Rachel Dolezal has already made her mark as one of the most talked about women in 2015. The reason is not so glamorous as she, a professor of African and African American studies and the NAACP president of the Spokane, Washington chapter, has been exposed as a white woman who has been parading as a black woman for years. She has become a trending topic of conversation and reactions to her ruse range from anger to astonishment and amusement. Discussions have exploded over various outlets and platforms as people try to make sense of her odd behavior and among the conversations, the idea of being “transracial” came about. This term seeks to rationalize and equate Dolezal’s behavior to that of an individual who is transgender since race and gender are both social constructs. Not the wisest move if one thinks about it thoroughly.
Yes, race is a social construct. It originated as a system that used superficial characteristics to separate people of color from white people so that people of color would receive worse treatment than those who are white. However, reducing blackness to a social construct only, especially in light of the forced removal of African people for slavery, oversimplifies the concept of being black, the concept of being transgender, and the weight of Rachel Dolezal’s choices in faking her identity.
In order to really understand the depth of the issue at hand, we need to first consider why many Black Americans actually oppose the term “African American.” Because of the enslavement of African people in the United States, a great chasm exists between present-day Black Americans and the many African heritages that were once an active part of their lineage. While elements of various African cultures are present in Black American culture today, there isn’t that sense of connectedness to the specific African cultures that many Black Americans descended from. The fact that there are also Black Americans who have roots outside of Africa (i.e. The Caribbean, Latin America, etc.) contributes to why many Black Americans find the term “African American” obsolete. On the other hand, most people who are of Asian (South and South Eastern) and Hispanic races celebrate their Asian American and Hispanic cultures while celebrating the cultures from the specific countries their families hail from; they tend have access to both because of their relatively recent immigrant backgrounds. That is not the case for a large percentage of Black Americans and as such, the term “black” serves as a dual function of both race and culture.
Trying to come up with an analogous concept that is even close to black culture in the realm of gender will have one coming up empty. One could try using gender roles as a point for analogy but even that falls short since, as a whole, gender roles are constantly being questioned and challenged as their assignment to both genders by the patriarchy limits the genders in various ways. While aspects of culture are also challenged, culture-at-large does not face nearly as much of the overwhelming scrutiny that exists for gender roles. It is also important to note that while gender is something that can be felt internally, race (the skin color and physical characteristics that are mostly consistent among a demographic), are superficial aspects of identification that cannot be felt internally. And perhaps the most overarching difference between the two is that culture contains gender but gender can never contain culture.
The dual nature of blackness as a race and a culture also deems Rachel Dolezal’s actions as one laborsome blackface performance and an elaborate undertaking of Black American cultural appropriation. She decided to forgo her straight blonde hair for short, tightly springy tresses and wore dreadlocks and braids prior that–all of which she knew to be black hairstyles. She distanced herself from her white parents, having an older black man she knew pose as her legitimate father instead; she also continuously referred to her adopted brother as her son. She contributed her input on matters relating to Black America on social media and on a column that she authors–both of which could be done as a white woman. But that was not enough for her. Instead, she chose to occupy the space of a black woman in America as a white woman, having her brothers and her “black father” as participants in her minstrel show. This is the bizarre, problematic, and baffling truth of the matter.
Black culture, as with any other non-Eurocentric culture in existence, doesn’t require that all of its participants be people of color. It is entirely possible to be white and participate in a manner that is appropriate and considerate of the racial power dynamics that exist in America because of its history. There is absolutely nothing wrong with having a white NAACP leader or African American studies professor, roles that could have been amicable allyship which instead became elaborate appropriation. And while we continue to converse on the nuances and ambiguity of race, as we grapple with the implications and reality of Rachel Dolezal’s actions, as we find humor in this weird situation, we should not dismiss her behavior to be a trivial one. They invite great concern and a word of caution against anyone who minimizes blackness to physical features and empty cultural caricatures to fill.
What are your feelings about the Rachel Dolezal craziness?