Melissa Harris-Perry and Rachel Dolezal talking on MSNBC this Tuesday.
It is impossible to escape the media storm around the bizarre narrative of Rachel Dolezal, a former adjunct instructor of Africana Studies at Eastern Washington University and former president of the Spokane chapter of the NAACP. Dolezal resigned from the latter position on Monday, and her contract was not renewed at Eastern Washington University, after her parents revealed that she has tried to represent herself as a Black woman for years—donning an afro, bronzing her skin, and self-identifying as Black despite growing up as a white, blonde girl. Much has transpired since Dolezal’s parents revealed her charade, including the rise of uproarious hashtags like #AskRachel and #RachelDolezalMemoirTitles. After she spent a decade trying to feign a different race, Dolezal’s personal life is now national news.
The news media is happy to rubberneck as Dolezal spews faux tales of how being a mother to a Black son is the equivalent of being Black. The deception Dolezal employed to rise into position as a leader on social justice issues is deplorable, but the way the media is colluding with her to extend her fifteen minutes of stolen fame is also troubling. She’s released statements reiterating that she considers herself Black, appeared on TODAY, and been fodder for a deluge of think-pieces. While Black girls are being assaulted, strangled, and burned in their homes, Dolezal’s mere presence is overshadowing the issues she claims she’s so concerned with. Such is the business of colonizers drunk off their own privilege.
How we respond to the phenomenon of Rachel Dolezal reveals our commitment to upholding whiteness at the expense of Blackness. Even race scholars are missing the mark. On her MSNBC show over the weekend, Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry, the race, gender and political science scholar affectionately referred to as MHP, discussed Dolezal. Given her status as a beloved figure within Black feminism, I expected a nuanced conversation about Dolezal on her show.
When she first broached the topic, Harris-Perry asked fellow scholar, Allyson Hobbs, if Dolezal could be Black because race is malleable. If people born into Black families can “pass” for white and live as white people, can someone who’s born into a white family but passes for Black actually be Black? Harris-Perry asked:
Is it possible that she might actually be Black? The best way that I know how to describe this—and I want to be careful here, because I don’t want to say it’s equivalent to the transgender experience, but there is a useful language in “trans” and “cis.” Some of us are born cisgendered, some of us are born transgendered. But I wonder, can it be that someone can be cis-Black or trans-Black, to achieve Blackness despite one’s parentage? Is that possible?
Comparing being transgender to Rachel Dolezal is dangerous. As many people were quick to explain, transitioning doesn’t often benefit trans people politically or financially.
Despite backlash, MHP was unwilling to relinquish the idea that Dolezal isn’t Black in a subsequent show. Race is a social construct that was erected to protect whiteness. Historian Blair L.M. Kelley explains this best in the Washington Post when she writes, “the 'one-drop' rule, codified during Jim Crow, meant a person with any African ancestry was Black, no matter how pale their skin,” and this was used to oppress Blacks. As Tamara Winfrey-Harris sums up in a New York Times editorial, this history means that passing for Black is different than passing for white. And while it's a socially constructed idea, race has material consequences, as MHP knows and has written about.
Deciding to be Black doesn't mean Dolezal inherited the burden of Blackness. She still benefited—to a phenomenal degree—from colorism, and took up space from Black women who are fighting for their voices to even be heard or considered legitimate.
Then, on Tuesday, Melissa Harris-Perry invited Dolezal onto her show, greeting her with a sofball interview where Dolezal got plenty of time to talk about her feelings and how she feels attacked by people who don't “get” her identity. “When you respond to my question, 'Are you black?' And you say 'yes,' there are viewers who are enraged,” said Harris-Perry. “And many of thise viewers are Black women. Can you understand that anger?”
“Stepping outside of myself, I would probably be enraged,” replied Dolezal. “How dare she claim this? But they don’t know me. They really don’t know what I’ve actually walked through and how hard it is. This is not been something that’s a casual come-and-go sort-of identity or identity crisis.”
In that exchange, Dolezal is disregarding the reactions of real Black women while attempting to appropriate us. It was the ultimate insult, especially when Harris-Perry went on to the next question instead of pushing Dolezal to further explain herself. It wasn’t that long ago that MHP screamed at financial expert Monica Mehta for daring to suggest that being wealthy is a risky endeavor that requires legislative protections. “What is riskier than being poor in America?” Harris-Perry boomed. It was one of multiple moments when MHP championed the stories of the marginalized. Where is that MHP?
Since Dolezal’s identity has been exposed, several videos have surfaced of her describing her experiences as a Black woman. Black women, like me, exist in a world where we’re told that our experiences are not as important as those of white women or Black men. We’re subjective, and our lived experiences don’t matter. Yet, MHP is giving space and entertaining the idea that this white woman who has become Black vis-à-vis a spray tan and a crooked afro has a legitimate tale to tell. That is an act of silencing that doesn’t align with my Black feminism, and shouldn’t align with Harris-Perry’s either. In this moment, Black women need Melissa Harris-Perry to rise up and speak out about this clearly because we have so few public advocates who are concerned with our welfare. A recent analysis revealed that Harris-Perry’s MSNBC show is the only Sunday news show on TV that features the voices of more people of color than white people. Her show is one I look to for guidance, whatever the big story of the week is.
I am hurt. Other Black feminists are hurt because MHP’s body of Black feminist work is impressive. Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America is one of several Black feminist texts that I revisit time and time again when I’m in need of restorative healing or in need of a reminder of why my Black womanhood is valuable. Her life’s work has been a way toward liberation. Black feminism makes space for love and accountability, even for our most beloved figures. No Black feminist is above critique, especially in times like this. My Black womanhood feels cheapened as we spend days attempting to rationalize this white woman’s cruel lie, while Black women can barely make the news when we’re being pinned down by the police.
As Dolezal’s name has continued to dominate headlines, some people have been working to redirect attention from her family drama to underreported issues like the gruesome murder of Arnesha Bowers. In recent weeks, the hashtag #SayHerName has risen on Twitter to respond to the erasure of Black girls and women in national conversations about police brutality. The hashtag has been revisited as a way to redirect attention from Dolezal to real Black girls and women who are being harmed. Darnell L. Moore, a senior editor at Mic, also redirected the conversation to Bowers in a widely-shared article because “violence against Black girls often fails to garner the public attention it deserves.”
Soon, Dolezal will expend her fifteen minutes of fame, and media will begin looking for another story to devour. I hope that story will center real Black girls and women or we will continue to be pushed to the margins of national conversation even as our lives are in peril.
Evette Dionne is a race and culture writer whose work has been published at the New York Times, Clutch Magazine, The Root and a multitude of other digital and print publications.