Rachel Dolezal, Dylann Roof and the tragic history of white America's love-hate relationship with "blackness"

White America's pathological obsession with blackness -- in one case as farce and another as unbearable tragedy

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published June 20, 2015 4:00PM (EDT)

   (<a href='http://www.istockphoto.com/portfolio/dszc#71fe0e3'>David Sucsy</a> via <a href='http://www.istockphoto.com/'>iStock</a>)
(David Sucsy via iStock)

There is a thread connecting the seemingly opposed stories of Rachel Dolezal and Dylann Storm Roof, I’m sorry to say: America’s unhealthy obsession with blackness. Dolezal loved black people so much that she reinvented herself over many years to become one of them, and Roof hated black people so much that he murdered nine of them in cold blood. It hardly needs saying that those things are not the same; when I say that I discern a relationship between them, or that they are manifestations of the same cultural obsession, I do not mean to suggest any moral equivalence. If Dolezal’s conception of “transracial” identity strikes many people as an ahistorical delusion, most of us would happily embrace that delusion if it could undo the horrifying historical reality of Charleston. Roof’s story is a sickening and violent tragedy, with no evident catharsis or message of redemption; Dolezal’s is more like a farce, meant to demonstrate the absurdity of our species and its social conventions.

But there’s a thin line between love and hate, in the words of an R&B classic that had black and white Americans slow-dancing in the summer of 1971. Dolezal’s apparent racial imposture and Roof’s alleged racist massacre are two facets of white America’s love-hate relationship with blackness, a category whites invented in the first place to represent all the things we are not. There may be good reason to question the mental health of both Roof and Dolezal, but if we frame them as isolated anomalies or freakish, inexplicable cases we are deliberately missing the point. They belong to a long history I discussed in a different context last week, a history that is far from over and whose repercussions will not stop resounding. It’s a history in which white people consistently return to a view of black people not as individuals or even as members of a distinctive but internally diverse social community, but as a symbolic and mysterious category, a locus of fear and desire.

The longing to subdue or destroy the Other and so secure the boundaries of one’s own identity, and the longing to destroy one’s own identity, in effect, and become the Other, are closely akin in psychological terms. I’m not saying that the dreadful crimes apparently committed by Dylann Roof, a young man barely out of adolescence, or Rachel Dolezal’s lifelong campaign of racial reinvention, can be boiled down to such generalizations. But those recurring cultural narratives are clearly relevant here, and the more we learn about these two people’s life stories, the stranger and more ambiguous they become.

According to her family’s highly convincing account, Dolezal was a blonde, blue-eyed girl who grew up in small-town Montana, one of the whitest areas of the country. Long after her fascination with African-American culture became a driving force in her life, she accused Howard University of discriminating against her because she was white. Dylann Roof, on the other hand, apparently lived in a tiny South Carolina town with a predominantly African-American population. According to reports in the New York Times and elsewhere, many of his 88 Facebook friends were black. (His page has since been taken down.) One could extrapolate that Roof grew up in much closer contact with African-American culture than Dolezal did; if one of these two white people was positioned to claim “cultural blackness” or a “transracial” identity, it wasn’t her.

Does any of that make sense? No, not really – or only in America, the land of deliberately missing the point. We can’t look for logic or coherence in America’s racial history. We can perhaps say that the fear of becoming black and the longing to become black are powerful and sometimes overlapping forces in white American psychology, but that behind both of those emotions lies the view of blackness as something alien, seductive and dangerous to the established order. We can say that the most conspicuous and brutal racial violence (although not the most damaging forms of economic violence) has often been committed by poor whites who arguably could or should have made common cause with African-Americans on many issues. We can say that many of the white bohemians and intellectuals who have sought to identify with black culture, like the “White Negro” theorized by Norman Mailer in 1957 (in an essay that also introduced the word “hipster” into general usage), have operated from a romantic conception that didn’t have much to do with actual African-American people or their community.

Do these cultural and historical conundrums help us make sense of the horror of Charleston, with its unmistakable echoes of crimes committed 30 or 50 or 100 years before Dylann Roof was born? I don’t think any of us can do that, so soon after the fact, although the extraordinary expression of forgiveness offered on Friday by so many relatives of those who died in Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church was a moment that cut through the media clutter of our divided society, and that few living Americans will forget. It might be said to offer white people an opportunity for humility and reflection, to consider what we did to make this possible and whether we might have prevented it. But why bother with that when smug pieties about faith and freedom will do?

Speaking of deliberately missing the point, Charleston presents a dangerous dilemma for the contemporary Republican Party, a whites-only organization in all but name whose hegemonic rule of the American South relies on the premise that race no longer matters and racism no longer exists. Leading Republicans, from South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley and Sen. Lindsey Graham to the constantly expanding fraternity of 2016 presidential candidates, cannot be perceived as condoning or glossing over a vicious hate crime committed by an apparent white supremacist. But they also cannot quite admit that white-supremacist ideology still exists and still plays a significant role in American culture, still less that it is deeply encoded into their voter base and their electoral strategy. Hence we see the shameful effort to reframe Charleston not as an attack on African-Americans, but an attack on Christians. (Can you even imagine how Fox News would cover a black man shooting up a white suburban megachurch? On second thought, please don’t try.)

Whether or not Rachel Dolezal and Dylann Roof have diagnosable mental illnesses (which is no more than supposition), they stand for a much deeper form of craziness. Viewed in larger cultural terms they are extreme examples of an underlying American disorder that has informed and defined so much of our history. As I’ve already made clear, I’m primarily talking about this disorder as it applies to white people, who have been in charge of the nation’s cultural and political narrative for virtually our entire history. One could potentially argue that the view of black people, and blackness, as a special and symbolic category, loaded with all kinds of meaning, is not exclusive to white folks, and can be perceived in various black nationalist and Afrocentric movements, from Marcus Garvey through the Nation of Islam and beyond. I’m not qualified to develop that case, and it’s only relevant here by way of observing that no one in America has been untouched by our bizarre racial history.

Race, as contemporary genetics has informed us, is an invented social category with no clear biological definition. It simply did not exist, in anything like the modern sense, in classical antiquity. There were several Roman emperors of African birth or ancestry who might variously be considered black or Arab or mixed-race people today, facts that did not seem to interest anyone at the time. If anything, the Romans viewed the “white” tribes of northern Europe as more savage and less civilized than the peoples they encountered in Africa.

That might seem like dim and distant history, but my point is that our tormented understanding of race in America has always involved a contradictory double consciousness. On one level we believe that race does not matter, or at least should not, and quite possibly is not real. On the other hand, the social meaning of these invented categories is unmistakable, and their effect on the lived experience of American history is so profound that there is no way to separate the story of our country from the story of race in our country. Not that we haven’t tried: A great deal of American historical scholarship, including almost all of it written before about 1960, emerged from the discipline of Deliberately Missing the Point. In our own time, conservative backlash against the so-called liberal bias of academia – an increasingly sophisticated enterprise, embraced and funded by the Koch brothers, that should not be underestimated – has even produced a mini-renaissance in Missing the Point Studies.

If we fast-forward a millennium and a half from the Romans – who relied on a slave caste but did not care about its skin color -- to the rise of the great European empires and the African slave trade, we begin to see the emerging categories of “black” and “white,” always defined in opposition to each other. Many historians point to the slave codes of the late 17th century, which emerged in the aftermath of Bacon’s Rebellion, a multiracial uprising against the rulers of colonial Virginia, as a crucial turning point. It became clearly defined, from that moment forward, that even the most destitute and landless white person belonged to a different existential category (however impossible it was to define) than the most comfortable of enslaved Africans. Certainly by the time we get to Thomas Jefferson, brilliant rhetorician of human liberty and late-night visitor to the slave quarters, white America’s racial psychosis was well-entrenched.

Rachel Dolezal’s story may strike many people as ludicrous, or as distinctively contemporary, but she offers something more like a new twist in a long history of racial “passing,” racial boundary-crossing and racial ambiguity. Johnny Otis, a highly influential R&B bandleader, talent scout, record producer and radio host who helped discover Big Mama Thornton, Jackie Wilson and Etta James, lived virtually his entire life as a member of the African-American community and was widely assumed to be black. Unlike Dolezal, he never tried to obfuscate or conceal his origins: His birth name was Ioannis Veliotes, and his parents were Greek immigrants who ran a grocery store in a black neighborhood.

As Dolezal ought to know, and probably does know, the NAACP was led from 1931 to 1955 by Walter Francis White, a man with light skin, blue eyes and fair hair who could easily have passed as white, and occasionally did so in the segregated South. White married a white woman and was occasionally accused either of wanting to be white or actually being white. White himself calculated that 27 of his 32 great-grandparents had been white – but his parents had both been born in slavery, a fact that puts an end to any debate about his racial status in American society. White devoted his career to fighting against precisely the kind of racial violence that Dylann Roof apparently inflicted on Charleston and the nation, and against America’s long-standing propensity to paper over such crimes, look the other way and deliberately miss the point.

So did Rachel Dolezal, and she should be honored for those convictions. But she could have been a passionate warrior for racial justice, and even an executive of the NAACP, as a white person. The fact that she evidently slid into deception and delusion in pursuit of racial justice, injuring her own cause and bringing anguish to her family, is heartbreaking evidence of the enduring power of white America’s disorder. Not as heartbreaking as the fact that Dylann Roof apparently had black friends and still did what he did, or the fact that the community he tore apart has offered him forgiveness. There are no words for that kind of heartbreak. There is, perhaps, a path forward. It begins with white people moving past the aura of shame and fear and longing, the desire for annihilation or self-annihilation, through which we so often see black people and our own history. It begins with no longer choosing to deliberately miss the point.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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