Remember Rachel Dolezal? The white woman with a tan and a perm who was heading up the Spokane NAACP office until she was “outed” during a 2015 interview for not disclosing her whiteness?
The scandal jettisoned Dolezal, who now goes by the name Nkechi Amare Diallo, into full-blown pariah status (thus the name change). Internet memes couldn’t keep pace. Naturally, she wrote a book, “In Full Color: Finding My Place in a Black and White World.” And her story is rough, there’s no denying it—from abusive parents, sibling, and spouse, to struggling with her identity as a definitely-white person.
“I wasn’t a white woman, but no one saw me as a Black woman either,” Dolezal says of how she felt after being outed.
Ijeoma Oluo’s recent interview with Dolezal for The Stranger distilled Dolezal’s situation down to one incredibly salient point: no matter how Dolezal sees herself, it’s white privilege that let her indulge in “being Black.”
In her book, Dolezal recalls how she let people assume she was a light-skinned Black person, because, she says, that’s how she felt. On doctor’s office paperwork, she often checked “Black” along with “white” and “Native American” (she reportedly has a distant Native American relative). Her biological parents adopted four Black children when Dolezal was in her teens, which only increased her interest (or infatuation) with African American culture. She learned to braid hair, eventually taught African American history, and her artwork – which is impressive – always reflects Black culture. Her affection seemed in earnest; she’s not faking her Blackness to get over on anyone or get anything (the NAACP gig was a volunteer position). But it still comes off, well, wrong. And the worst part is, reading about it made me feel wrong, too, like I shouldn’t be reading about it at all. But I did, and there’s no going back.
“There was a moment before meeting Dolezal and reading her book that I thought that she genuinely loves black people but took it a little too far. But now I can see this is not the case,” writes Oluo. “This is not a love gone mad. Something else, something even sinister is at work in her relationship and understanding of blackness.”
Part of the problem is how Dolezal compares her struggles to the struggles of slaves. Being forced by fundamental Christians to eat vomited up oatmeal doesn’t sound like the American Dream, but slavery?
She’s not just sympathetic, she’s insistent that she is this Black woman. I wanted to be open-minded to it. After all, who am I to judge how a person feels. But when Dolezal keeps insisting that race is just a construct, I can’t help but cringe at how that is most definitely not the case for the countless victims beaten and murdered simply because of their Blackness. Race to me seems like the complete opposite of a social construct and more like an all-too cemented and often all-too often fucked-up reality.
“I am more than a little skeptical that Dolezal’s identity as the revolutionary strike against the myth of race is anything more than impractical white saviorism—at least when it comes to the ways in which race oppresses black people,” Oluo explains.
That assessment feels right to me too, although, as a white woman, I’m not entirely sure how to feel about this, or about most anything, honestly. My family is Jewish, and for as long as I can remember, the Holocaust was “that thing” my people talked about in hushed tones. The long, sad pauses after a story of those who perished – whether someone in my community knew them directly or not. I remember the tattooed numbers on the arm of the Rabbi at my childhood synagogue. While I’m much more agnostic than Jewish these days, the stories and the sadness stuck with me – they penetrate faith. Just like slavery hurts me to my core despite me not being Black. Or how I feel sitting in a country that was violently stolen away from its longtime tenants and is now kicking out (and preventing) new residents based on their religion or race. All of these plights on humanity are so unbelievable, so ugly. They’re the opposite of everything that makes me feel human.
I don’t want to hate Dolezal, I don’t think anyone wants to hate her. But after reading her story, I feel more conflicted and white-girl-effed-up than ever before. No, we sure don’t get to choose our race. And like Oluo notes, it wouldn’t matter if we could, at least not in the world as it is today. “The degree to which you are excluded from white privilege is largely dependent on the degree to which your appearance deviates from whiteness,” she writes. “You can be extremely light-skinned and still be black, but you cannot be extremely or even moderately dark-skinned and be treated as white—ever.”
In other words, even if Dolezal had doused herself with the darkest self-tanner, she’s not changing anyone’s perception of Black people. If Beyoncé or Barack Obama can’t do it, a white girl from Spokane surely isn’t lessening the challenges for Black people. And that reality is pretty fucking fucked up. Love of or love for isn’t enough to change things. Oluo’s point is so brutally true and terrifying, that it’s paralyzing. White guilt has never felt more crushing. It makes me want to scrub the white off my skin until I’m no color. It makes my heart hurt in ways I’m sure it shouldn’t. And lamenting over all of this only makes me feel more white, more useless, and more cursed for being those things. Like there’s no way out.
I don’t relate to Dolezal’s journey – I can’t relate to Olou’s either. But feeling so disconnected isn’t unique to me. We all feel it, even when we think we don’t. Because no matter how hard we try, we cannot walk in another (wo)man’s shoes. It is the source of our race problem in the first place. It’s the source of all things that divide us — be that politics, sexuality, religion, or race. Everywhere I look now all I can see is that we’re short on common ground, even though being human, or being an earthling, should be enough. It isn’t. And we need to figure out how to change that. Until we do, I’m afraid we should all be terrified.
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