The worst thing about the ridiculous strawman stereotypes that your political opponents make up and shove down your throat at every opportunity is that in a world as big, beautiful and diverse as ours is, they’ll eventually find someone out of the seven-billion-and-change human beings on Earth who fits that stereotype for real.
I’ll be the first to admit this cuts in all directions, and that as much fun as my Facebook feed has with “idiot conservative of the day” stories, the majority of Republican voters can in fact spell the word “moron,” understand that Medicare is in fact a government program and haven’t personally gone on any armed rampages in the recent past.
But right now it’s the Left that’s smarting from a massive own goal, as evidenced by the fact that I’ve spent the past few days avoiding saying the phrase “Rachel Dolezal” and yet my conscientious efforts were in vain--a critical mass of tweeters and bloggers took her viral, and now we’re all talking about her and talking about why everyone else is talking about her and talking about why we can’t stop talking about her. So it goes.
So, first of all, let’s be clear that there’s no justification for what Rachel Dolezal did. None of the arguably good things she did--her artwork, her writing, her teaching, her advocacy--would’ve been inaccessible to her had she presented herself as a white woman. Her deception wasn’t in order to better serve black Americans--it was to shirk arguably the most difficult element of anti-racist work, the element on which we’ve arguably made the least progress in the long and messy history of civil rights.
It was to avoid answering the question, “How can I, as a holder of privilege, own up to that privilege and address the harm that privilege causes? How can I be a decent, compassionate and just person without descending into self-pity and self-hatred? What is an ‘ally’ supposed to do?”
It’s a tough question. As a male ally to feminists I struggle with it all the time. As Chris Rock brilliantly pointed out, people of color have been working on dealing with racism for generations, while white people are still stuck arguing with each other over the very first step -- admitting that there’s a problem. The “progress” to be made in anti-racism isn’t to be made by black people somehow becoming better; it’s to be made by white people becoming less racist.
And yeah, that’s painful and it’s hard. But there’s millions of people working on it every day, and every honest attempt at working on it deserves more respect than the lazy cop-out Rachel Dolezal took, of deciding to duck responsibility for working on it by lying--and then to have the gall to use those lies to attack others for not working on it hard enough.
But that’s not the real reason I’m mad at her. And the real reason I’m mad at her is, arguably, (mostly) not her fault.
Deceiving her colleagues at Eastern Washington University and the Spokane chapter of the NAACP is bad enough. But all by itself it’s not a national issue, not an issue with a strong enough gravitational pull to tear our eyes away from actual issues of police brutality and housing segregation in Texas, or to allow news of an actual right-wing revolutionary attacking public servants with lethal force to fly relatively under the radar.
The real reason I’m mad at Rachel Dolezal is that people have been waiting for this story, licking their chops for it, op-eds already written in their heads long before they’d ever heard the name “Rachel Dolezal,” just waiting for a name to slot into it.
This was, in essence, a trap--a perfect narrative for skeptics of anti-racist work to mock and discredit every white anti-racist ally in the world by tarring them with Rachel Dolezal’s spray-on bronzer. The community of obnoxious right-wing pundits is capering with giddy joy right now, piling on en masse to declare Dolezal’s fraudulent life story proof that black Americans’ “victimhood narrative” is generally fraudulent, by the same logic, I suppose, that would take stolen valor as proof that war never actually happens.
Dolezal’s story isn’t new. It’s a basic idea that’s been around for a long time, with one goal--to shut down any conversation about race by pre-emptively declaring anyone who says there’s a conversation to be had to be an attention seeker. To invert reality and claim that there’s no real racial prejudice black people face anymore so all that defines blackness is the cachet that comes from historical oppression, and being black is therefore a privileged status. To take a divide-and-conquer strategy and accuse all white allies of being fetishists who, rather than empathizing, just think blackness is transgressive and cool--just like male feminists are obviously all just trying to get laid.
This is the kind of stereotype that’s infuriating precisely because there are obnoxious people whom it actually describes. Just like environmentalists cringe at Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man because we try so hard to fight back against accusations of being mystics or romantics with a fairy-tale view of nature and wild animals--and here comes a guy who actually does try to hug the grizzly bears while shouting “I love you! I love you!” Just like it sucked for the anti-war left to be repeatedly accused of being a Taliban fifth column only to find out there actually was a white kid from Marin County who joined the Taliban. Just like it infuriates me to hear about a self-proclaimed feminist professor who really was just using his feminist cred to prey on his students for sex.
The biggest reason there’s no excuse for Dolezal’s deception is that she should have known that sooner or later it would come out, and that the resulting media feeding frenzy would do massive damage to the cause of black liberation that would utterly eclipse any positive work her deception enabled.
Because let’s be honest, the narrative about Rachel Dolezal goes back long before the woman herself showed up. The idea of a white person seeking to shed white guilt by shedding whiteness itself, by putting on a mask of someone whose opinion has weight because they’ve Felt the Struggle--that’s old as the hills. It’s older than Ali G’s “Is it because I is black?” catchphrase, or the movie Soul Man, or the movie Avatar or Dances with Wolves, or the Paul Mooney quote everyone’s linking to this week. It goes back to the whole reason we have a blackface taboo, in that at one time blackface was a hugely popular and profitable genre of American entertainment, which was all about the idea of wanting to “put on” blackness because it seemed romantic and fun--and this was in an era when blackness was seen as completely synonymous with poverty.
It’s a deeply ingrained concept in our culture, which is exactly why it’s not shocking to find white people whose anti-racist allyship comes off as seeking permission to “act black” and deracinate themselves, any more than it’s shocking that in a society obsessed with male sexual conquests you end up finding a lot of male “macktivists” who see feminism as a way to boost their sexual success. And it’s because it’s sometimes true that this stereotype becomes such an easy, hurtful tool with which to bludgeon white allies to make sure anti-racism doesn’t get anywhere with them, just like blasting all men who care about feminism with the label “white knight.”
And just because Dolezal took it much further than many others seem to doesn’t make her case all that unique either. Remember when a white man named Tom McMaster decided to “help” Syrians, women and gay people by pretending to be all three under the digital guise of Amina Arraf, and in the fallout of his unmasking it turned out Paula Brooks of the website Lez Get Real was also a straight dude pretending to be a gay woman?
The pundits swarmed then, too, with nasty comments about how all lesbians on the Internet must therefore be fake and ugly speculation comparing Tom McMaster and Bill Graber to trans women (even though that’s an identity both of them firmly denied).
Using the idea of people hoaxing other people as somehow synonymous with being transgender is also a long tradition in punditry. (This misconception was the reason Caleb Hannan was unable to distinguish between outing someone as having falsified her professional credentials and outing her as a trans woman.) Hence the endless, tiresome comparisons between Rachel Dolezal and Caitlyn Jenner--who, let’s be clear, has always been completely open about the facts of her life story and who has at no point been “stealth”.
Let’s be clear about this too--the idea of a hypothetical “transracial” person being used to discredit and mock transgender people is also older than Rachel Dolezal. The hashtag #Transracial was not made up on the spur of the moment when Rachel’s story broke. The spectre of a white person who “identifies as black” and therefore publicly demands the right to wear blackface and say the N-word is one that’s been brought up by anti-trans activists since their heyday in the 1970s, whose interpretation of radical feminism treats race and gender as socially constructed in the same way even though they clearly are not.
It’s a comparison that the trolls of 4chan and Reddit jumped on, not because they have any devotion to radical feminist theory but because mocking and discrediting both trans people and white anti-racist allies in one fell swoop is a highly efficient generator of lulz.
Trust me, trolls have been popping up with fake image macros, fake manifestos and fake social media accounts declaring their “transracial” identity since I was in college. The trolls were more than ready for Rachel Dolezal--I was saddened but unsurprised to check in on Twitter and see multiple troll accounts I’d already blocked switching their names and avatars to Dolezal’s and successfully baiting celebrities like Dan Savage into earnestly arguing with them.
Trans people on the Internet have all heard the “transracial” spiel by now if they’ve ever been at all vocal in a public forum accessible to channers. If it’s new to you, it’s only because the online “debate” about the legitimacy of trans identity is new to you. It’s not a clever or sophisticated troll--it’s one step above the level of lazy “critique” in an affirmative action bake sale or a white South African applying for an “African-American” scholarship, and the most offensive thing about it is how predictable and tiresome it is.
But the media has walked right into the trap the trolls have set, reporting heavily on the trending term “transracial” and holding big public debates over the comparison between “transgender” and “transracial” even though Dolezal has never used the term “transracial” to describe herself nor invoked a comparison to trans people to defend her actions (probably one of the wisest recent decisions she’s made). The mainstream media is making trans people en masse reenact the “How are you not like a blackface minstrel” shtick--which is, essentially, a form of Internet hazing--because a hashtag Twitter trolls made about Dolezal, just like Rachel Dolezal’s disputes with her family and comments on social media and timeline are now “news.” We have to see another one of Godfrey Elwick’s vile stunts get him the attention he craves again because the media looks to whatever bullshit goes viral on Twitter to do the work of framing news stories for them. We’re all dancing to 4chan’s tune now, thanks to the fact that most reporters have been privileged enough to not have to deal with this kind of trolling before and take the bait again, and again, and again.
This is my plea to anyone considering pulling an Amina Arraf, or a Rachel Dolezal--if you care at all about the cause you profess to be fighting for, think about the fact that when you eventually get caught--and in the Twitter era it’s a question of “when,” not “if”--you’ll be giving the worst people in the world the biggest field day of their lives when you do.
And my plea to the journalists of the world looking to write the next hot take--I’ve been telling everyone on Twitter “Click on the timeline first” before taking a tweet at face value. Maybe next time look at the timeline of the concept you’re selling--the long, ugly and utterly vapid history of the “transracial” identity--before using your platform to send it viral.