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.
Chart from the Women's Media Center 2015 report on the media gender gap.
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.
11 Comments Have Been Posted
on underprivilege and racism
Carmen replied on
Thank you for your article. I am a "kind-of'-Latina" in the US, being from Catalonia and having come to the US with the privilege of a visa. I would have never, ever, pretended to be a representative of Latinos struggling to survive in the US. I was a golden immigrant from a European country. What I did and what I do it use my given. not earned, power, to empower others, by being an ally, an advocate, by using my language to assist others in navigating this cruel and discriminating system. She did not have to pretend to be Black, she could have used her not-earned privilege to empower others.
There are black women on
Damon D replied on
There are black women on television and in the news every single day, all over America. They are celebrated an some, worshiped. This article is nonsense. This Rachel Dolezal is big news because her story is unusual. The witch hunt after her is cruel. She's done a lot of good.
What good has she done? She's
Robyn McGee replied on
What good has she done? She's a liar and a fraud.
Nothing unusual about her
squash replied on
Nothing unusual about her story. Bottom line is, she didn't have to pretend to be black to be an ally in our struggle. She seems to think that being black was like wearing a costume that you can put on and take off any time it suits you. That's not even what having a black identity (or any other identity,for that matter) means. She wanted to be black,but without the everyday hassles and prejudices the average black women usually has to deal with at some point in her life. What she did comes off as ridiculous and very self-serving on her part.
This is exactly the same as
derrington replied on
This is exactly the same as male to female transsexuals who have all but taken over feminism in uk. We are not allowed to talk bout having wombs or sisterhood because it is seen as exclusionary to trans women. Feelings of being a woman count over really being a women and men can jump back and forth over the gender binary as it suits their feelings and what suits them in the moment. Our reality is being erased in our own spaces so i understand your anger at rachel comletely and this whole identity theft is a real danger for marginalised societies all over. Imagine a german saying they were more jewish than a jew so could write their history for them.
Womynborn replied on
"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. "
If we say that Rachel is trans, or even if Rachel said she was trans, would that give a different story?
This identity issue IS very similar to the trans issue. Trans people don't get power and benefit? Look at Bruce Jenners. Male trans female gives one who grew up with the power to now promote their own agendas, taking away the women's movement from women.
It does give them benefits, that's why Bruce did it. That's why Rachel did it. It might not be the benefits WE want to achieve, but they sure are getting sympathy, validation and fame, aren't they.
Literally everything is wrong
Anonymous.. replied on
Literally everything is wrong with this comment. Women are "allowed" to talk about their wombs. Many of us, trans and ciswomen alike think it is ridiculous to equate being a woman to having a womb. Transwomen are women, trans people (cause you know trans men exist too right? RIGHT?) don't "jump and forth" across anything, they fight for medical care, and TRANSITION, which is really fucking expensive and time consuming, so that people like you will spend less time questioning and scrutinizing their experiences and realities. You are a woman whether trans people exist or not. Is your concept of your own gender really so fragile that people you have never met are somehow a threat to you? And please, PLEASE, tell me exactly how your existence is threatened here. Are there roving bands of trans women hunting cis women down in some vast conspiracy to rid the world of "real" women. ARE THERE?!?!?!
Rachel Dolezal = a women who could take her supposed blackness off when it suited her and put it back on for her own gain, without truly having to suffer the consequences of systemic racism and marginalization.
Rachel Dolezal = stealing the spotlight from people who actually suffer from racist oppression when she could have been using her white privilege to talk to other white people about racism.
Trans people = marginalized already. Already suffer higher than the national average rates of suicide, homicide, incarceration, poverty, homelessness, inadequate health care, the list actually goes on. AND STILL FUCKING LIVING THEIR TRUTH, BECAUSE IT IS WHO THEY FUCKING ARE.
Ooh wee lady there is a shriek of rage coming out of me for the hateful bullshit you've spewed here.
And here is another one you got real wrong: I think you mean Nazi when you say German, cause, guess what: SOME GERMANS ARE JEWS.
Trans women aren't trying to write your history for you. They are fighting to write their own history, and if you were a feminist you would be standing with them instead of trying to tell them that their bodies as you see them determine who they can be, no matter what they think.
WHL replied on
Good article, but I also needed to get out another question.
So the whole Spokane NAACP controversy got me thinking. It is safe to say that on an overall, holistic, systemic level, "reverse racism" or reverse discrimination in general is not a thing here. It's only a thing when we are talking about situations like the Russian Revolution or Rwanda. Yet in the isolated, localized context of rising through the NAACP ranks, passing as Black likely helped Dolezal's upward climb. Could it thus be said that in highly specific and limited situations, having a certain marginal identity can lead to certain "reverse privileges" within said context?
This is not to deny the existence of white privilege. Dolezal certainly benefited from her...uh.... whiteness. However, perhaps privilege is a contextual matter, and the reason we say it is systemic overall is that in the context of the nation as a whole, white privilege is real, even if in certain microcosms and "sub-structures" it might be reversed in limited ways.
"Reverse racisim" is a
Renee replied on
"Reverse racisim" is a concept created to protect white privilege by insinuating that the impact of racisim can be the same for a white person. It suggests that racisim is an individual's attitude of hatred towards another. The reality is that racisim is a social system, much like the patriarchy. Racisim's impact on white people is white privilege, always. The truth is that racisim impacts all groups, but not all groups are impacted equally. How can you reverse something that is endemic to society in one way only?
Implying that there can be benefits from racisim for those outside of white privilege is again spinning the narrative to protect white privilege.
Dolezal is not Comfortable In Skin
kristina.madsen replied on
It is obviously true that a Black person passing for white is a totally different matter from a white passing for Black. Of the POC trying to pass for white, probably very few are doing it because they feel white. You do it out of a need for survival in an environment that is hostile to Blacks. When someone passes for Black, their motivation must necessarily be different, because being perceived as Black is not going to help you survive in a white supremacy.
So I honestly don't see how that is not a cis/trans question. Nobody has any reason to try to pass for Black unless it is because they are not at home in the skin colour they were designated at birth.
All the while that Dolezal has been presenting as Black and actually has been passing, she has been risking the same racist persecution that Blacks in the US have always faced. How can that possibly have benefited her?
She was not banking on being famous for 'passing'. She was presenting as Black because she hoped to be perceived as Black all her life. How is that different from feeling like a woman and presenting as female, and wanting people to perceive you as female although you've been designated male at birth?
Dolezal's fundie upbringing
jggilbert63@yah... replied on
Adding to the story, in my eyes, are Dolezal's parents, who I believe belong to the same fundamentalist sect that the Duggar's do, a cult that advocates harsh physical and emotional abuse/discipline. She adopted one of her adopted half-brothers based on this situation and there is a sexual abuse case pending against one of her brothers who may have abused a half sister (something like that). I think this woman has been deeply scarred by these people and sought out an identity/a community that felt more real, more accepting. That she couldn't be real is the tragedy for her. The way the media is capitalizing/framing the story is all about white privilege IMO.
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