What we can't afford to forget about Rachel Dolezal: A master class in white victimology

As Rachel Dolezal's story recedes into the background, we must remember its most important lessons

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published June 22, 2015 8:05PM (EDT)

Rachel Dolezal            (AP/Colin Mulvany)
Rachel Dolezal (AP/Colin Mulvany)

Black and brown Americans are being abused and killed by the police at disproportionate rates relative to white people. America’s prisons function as gulags, where people are held without charges until they are driven to commit suicide. Wealth and income inequality have undermined American democracy; the United States is, in fact, a plutocracy. Black children are committing suicide at a rapidly increasing rate. There is still no justice in Baltimore, or Cleveland, or Ferguson, or any other community where police thuggery and organized theft against black and brown Americans is all too common.

The Charleston massacre of 9 Black Americans by a white racial terrorist named Dylann Roof also signals to the life-and-death struggle that is the colorline in 21st century America. In the face of those and many other troubles, the American people are nonetheless fascinated to distraction by the "reverse passing" of Rachel Dolezal, the white woman whose long con job landed her a gig as the ostensibly Black president of the Spokane chapter of the NAACP. (An organization, it bears repeating, that accepts white people as readily as black ones.)

Why has Dolezal garnered so much attention when there are so many other important matters of public concern that need to be resolved?

The answer is actually simple: The colorline and race continue to dominate America’s political landscape and social life. America's history of race minstrelsy (what Eric Lott brilliantly described as “love and theft,” wherein “blackface” provided a certain type of freedom and pleasure for white people while simultaneously denigrating the humanity of African-Americans), places Rachel Dolezal dead center in the country’s cultural imagination.

“Passing” (where most often a member of a racially marginalized group pretends to be “white”) is a common survival strategy for life in a society that, for most of its history, operated under a regime of formal racial Apartheid. That a white person would choose to be “black” upsets America’s racial norms. Rachel Dolezal is lampooned by the white right and the Republican media machine because she is a caricature of the “guilty white liberal” that conservatives love to mock.

The peculiar case of Rachel Dolezal is very entertaining. It is a type of racial tragicomedy evocative of Woody Allen’s under-appreciated film "Zelig," wherein a racial trickster has the power to (literally) morph and shape-shift his appearance at will. By doing so, the movie’s protagonist causes mass panic for White America as he breaks all of its racial norms and boundaries.

Like the movie "Zelig," the Rachel Dolezal controversy is also a site for discussing the profoundly existential and philosophical question: What does it mean to be black in post civil rights era America?

In all, to properly understand Rachel Dolezal, one must first begin with a basic definition of “race.” Let's try:

Race is a socially constructed identity, based loosely on a sense of phenotypical difference, one that groups, individuals, the State, and society at large places value on and that in turn impacts life chances and life outcomes.

From here, we can then begin to place Rachel Dolezal’s particular effort to “reverse pass”—from white to black—in the proper political and social context.

Race is not biology. There is only one race, the human race. Human beings have not existed long enough to be divided into distinct “racial types” or “species” with traits that are found only in one “race” and not in another.

In many ways, race is a “true lie,” a biological fiction that is one of the most powerful forces in the modern world. The idea of a socially constructed identity is a way of describing how a person exists in relation to systems of power, domination, subordination, and through human social interactions. In an extreme bastardization and misunderstanding of the concept, the idea of “socially constructed” identity does not mean that radical acts of ego, agency, and self-invention trump the institutional and power relationships of race in the West.

To wit: Rachel Dolezal is not “black” because she says she is.

Skin color and phenotypical difference. There are “black” people who look “white.” Likewise there are “white” people who look “black.” In a society where “the one drop rule” (what is termed as “hypo descent,” wherein a person takes on the identity of the “lower” member in America’s racial hierarchy) still governs, the colorline is in many ways very arbitrary, but has historically been given a great amount of power under the law. Rachel Dolezal’s racial malleability is central to understanding her long con game. But, the arbitrary power of race and skin color is not the entire story of the colorline in America.

Cultural affinity. Rachel Dolezal and her defenders suggest that she lived “culturally” as a “black” person. Such claims are very complicated and muddled, because America is a “mulatto,” or culturally hybrid, society. Much of what is known to be “American” is actually a reflection of the profound influence that black and brown folks have had on the culture of the United States.

Is cultural blackness for Rachel Dolezal her having internalized black folks’ cool pose, soul, improvisation and atonality in music, sense of style, fashion, and movement, a particular tradition of art and literature? Perhaps Rachel Dolezal defined herself as “black’ by virtue of who she chose to marry, be intimate with, the neighborhood and community she lived in. Ultimately, what does it mean to be “culturally black” in America, when so much of the country’s cultural practices are so heavily influenced by the people of the Black Atlantic?

Linked Fate and Life Outcomes. Linked fate is a sense of racial group connection and affinity. While complicated by class tensions (as well as gender and sexuality) and the increasing number of Africans and Caribbean immigrants in the United States, black Americans have a deep (and in many ways unique) sense of political connection to one another.

Life outcomes are the sum total of advantages and disadvantages in one’s life. These include and are impacted by such measures as how long a person will live, income, wealth, protection from violence, access to proper health care and schools, intergenerational resources, access to social capital, and upward mobility. In the United States, race over determines life outcomes.

So, Rachel Dolezal can make an effort to perform “blackness.” But, are her life chances negatively impacted by that ruse?

The central problem in the curious case of Rachel Dolezal is that, as a white person, she could opt in or opt out of “blackness” on a whim and for her own purposes, without suffering the diminished life chances that come with being a black American.

* * *

Rachel Dolezal imagined that in order to create positive social change that she needed to steal blackness for herself. This was not just a profane act of racial tourism, it was also unnecessary.

There are many white warriors for racial justice and equality across the colorline who would have been great role models for Rachel Dolezal.

  • Freedom Riders Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner were killed by white racial terrorists as they struggled to bring down Jim and Jane Crow.
  • John Brown, who is one of Black America’s most revered and greatest heroes, died fighting to end white on black chattel slavery.
  • Viola Gregg Liuzzo was murdered by white racial terrorists in Alabama as she worked with the Civil Rights Movement.
  • In 1681, Nell Butler, a white woman, married a black slave in Maryland—when such an action was punishable by exile, beatings, fines, or worse—and by doing lost her status as a “free” woman for the cause of love.

By comparison, Rachel Dolezal, decided to choose a much easier path: She “reverse passed” for “black.” In doing so, she proved herself to be a coward.

In her interview with Matt Lauer on the "Today" show, Dolezal unintentionally revealed how she saw blackness as a type of convenient and instrumental life strategy. In response to Lauer’s questioning if she understood the historical power of blackface minstrelsy, she responded with:

"Absolutely. Absolutely. I have a huge issue with blackface. This is not some freak, Birth of a Nation mockery blackface performance. This is on a very real connected level, how I've actually had to go there with the experience, not just the visible representation, but with the experience, and the point at which that really solidified was when I got full custody of Izaiah. And he said, "you're my real mom," and he's in high school, and for that to be something that is plausible, I certainly can't be seen as white and be Izaiah's mom." [Emphasis mine]

This is extremely problematic for a number of reasons.

First, there are white mothers of black and brown children who nurture, love, and care for them every day without resorting to such a dishonest gambit.

Second, Dolezal’s claims that she is not performing an identity as a black woman for her own advancement, but that being “black” is significant and meaningful for her. Yet, Dolezal conveniently, and in a mercenary manner, shed her “blackness” when she sued Howard University for supposedly discriminating against her as a white woman.

Historian Noel Ignatiev is one of the United States’ most under-appreciated advocates for human rights and racial justice. In the publication "Race Traitor," he made the powerful and incisive argument that “treason to Whiteness is loyalty to humanity.” There he is signaling to how Whiteness is a socially constructed identity that was created during the epoch of white on black chattel slavery and global White Empire in order to naturalize white supremacy and efforts to dominate and control people of color. Consequently, there is no virtue in Whiteness; it is based on social evil.

Whiteness is not the authentic, real, and fully human identity of those “white” people who were formerly known as the Irish, French, British, Russian, Italian, German, or others before the invention of Whiteness in the 15th and 16th centuries. Whiteness is a lie—one that, unfortunately, has many signatories and beneficiaries. As such, Whiteness is something very real.

If Rachel Dolezal wanted to be a true radical, one dedicated to transgressing and undermining white supremacy, she would have acted upon Noel Ignatiev’s wisdom and publicly denounced Whiteness -- without masquerading as a black woman. Dolezal would have then lived her life as a white “race traitor,” fighting for global human rights, realizing that white privilege undermines the Common Good, and working to subvert the global colorline.

To do this, Dolezal need only have continued her work with the NAACP and publicly renounced Whiteness and (to the degree possible) the unearned advantages the come with white skin privilege.

Blackness is a type of armor. It is a source of strength, a reservoir for survival in a society that devalues Black Americans and other non-whites, and has gifted black people with a particular type of morality, ethics, skill-sets, and political sensibilities to both navigate and improve a democracy that historically, and too many times in the present, does not love black folks back. Such a burden often leaves Black America exhausted; nevertheless, and often against our own self-interest, Black America continues to give back.

(There are exceptions of course. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, as well as contemporary movement black conservatives, actively betray that honorable legacy as they are often possessed of a type of internalized white supremacy and white racial Stockholm Syndrome.)

Being black in America also comes with a set of unearned disadvantages and liabilities that we cannot easily shrug off. Collectively, these are leg irons or weights that Black Americans wear almost the entirety of their whole lives.

As President Johnson said in 1965:

"You do not take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of a race and then say you are free to compete with all the others, and still just believe that you have been completely fair."

While the weight of that iron has varied over time, it remains, even in the Age of Obama, one of the existential burdens of being black in the United States.

While Rachel Dolezal and her type would like to pretend otherwise, being “black” in America is not an exercise in live-action role playing, group therapy, or some type of "Zelig"-like acting or improvisational theater. Being a Black American in these times of trouble is an extreme matter of life and death. When Rachel Dolezal donned “blackness,” she ironically demonstrated the enduring power of white privilege and white supremacy.

As a white person, Rachel Dolezal can pretend to be black and have her claims treated as worthy of serious consideration, garner attention from the mainstream media, and open a public dialogue about abject foolishness -- such as if a white person who deludes themselves into thinking they are “black,” can actually make a legitimate claim on the rich history of Black America. By comparison, a black person who publicly suggests that they are a “transracial” “white” person -- because they “identity with” and “feel white” -- would be driven out of the public square with due haste and no small amount of mockery.

The peculiar case of Rachel Dolezal is also profoundly insulting: Are black folks who are born into that history, legacy, identity, and body not able to fight their own struggle without white folks who pretend and feign blackness? Where the latter elevates themselves above those born and who intrinsically know themselves to be Black Americans?

For one or many reasons, Rachel Dolezal, decided to play a politically “progressive” game of blackface. In doing so, she has made herself a distraction from solving the real problems facing Black America and other people of color. Her escapades are those of an oxygen thief in a political issue space that is often too quick to ignore the real and substantive concerns of non-whites about their life chances, human rights, and justice.

Rachel Dolezal, a white woman who chose to live a black woman, is conducting a master class in White Victimology. This would be funny if it was not so sad.


By Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a senior politics writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at Chaunceydevega.com. He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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Race Rachel Dolezal Racism White Supremacy