’s actions.
Seemingly I was not the only one because across the various social media and several websites, many had begun to openly ponder just what she had done that was so wrong. Surely, she was wrong in lying about her racial identity and posing as someone who she was not; however, in her assumed identity as a black woman, she had accomplished many positive things and made many positive contributions to the black community and the on-going struggle for full and unqualified citizenship for that community.
And in considering Mrs. Dolezal’s plight, I could only think of my aunt who is white, which is to say she has white skin, which is to say her mother and father and maternal and paternal grandparents were white, which is to say that she comes from a long line of white people. Yet, she has lived most of her life as part of the black community. In fact, most of those who know her would perhaps think of her as more black than white. I would go so far to say that she herself more closely identifies as a black woman than a white woman.
So, isn’t Mrs. Dolezal similar to my aunt? What is so different about the two since both spent most of their adult lives in the black community identifying, for most part, as and with black women.
But under closer examination, though quite similar, the two women are separated by a few importantly striking signal differences.
See, my uncle, my mother’s middle brother, married this white woman, who, in turn, became my aunt. Currently, inter-racial marriages are quite common, but my uncle and aunt married during the early seventies in a small, rural, very much segregated community, smack dab in the middle of the deep South.
At that time, in that place, such marriages were taboo. In fact, the moment my aunt married my uncle, her entire family and much, if not most, of the white community immediately, totally, and unceremoniously disowned her. And to my knowledge, no one in her family has spoken nary a word to her to this day.
Then, soon after my uncle and aunt married, they began having children, my cousins, three in fact. And, peculiarly, though these three children’s skin was as white as alabaster, their hair was coal black and as nappy as a goat’s ass, so there was no question of their parentage.
In fact, their hair was so nappy that their mother, my aunt, had no idea whatsoever what to do with the two girls hair, so she would bring them to our home on Sunday evenings, and my mother would do their hair in exchange for my aunt doing some chore or chores for her.
But I digress. I apologize. I allowed myself to be drawn off topic.
However, the point I was attempting to make before being drawn off topic is that the birth of these three children simultaneously both further alienated her from her former white community and tied her to our community, the black community, because even when she left our community to venture out into the greater community with my cousins in tow, these three alabaster white, nappy-headed children become evidence and symbols of her racial transgression. Even whites who did not know her or know of the cardinal race sin she had committed, knew her backstory the moment they laid eyes on those children, which in their eyes made her even lower than the blacks they so ardently despised.
So, there was no road leading home for her even if she wanted to go back; for her to go back would necessarily mean abandoning and disowning the three people she loved most in the world and who returned that love unconditionally.
She was permanently exiled and dislocated from her former life, her former family, and her former community, which she had known, loved, and depended on for the whole of her life until the moment of her marriage and had been the extent of her world.
However, allow me to suggest, empirically, that black folk are the most accepting people on earth. Whereas her family and community completely rejected her, the black community took her in and embraced her. The sister elders of the community put their arms around her and helped her begin the healing process. The sisters of the community befriended her, providing companionship and helping her find her place in the community. And my family gave her the love and familial acceptance that her family so resentfully withheld. Within our community, she and her children found the communal affirmation so essential to developing a healthy sense of self.
And over the years, she became an integral part of our community. As time passed she ceased being known as Ms. Margaret’s white daughter-in-law and/or that white lady who lives up on the hill, and became known simply as Ms. Margaret’s daughter and/or that lady who lives up on the hill.
As for me, I never even thought of her as “my white aunt” or my cousins as my half-white or half-black cousins; I thought of her only as my aunt and my cousins as my cousins. In fact, I never really considered her race at all except when it was pointed out to me. She was a very important part of my childhood and continues to be someone who I love and respect to the utmost.
Circumstance placed her in our community, the same circumstance that regulated us to that community, but her deportment and sincerity earned her a place in our hearts. And that is the signal difference between my aunt and Rachel Dolezal.
My aunt gave up her privilege vis-à-vis her whiteness to become a part of our community and family. She came to us because she had the audacity to love someone from our community and family and then follow through on that love at a time and place when and where her community and family deemed it an unforgivable sin to do so.
And she came to us without pretense as a white woman and because of this whiteness and the concomitant suspicions of her motives that invariably came with it, she humbly endured a long and informal (and I would add necessary) vetting process and eventually earned her place and respect within that community. In short, she grounded herself in that community, endured with that community, and made many positive and enduring contributions to that community, and she did so without having to lie about or misrepresent her whiteness.
On the other hand, Rachel Dolezal exercised her white privilege and prerogative in surreptitiously forcing her way into the black community. And though I do not know her motives for doing so, in my opinion it was not out of love for any one black person or blackness, but out of a certain fetishism of black people and blackness, itself an arguably less pernicious form of racism, which is evinced by her two decade long garish, pretentious presentation of black womanhood during which she cloaked herself in a mocking, disrespectful caricature of what she thought a black woman to be, all while having spent her life up until that time not having to experience the historical, on-going, and pressing racism, sexism, and classism that each and every black girl most experience to some degree and that shapes their experience as a black women.
In short, she deceptively, thus maliciously, imposed herself upon the black community, thereby foregoing any scrutiny, which might very well have revealed her cynical fetishism, though I doubt many would recognize it and/or even care. She did nothing to earn the esteem she was given, and all the many positive contributions she is said to have made to the black community, she could have as a white female ally.
I’m not sure if this makes Rachel Dolezal a bad person. In fact, the more I read about her, the more I begin to believe that the person she became, no matter who that person is, is the product of a tumultuous, disorienting upbringing in a dysfunctional family, who might be struggling with a few issues for which she should seek professional help. But that in no way makes her black. Nor should we just shrug our shoulders, pat her on the back, tell her everything will be alright, and move on.