Rachel Dolezal (KREM)

"Damn, Rachel Dolezal. Even Vanilla Ice didn't claim to BE black": Kamau Bell and Adam Mansbach debate race

The comic writers talk about Dolezal's nose, the anxiety of whiteness, and whether Caitlyn Jenner is even relevant


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Adam MansbachW. Kamau Bell
June 16, 2015 12:20AM (UTC)

Kamau,

First of all, I think your daughter left some socks over here the other day. You’ll have to describe them correctly if you want them back. But man, there are so many angles to this Rachel Dolezal story that it’s hard to know where to begin.  One thing that strikes me, though, is that she doesn’t appear to have made any high-level effort to disguise the fact that she’s white – unlike the black protagonists of every “passing” novel and real-life story I can think of.  She didn’t forge a birth certificate, or even change her name. She just curled the shit out of her hair. And that was all she had to do, because the notion of someone voluntarily choosing to live as a black person is so inconceivable to white America that anybody who claims blackness must be black. It's like, why would you move from the center toward the margins? You might as well pretend to be gay.

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Part of me wants to believe that this woman walked away from whiteness because she was honest enough to acknowledge what most of us white people spend a ton of energy avoiding: that whiteness in this country is a super-deluxe package of perks and privileges, none of them earned. And that’s what fucks white progressives up all the time, right? What to do with privilege we can’t jettison, but also can’t feel good about? And also, “privilege” isn’t even a good word. A privilege is getting to stay up late, or eat an extra popsicle. The things that comprise “white privilege” are actually basic human rights that are denied to black people, like the right to not be capriciously murdered by a cop for no reason.

But back to Rachel: If that was at the core of her decision to “pass,” she’d somehow have to have this radical critique of whiteness on one hand, and also think it was OK to pretend to be black on the other. Which are two things that are very hard to square with each other.  I have a character in one of my novels who passes for black, but she’s a Czech immigrant who’s only ever hung out with black American jazz musicians, understands nothing of the horrors of American history or the current-day oppression of black people, believes the musicians when they tell her how “soulful” she is and that the black experience is so profound that it functions as a metaphor for all humanity, decides that how you feel is who you are, and applies to college as a black woman.

Your girl Rachel grew up in Montana, though. So that’s not her deal at all.

Then again, white people looking for some way to not feel like they’re complicit in a morally bankrupt racial hierarchy often seem to decide that the opposite of whiteness is blackness.  As opposed to the opposite of whiteness being working to dismantle white supremacy. So we find diverse communities, hang out with people who don’t look like us, listen to rap or jazz or whatever the fuck, ease into some kind of ease, and decide we’re doing enough. But again, that’s not Rachel either. She’s not living in Fort Greene, she’s president of a fucking NAACP chapter. She’s actually doing some kind of work, she’s just doing it under a false racial identity. And, um, making false claims about being the victim of hate crimes.

For some reason, I also keep thinking of Tom Hanks’ douchebag son Chet, the one who wants to be a rapper and loves to say “nigga” and explained on social media a few weeks ago why that’s perfectly fine. What if we locked the two of them in a room together? What do you think would happen?

Adam

***

Adam,

First of all, damn. Even Vanilla Ice didn't claim to BE black.

Second of all, "MY GIRL RACHEL"? No. No. No. She was maybe, by default, my people until her parents outed her as you people. (Yup, I said, "you people.") We have officially changed the locks at the front entrance to the Black People Meeting. She can keep her Race Key Card as a souvenir, but it won't work no more.

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OK. I have a bunch of thoughts too, but first I'm going to go do my due diligence and actually read some of the now many, many articles about Ms. Dolezal ...

Whew! I just did a quick, deep dive into The Washington Post, Huffington Post, The Guardian, CNN, The New York Times, Twitter, The Root, Colorlines, local Spokane television, Twitter, and my own Facebook page. And my conclusion is this is way deeper than black and white. Black and white is just the appetizer here. Something is going on with her and her family, and we should all just step back and let them handle it. (Of course I secretly hope part of them "handling it" involves them filming it and airing it on the E Network ... or worst-case scenario, TLC).

I do disagree with you on one point, though. I think she did make one high-level effort to disguise her whiteness. She moved to Spokane, Washington. This did two things for her immediately.

1) According to the 2010 Census, Spokane is 86.7% White and 2% Black. That basically means that Spokane is getting solid B, maybe even a B+ in whiteness. (Hell, maybe even an A- if we are grading on curve.) And 2% is so low it's probably within the margin of error. Statistically Spokane has no black people. Which makes it a great place to pretend to be black. You're not going to get a lot of pushback. And I think by virtue of the fact she was president of the NAACP, and according to everything I read they thought she was black, we can say that she got little to no pushback.

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The other thing is when the black population is that low, they need all the help they can get. So if Gwyneth Paltrow shows up at the NAACP in Spokane claiming to be a sista, the Blacks of Spokane (which is the name of the reality show I'm pitching about this) just go, "Sure. Fine. You're Black! Whatever. Just sit down and get to work. These hashtags won't come up with themselves."

Also, one of the first things you learn as a black person in this country is that you never question another black person's racial blackness. You can question their cultural blackness all day and all night. "YOU DON'T LISTEN TO HIP HOP MUSIC? YOU AIN'T BLACK!" But if you question their racial blackness (i.e. the quantity of melanin in their skin), well then you are not only an asshole but you are also apparently completely unaware of how slavery worked and how many white flies got into the black buttermilk.

And Rachel's cultural Blackness is off the charts. College in Jackson, Mississippi. Grad school at Howard University. President of an NAACP Chapter. Damn. She way outranks me. All I have is, has an Afro. And from the pictures it looks like she was working on that one, too.

2) The second thing moving to Spokane did for her is that it put her in a place where nobody knew her personal history. And because of that she could post a picture of her next to a random older black man and imply that he was her father. At that point, it's a wrap for most black people as far as questioning her heritage. Unless, you just really want to insist on being an asshole. Do you, Adam? DO YOU?

Rachel also had a couple things working for her that she had nothing to do with.

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She has that last name, THAT LAST NAME! Dolezal? What kind of name is that? It's perfect. It's not too "White-sounding", like Hammerschmidt or Mansbach (Yup, you could never pull this off. And I know that's where this is ultimately going.) But it's not so "Black-sounding" like Washington or Jefferson or X that it's too on the nose. Speaking of "noses.”

She has that nose! THAT NOSE! Look at it. When you go to the black nose chart, that one is on there. She basically has Michael Jackson's “Thriller” nose which as we all know was modeled after Diana Ross's “Mahogany” nose. And as you can see in Rachel's whiteface pictures from her youth, that nose wanted to be black for a long time. Maybe Rachel took the saying, "Follow your nose,” too literally.

I certainly feel like something deeper is going on here. And I speak from a place of knowledge, because again I read like 11 articles and watched a video. If Rachel wanted to devote her life to helping Black people, she could have done that from her perch as a White Person. As you know it is super helpful to the struggle when white people really understand how they can help. And it's not like there is any part of this story where it seems like she needed to be black to get the job at the NAACP. The NAACP was founded by white and black people. And again, this was Spokane. Unless every Black person in town wants to take a turn as president then they have to be open to the idea of a White one.

Rachel needs help. Maybe from a White person who has their own history with Black people and Black culture and who told their own personal story about how it affected them. Know anybody?

I'm going to guess that the socks are pink-ish with stripes... or polka dots... or kitties... or maybe they're purple. Am I right?

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Kamau

***

Kamau,

You’re way off on the socks, but I feel you on the rest. Except the “your girl” part. I use “your girl” not in the Racial Draft sense, but in the personal, pejorative sense of the word, as in “your boy Ted Cruz just exploded into a cloud of bats again, Kamau.”

I would definitely watch “Blacks of Spokane,” but I think you’re gonna have to attach Gwyneth Paltrow in order to sell it. The good news is that if you can get GP to play a black woman, Cameron Crowe will definitely come on to direct.

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I agree that Rachel needs help, and obviously to have this conversation outside the context of her personal pathology is to maneuver around the big-ass elephant sitting in the middle of the room. But what I find fascinating about Rachel is that she represents a kind of “let’s take this to its illogical conclusion” end point to a lot of the conversations we have about race as a construct and how people “self-identify.”  That’s what good satire does: take a seemingly reasonable idea, push it to the extreme, and expose the underlying ludicrousness.  And the fact that people like Rachel actually exist are the reason that people like me stop writing satire.

Because what Rachel did is the crazy-person version of what white people who are into black culture do all the time. White b-boys “act black.” (White b-girls act Puerto Rican, but that’s a whole other conversation.)  They assume mantels of authority, and self-righteously try to school everybody on the music, the culture, the history.  They essentialize blackness – usually into something very masculine and angry, something synthesized from 200 hours of rap videos – and then judge the blackness of actual black people against those standards and find it lacking.  Privately, they tell themselves that based on their diligent study/devotion/participation, they’re “blacker” than the black people who don’t measure up.  They don’t claim actual blackness, but they look really hard for an asterisk to place next to their whiteness: white-but-lives-in-the-hood, white-but-some-ethnicity-with-a-history-of-being-oppressed, white-but-dating-a-black-girl, whatever.

Rachel took it a quantum step further (assuming there’s such a thing as a quantum step – what am I, a physicist?), and it’s not that hard for me to imagine the first time it happened, and how it made her feel, and why she kept doing it.  I mean, I remember when I was this weird hip hop dude in junior high, the only white kid sitting at the “black table” in the lunch room and getting made fun of – though only by the white kids, because a) moving from the center of privilege to the margins makes the people at the center uneasy about whether it’s really the center after all, b) the black kids get why you’d want to be at their table, because they know it’s a nice place to eat lunch, and c) the bar is set so tragically low that generally speaking any white person who doesn’t act like a total jackass will find acceptance at any black table in America.

So there I was, getting called “Mansblack” and shit. Without a doubt, the easiest way to silence those kids would have been to stand up and announce that actually, I was a light-skinned, blue-eyed black kid. That also would have let me be as authoritative as I wanted in discussing the life of Malcolm X and the music of KRS-ONE and other subjects about which I was passionate, from that day forward. And when black people heard me discourse on those topics and listened respectfully and told me I knew my shit, that would have allowed me to justify the deception, reinforced the “truth” of it.  And I would have been off and running. Maybe I’d live in Spokane now.

I’m not saying that’s Rachel’s whole story. It may not be any of her story. As you said, there’s way more going on, as TLC’s “Keeping Up With the Dolezals” will no doubt reveal. But right now, there are thousands of white kids out there who are totally perplexed about race and identity and what’s OK to do and say and feel, because American coolness is so deeply coded and commodified as American blackness. They may not know any actual black people, but they’ve learned to equate blackness with flashy wealth, supreme masculinity, and ultra-sexualized femininity – interrupted occasionally by bursts of glamorous violence, and situated in a thrilling ghetto that is both dangerous and host to a constant party. They feel locked out of the possibility of attaining that lifestyle, because of the color of their skin. They don’t know where to find a workable identity, and this strikes them as oppressive, and their resentment is compounded by the fact that they possess no language with which to discuss it.

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If they could articulate any of this stuff, we could show them reams of evidence proving that all the traditional markers of prosperity – the inheritance of wealth, the rates of home-ownership, the comparative levels of education and income and incarceration – demonstrate just how privileged whites remain relative to blacks.  But they can’t, and they probably wouldn’t believe it anyway.

As far as me pulling this off despite my German-Jewish surname – I dunno, you might be surprised. I’m pretty sure nothing about my appearance says “phenotypically black,” but I’ve been asked a number of times. Always at public talks. I attribute it to some kind of cognitive dissonance: People hear me say the shit I say about race and whiteness – maybe even hear me talk about being a white person – and they can’t square it with their conception of what white people are supposed to think, and what’s the opposite of whiteness? That shit is super weird, my dude.

Your daughter also left a small animal at my house.  If you can tell me whether it’s live or stuffed and identify it by phylum, you can have it back.

Adam

* * *

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Adam,

First of all, I think we should call the show, "Doin' Too Much With the Dolezals." But I'm open to more suggestions.

At this point I should probably reveal that I just finished reading Jon Ronson's "So You've Been Publicly Shamed." So my feelings on this are tainted by that book. (Of course my feelings are also tainted by Jon Ronson's basic misunderstanding of how racism works, but then that's for another series of emails.) But after reading his book -- well, I didn't exactly read it. I listened to it on Audible, but it doesn't seem right to say, "After hearing Jon Ronson read his book to me..." -- I can't help but also be grossed out by the collateral damage of this whole thing.

People are throwing Caitlyn Jenner on top of all this as if she has anything to do with this. And unless she sent a young Rachel Dolezal a VHS of the movie "Soul Man" with the last 30 minutes cut off then I don't think she has anything to do with this. And of course you know (because I know you saw it) the last 30 minutes are the part where C. Thomas Howell's character finds out that being black isn't as easy as it never looked.

When I saw people using the hashtag #Transracial to joke about Rachel, I was like "Uh oh," because I realized that there was a false equivalency machine being built. I thought to myself, "There's no such thing as transracial. Sure one day, over the infinite timeline of history, technology will come up with a way to fully and permanently alter your racial appearance, but for now, no." Stupidly it didn't even occur to me that transracial is an identity. And I know it is, but the funhouse mirror that is social media distorted my view just like it does to all of us if we aren't careful. I'm just used to the word "transracial" being immediately followed by some form of the word "adoption." I'm not used to "transracial" being followed by some form of "transphobia" as is happening on my timelines.

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If Rachel just understood what you clearly do. You can be as good as black, if you just act white. There is a history of this. Black people will embrace white people who want to be down with black people. Those white people just have to remember to hold fast to their whiteness while they get down with the blackness. The Beastie Boys, Eminem, Third Bass, Teena Marie, Justin (Timberlake not Bieber), Lisa Stansfield, Taylor Dane (Yes, I had to Google that one), briefly Robin Thicke, and you! (You're welcome.)

But if there is even the perception that you are using blackness to create some sort of cultural street cred, well then, right or wrong, at worst you end up cast out of both white and black culture a la Vanilla Ice or at best you end up wherever Macklemore is right now.

But as you say Rachel Dolezal's example is so extreme it may reset the bar of what too far is. Iggy Azalea is probably sitting somewhere going, "So can I go on tour now?"

Kamau

 * * *

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Kamau,

For me, and possibly only me, “Soul Man” and “Brother From Another Planet” kind of blur into one movie. Maybe I saw them as a double feature or something.

We have to stop writing and turn this in, but lemme ask you one final question, since you brought up "transracial" (and I'm glad you did). Since we started trading these emails, Rachel gave an interview in which she restated her claim that she’s black – without denying that her parents are white.  It got me thinking: What if, instead of being somebody who lied, got caught, and then doubled down on the reasons for the lie, Rachel had gone with the pure "transracial" argument? That regardless of who her parents are or how she looks, she’s black. What if she hadn’t permed her hair or used makeup to darken her skin, just been like “yo, I was born white and I look white, but fuck all that, I’m black.” What would this whole conversation look like — putting aside the fact that we’re only having it because she got caught lying, and that she only got caught lying because she got caught sending herself fake hate mail in order to look like a hero?

Adam

* * *

Adam,

There are plenty of white people walking around with naturally bone-straight hair and narrow noses who are as pale as the statue of David saying things like, "I'm basically black! My black friends tell me that they don't think of me as white! I don't even like white people!" You know them. I know them. And those white people live their lives in that head space and only let it go when they talk to cops or their grandmothers. But one thing those particular types of white people don't do is become president of a chapter of the NAACP. Not to say you can't have a white person as the president, but you need one of those Michael Skolnik-y, "Damn, my people are fucked up!" kinds of white person.

And one more thing! I'm going to guess it was a bunny rabbit. Because if you average out all my daughter's stuffed animals, you end up with a bunny rabbit ... with a unicorn horn.

Kamau

 


Adam Mansbach

Adam Mansbach is the author of the instant New York Times bestsellers "Go the Fuck to Sleep" and "You Have to Fucking Eat," as well as the novels "Rage is Back," "Angry Black White Boy" and "The End of the Jews," winner of the California Book Award.

MORE FROM Adam Mansbach

W. Kamau Bell

W. Kamau Bell is a socio-political comedian who is the host of the upcoming CNN travel show "The United Shades of America" and the co-host of the podcast "Denzel Washington Is The Greatest Actor of All-Time Period."

MORE FROM W. Kamau Bell

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