Update: I posted this 666 days ago but blue eyed devil Rachael Dolezal is back in the news with her snake oil version of racial identity. She got a book deal and all I have is this blog so I’m reposting this in hopes someone may share it with her and
read educate this white woman-Rachel, please have several seats, and be humble.
Busted: Rachel Dolezal, Howard Graduate, Head of the NAACP in Spokane, and outspoken black community activist is white. Outed by a local reporter and mercilessly–and hilariously–taken down on twitter Rachel has sparked lots of chatter about what is race and who can be which one. Passing points to the essential function of race–that it structures power, not color. People who pass are not trying to look different, they are trying to change their status.
Race is not in our DNA, it’s a social construct. That means, despite what your eyes see, there are not different races of people. In fact, there is no gene for race in the human genome. Biologically, humans are all part of one family.
So, if race isn’t real, then we can just say racism is dead, yell, “Black President!” and get on with it right? Wrong. I mean, have you read this blog before? Since the birth of America, race has been used to structure, economic and political relationships. Prior to the 1600’s race really wasn’t a thing. People had and still have different cultures, but not different racial categories. The first time the word race even appears in the English language is 1508, so the Ancient world did not have the concept of different races.
With the conquest of the Americas and a fresh addiction to sugar, European conquerers needs many hands to make the hard work of sugar, tobacco and cotton farming light. But, since the America’s were little more than a handful of rough outposts, they couldn’t attract a voluntary workforce with crazy benefits like being allowed to live free and get paid. Thus begins the transatlantic slave trade, one of the darkest events in all of human history.
Race as a social construct was created essentially to protect this labor force. Many laws–not just one–over hundreds of years were used to keep one class of people–black people–enslaved. Politicians traded power for allowing the perpetuation of the institution of slavery, even our conflicted founding father Thomas Jefferson. He wrote all men were created equal, but could not build the country he desired without those free hands to do the work.
What would get good God fearing people to support the systematic violent oppression of their human brothers and sister? A story, a narrative that normalizes terror as truth. At the center of the narrative was the concept that blacks were not humans, and therefore did not deserve human rights. While the institution of slavery ended 7 generations ago, America still struggles to shake this narrative.
Racism is supported by personal prejudice. Individual beliefs about different groups of people perpetuate the kind of thinking that allows police to kill young people unchecked by the electorate. But even if every person in America woke up tomorrow firmly antiracist in their heart, the laws that structure education, housing, economics, justice and other systems would still have racial bias in them. Like a zombie–we may be the body, but if the zombie brain of racism lives, terror ensues.
Over the centuries, hundreds if not thousands of people have tried to game the system by “passing”–taking on the identity of a race other than their own–mostly white. Whites were able to be free, vote, own land–and slaves–and a host of other privileges that came with whiteness. These privileges–which still exist in different ways today–helped keep people bought in to systems of oppression. Black people willing to give up their culture and their ancestry could take on all the benefits of whiteness as long as they stayed hidden.
Given our history of race and racism, and ignoring the self-hate of abdicating your culture, there were some legal and societal benefits people gained by passing as white–not the least of which was freedom. But what could Rachel Dolezal possibly gain by passing as black? Everything.
In a country where whiteness is too often invisible to white people, Rachel wouldn’t be the first white girl to long to have a (different) culture. No boring suburbia for her, Rachel takes cultural appropriation to a whole new level. No matter how many Mileys and Iggys try to beg ignorance, appropriation is real–and real simple to understand.
Imagine culture is an iceberg. Certain parts of it are visible–food, dance, dress, festivals–while the foundation of what makes a culture are buried deep below the surface–beliefs, values rituals, shared lived realities and ways of being. Millions of people of African decent, shipped abroad during the slave trade or settled here in America carved out a way of surviving , a way of being in the face of unstoppable cruelty, a way of thriving within a system built to destroy them. The soul food, and the blues and the style and hip hop are the visible parts of the legacy of this ongoing struggle, but the deeper elements are essential to making sense of those expressions. Cultural appropriation is when you break off the top of the iceberg and wear it around like a costume. You can dress up, dance, and even bite the rhymes of a culture….
But when you do, you leave behind the larger, more important part of culture: the deeply help beliefs, shared experiences, values, ancestry and destiny-the truth of what it means to be part of that group. This part of the iceberg can’t be pulled out of the water and worn to the VMA’s. They can’t be weaved onto your ends like Hawaiian silky. They can’t belong to you, Rachel, or you either, Iggy.
All of these women cover themselves in a carcass they call blackness made out of stereotypes, stolen hairstyles and narratives that they’ve nicked to make themselves feel cool, beautiful, feel like they are a part of something. At the same time their white privilege gives them entrance into public spheres often denied actual black women, taking their voice and supplanting it with a white fantasy version.
And Rachel was a teacher, someone paid to tell other people how to think about and construct black femininity. This is not how you love a culture–this is how you erase it. Far from helping the community as some–including the NAACP–have suggested, her actions show the worst kind of white privilege–the privilege to define blackness with a white voice.
(Be sure to read upcoming part 2 about the difference between transgender and transracial)