"Jim, how come you haven't written about this Rachel Dolezal thing?"
I’ve got piles of email about this.
About Rachel Dolezal, the former head of the Spokane chapter of the NAACP, who says she identifies as African American despite being born about as genetically Caucasian as it's possible to be in this world.
Why haven’t I written about it? Here or on my Facebook page?
Well, truth of the matter is that I have written about it, several times.
But I deleted the post before hitting publish.
It's less discretion before valor and more, Goddamn but I just don't want to deal with the resulting shitstorm (which you may refer to as cowardice if you like).
After a week of watching this unfold, a week of thinking about it from my whitey white white Irish/English/Dutch-American straight male identity, I’m not sure I have any more grasp than anybody else or any pithy insight that hasn’t already been offered. And I’m far from certain it’s even my place do so.
But write is what I do, and so this time I’m determined to get it down.
A white woman pretending to be black?
It’s a strange case. Unusual.
Given our history here in America, it’s always the other way around, isn’t it? We’ve got a word for it, passing, when a person of one race is accepted as a member of another. In point of fact, in this case, to say Rachel Dolezal was “passing” as black, well, the word “passing” is itself a bit of a racial appropriation, since the word came from segregated African-American culture and is typically meant for a person of mixed ethnicity choosing to identify solely as white. It used to happen a lot, back when it was legal to discriminate against people of color here in America. And, of course, there is a lot of baggage that comes along with passing, on both sides of the racial divide. People of color generally resent those who hide their brown skinned origins and kinky hair and pass for white, gaining access to power and privilege. And those with the power and the privilege generally resent those who aren’t as racially pure as they pretend to be – and white people have a few terms of their own in that regard, ones that I’d be just as happy not to have repeated here.
But I think what boggles all of us the most, both black and white, is that in this case it’s a white person passing as black.
What, she was passing as white? Sure. I mean, given the choice? Right? Of course people would want to be white. Sure. But who passes as black? That’s just crazy, man.
That’s what we’re all thinking, right?
Honestly, none of us would have raised an eyebrow if it had been the other way around, would we?
That right there, that weird racist uncomfortable unsaid undercurrent, well, it says something about us Americans and how we still see both ourselves and others even after all our history.
And it tells us just how far we have left to go.
There is almost no way to discuss this without setting off all kinds of triggers, without dredging up an uncomfortable past and an even more uncomfortable present, without picking open scabs that should have been long healed but aren’t and may never be.
Naturally, rightfully so, a lot of people black and white are outraged by Dolezal’s duplicity. Her passing is offensive for many reasons.
Many people are perplexed - including, apparently, her parents and family. For some of the reasons I alluded to above.
And a rather distressing number of self-involved jackasses are attempting to leverage Rachel Dolezal’s duplicity to their advantage, playing a bizarre game of justification politics by making comparisons to Caitlyn Jenner and using terms such as "transracial” and looking for somebody to blame. Like absolutely everything else, they’re absolutely certain Dolezal’s choices somehow justify their opinion of liberals, conservatives, blacks, whites, commies, socialists, illegal immigrants, gay people, Obama, and the supposed downfall of America in a thundering myriad of logical fallacies. These people, well, you know at least they’re not hiding their true selves, they can always be counted on to be the exact assholes they are, selfish, self-centered bigoted scumbags who make every single thing about themselves. Always and without fail.
"I officially today announce that I identify as skinny. From this day going forward, I am skinny. Now in the old days, people’s reaction then would be to call me delusional and maybe think I needed some help. Today I’m brave; it’s a courageous act to identify as skinny when one is not, and I’m sure I will get accolades all across Twitter, and accolades all across Facebook, and accolades all across the drive-by media for positive-thinking now that I identify as skinny. I'm fully expecting that Weight Watchers and others like them will identify and welcome me into the fold as skinny, since I now identify that way. The way I see myself is the way I am, not how you see me. And if you don’t see me that way, you’re the bigot! I’m brave."
- Rush Limbaugh, 6/16/2015
Watching the whole sorry thing unfold on social media and in pundit-space provides a fascinating and revolting glimpse into how we Americans regard identity, race, ourselves, and each other.
And it’s not pretty.
My initial kneejerk reaction when the news broke was probably similar to most of you: What? Oh, that's just bullshit, man! Bullshit. This fraud is so full of it!
And I sat down to start typing ... and, you know, something horribly similar to Rush Limbaugh came out.
I don’t want to be Rush Limbaugh.
I don’t want to be that bombastic blustering bigot.
I don’t want to be on the same side as Limbaugh or those like him. I don’t want to define myself that way, and I work damned hard not to. And I looked at it, at those words on the screen, at my own visceral reaction to a woman I’d never met, to a situation I’d never been in, and my own words came back to haunt me.
The only truly inalienable right is the right to define yourself.
That’s what I said. Many times. Here and elsewhere.
Well, sure, okay, but I generally put forward that ideal when I'm writing about gender/sexual identity, specifically when I'm addressing the specious "argument" commonly used by bigots, the one which goes: people choose their sexual identity.
But choosing your race or your ethnicity is different. Isn't it?
Or is it?
You have an inalienable right to define yourself. I've said that, many times, here, elsewhere, publicly, loudly. And either I believe what I said all the way or I’m as big of a poser as any of them. Limbaugh, see, he certainly doesn’t believe that. He wasn’t defending Dolezal’s right to define herself, just as he wasn’t defending Caitlyn Jenner’s right to define herself, he was just being a big fat condescending asshole.
Limbaugh and the selfish sons of bitches like like him, they’re not outraged at Dolezal’s duplicity, and they are certainly not defending her rights (whatever they are in this case), rather they are using her to make racial and sexual inequality about themselves.
These are the very same people, the very same tone-deaf blind-to-history, ignorant of context bigots who boldly explain how it’s not racist for a white person to use the word “nigger,” see, because black rappers use it. They’re also the same people who call the president the same word, but say it’s not really racist because Obama is half white. Right now, on the rightwing conservative outlet NewsMax, Limbaugh’s fans are one and all jerking each other off in the comments over how this incident somehow proves their viewpoints on equal opportunity and Obamacare and how white people are the real victims.
Now you have hit on the REAL problem, characterized by the question never asked - why should it matter? The problem is that we've created legal distinctions that are unjust: The law should apply equally to everyone. If Ms. Whatshername wants to "identify" as black what is the harm? If she uses that "identity" to get scholarships, grants, tax advantages of other special treatments under the law, that is clearly wrong - but why should it be possible? The obvious fix is get rid of legal distinctions that lead to such easy and unjust abuses. Legally defined inequality is the problem.
The only truly inalienable right is the right to define yourself, that’s what I said.
And that’s what Rachel Dolezal has done, defined herself.
But, and this is important, I’ve also repeatedly said rights come with responsibilities.
Dolezal’s right to define herself isn’t a right to be free of the consequences and she’s going to have to answer to the people she deceived. And she did willfully deceive people, directly or by omission. She didn’t say, I’m a white woman who identifies as black, who embraces black culture, no, she said I am black and it appears she engaged in a deliberate form of duplicity which I’m at pains to describe in any useful fashion.
"Hopefully nobody goes to that film. We need to boycott that film, from my perspective, because it’s miseducation, it’s misrepresentation, it’s highly offensive to the people that actually were living during that time and also to people today.”
That was Rachel Dolezal in a 2014 radio interview admonishing Americans to boycott the movie Exodus: Gods and Kings specifically because the film featured white actors portraying black characters. And while she may have had a point, the level of irony coming as it does from a white women passing as a black spokesman for the NAACP is staggering – and she must have known it, since you’ll note she doesn’t mention her own whiteness in a conversation where that is very much relevant. Her intentions may have been well meant, nevertheless there’s that whole Dances With Wolves/Avatar thing, where the white guy shows up to save the day by being a better native than the natives. There’s something condescending and paternalistic and Great White Father about it all.
Whoa, now just hang on a minute, Jim, I hear you say in that triumphant tone you use when you’re certain you’ve got me. Let’s back up. This bit, “She didn’t say, I’m a white woman who identifies as black, who embraces black culture, no, she said I am black.” How is that any different from somebody who says, “I am a woman” instead of “I’m a man who identifies as a woman?” You, Jim, defended one and derided the other. Well?
Yes. Of course, you’re right.
I did say those things.
And they do contradict each other, if you believe as I do in the inalienable right to define yourself.
And somewhere up above, I also admitted to being a straight white male, the very stereotype of privilege and the one least qualified to opine on this subject.
I don’t have a good answer. We’re talking about things that don’t have good, solid, definitive, universal one-size-fits-all answers. We’re talking about race, sexuality, identity, choice, genetics, history, culture, bias, personal experience, perception and all the baggage that comes with those topics. It’s messy and filled with contradiction and emotion and things that make many people very uncomfortable. There aren’t any easy answers. If there were, well, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.
I think it’s subjective, I think it’s context, and I don’t see any way that it couldn’t be.
Those that identify as a sex different from their physical selves, they generally aren’t appropriating another culture or ethnicity in their transition, well, unless we’re going to pull a Limbaugh and argue sex is an ethnicity – and if you’re going to attempt that I’d appreciate it if you’d do it somewhere else. The vast, vast, vast, vast majority of transgendered people are people who honestly identify as the opposite sex, not people like Mike Huckabee who joked he’d like to go back to high school and be transgendered so he could hang out in the girl’s locker room.
Yeah, but did Dolezal really appropriate black culture for her own advantage?
I don’t know.
I’m not really qualified to answer that question.
The people at the NAACP, her friends, her associates, Dolezal herself, those are the ones who have to answer that question. Maybe she did, maybe she didn’t, but, you know, it’s our own history as a nation which makes us all suspect indeed she did. And it’s our individual history which makes some of us mad that she might have taken something from somebody that she wasn’t entitled to and some of us mad because she apparently got something we didn’t. Take a look to the left and the right and see who you’re standing with and figure out why you’re offended for yourself.
To be honest, I don’t have a snappy tweetable wrap-up.
I don’t have condemnation or praise or even a rationalization for Rachel Dolezal.
She is simply another paragraph in a conversation that’s been going on for more than two centuries here in America.
Oh, you know, I’d love to say that it’s all American culture, black, white and it doesn’t matter, sure. I like to say some white kid named Robert Matthew Van Winkle passing himself off as a black rapper name Vanilla Ice is just as valid as a black man named Ben Carson passing as an old white republican, but I’m neither that foolish nor that naïve. And it does matter. It’s complicated, it’s painful, it hurts, it makes us think – for better or for worse.
Dolezal will have to deal with the consequences of her identity and her choices, just as we all do.
Hopefully, the conversation Dolezal sparked will force us all to reexamine who we are and who we want to be.
Perhaps. But I’m not holding my breath.
In the end I’m left with this: perhaps if all of us spent a little more time trying to identify with other races, other ethnicities, other sexual orientations, other cultures, other people, well, maybe the world would be a better place.