Rachel Dolezal: “Passing,” Passing, and Privilege

The controversy surrounding Rachel Dolezal is a great many things: frustrating, perplexing, hilarious, offensive, and strange. Born a blond and straight haired white woman to two white parents, the now-former NAACP chapter president out of Spokane, WA has steadfastly held her ground as a black woman, despite darkening her skin and manipulating her hair in order to perform her blackness, lying and falsifying claims that she was the target of racially motivated animus, as well as claiming an older black man was her father, rather than her very-much-white father from Idaho (or Montana?), and that her adopted black brothers were her adopted children.

She has announced to the media that she doesn’t give “two shits” what they think because this is between her and the black community (as if Black Twitter hasn’t been going in on her the past two days or so).

Well, Rachel, here I am, black as all get out, addressing you and whoever else directly so as to shed some light on my specific views in this situation, as informed by my educational specification.

Here goes.

When I first heard that Rachel Dolezal was dressing up as a black woman, my first thoughts were, as Kara Brown over at Jezebel so eloquently put it, “Girl, what?”

WHY?! And what do we call this performance?

Is she appropriating? I mean, I guess so. But at the same time it doesn’t seem to really fit. Usually appropriators take cultural elements from black communities while not caring too much about those actual communities. I think its possible that she cares about the black community and the black struggle and wants too hard to be a member of said-community and struggle. But she is wearing my race as a costume like Katy Perry, so it’s still pretty icky.

Screen-Shot-2014-08-01-at-10.05.25-AM-640x461 Unfortunately, there is so much more where this came from.

Is this blackface? I guess technically, but we’re still not quite there. She is literally putting on makeup to make herself black, and it is to perform a black identity, but let’s press on.

robertdowneyjrAt least everyone in Tropic Thunder got that blackface isn’t okay.

The only thing that comes to mind is racial passing, a practice that has dwindled in its necessity, but was very common in the past, specifically the first half of the twentieth century. This practice is different in that it was black people passing as white or otherwise non-black, in order to gain privilege and shirk disenfranchisement that comes with being black in America.

My master’s thesis is centered mostly at the intersection of blackness and womanhood, and the very wide range of experiences that this can entail, and how respectability politics began and flourished from Reconstruction through the Harlem Renaissance. I could not have written about black womanhood during this time without writing about racial passing, and in that exploration I developed interesting ideas about what it means to pass and why someone would/could do such a thing as change their race and live their life that way.

In Nella Larsen’s novella Passing, Larsen writes about the experiences of Irene Redfield and Clare Kendry, both mixed-race women living in Harlem, NY (represent!) and Chicago, IL, respectively, during the 1920s. Because of the one drop rule, both women were considered black, despite their outwardly non-black appearances: Clare is described as golden-haired, pale skinned, with dark eyes (Larsen 29). Irene has olive skin and black, curly hair (Larsen 54). Irene married a black man who she notes cannot pass (he is obviously brown-skinned) and lives in the black neighborhood of Harlem, while Clare left her family, friends, and home to marry a white man who knows nothing of her racial heritage, and notes openly and often that he “hates n*ggers” (Larsen 40).

In regard to white-looking women who perform what racial identity they prefer, the women in Larsen’s novel do not do so by changing their own appearance. And while Irene does not lie about her racial identity as does Clare, she is quite disturbed that Clare does, especially considering her vitriolic husband. Clare declares she is a traitor to their race, and Irene inwardly agrees. As I note in my thesis:

“Clare’s marriage to a wealthy white man and giving birth to a white child are the mortar of the bricks she has assembled to attain the white identity she wants to be perceived as, which is made possible by her white appearance and her lack of parents, making her past easy to avoid. It is important to understand though, that Irene’s marriage serves the same purpose: she married a black man who could not pass as white and lives in a black community in order to be viewed as black, which is often made more difficult because of her white appearance” (Cox 19).

Throughout the story, it is made clear that passing in public spaces (so as to beat the hot summer heat in a nice restaurant) or hiding in plain sight from a husband so overtly racist that it is nearly comical, is not done by these women changing appearance, indeed, the only thing that (spoiler alert!) eventually outs Clare is her being seen with noticeably black companions in a black neighborhood.

While the act and history of passing exposes how flawed it is to view race, specifically blackness and whiteness as a binary, it also demonstrates that life was so bad for those who were black during that time, that many would do anything they could to insure the safety of themselves and their children. The way many went about this was to 1) “lighten the race” by marrying white or light, and 2) by passing – be that permanently or when convenient in public. The one drop rule was a way to keep anyone with any black ancestry from having full rights, but there were some who could circumvent the system. It is important to understand that being able to pass was a privilege, as it afforded access to some things that many blacks, like those who are super chocolately like myself, would never have access to. I’m still not sure if I think that this insuring of one’s own safety by means rejecting an identity and community is wrong. It is certainly anti-black at its core, which offends me to mine.

Fast forward to the present day: people do not feel the need to pass as they once did, but we still often enforce the one drop rule in ways that we do not even realize (myself absolutely included): people who are biracial, multiracial, or in any way touched by blackness tend to be considered black, regardless of how they self-identify. The police call about Tony Robinson, who was murdered by police in Madison, WI was not for a “possibly-biracial young man,” but for a black one. President Obama, raised mostly by his white mother and grandmother, refers to himself (and is treated by the general public) as a black man. Essentially, we find blackness as something can be lightened but still retain its blackness, but we don’t tend to regard any person whose heritage is mixed with white as just white; the slightest bit of darkening to whiteness makes it no longer white. Obama is not our white president, and my future children, despite having a white father, would sooner be identified as belonging to me, rather than their dad. This is in essence what the one drop rule does and was invented to do: it protects whiteness from blackness.

This makes Rachel Dolezal’s actions even more puzzling. She is an educated woman, a professor of Africana Studies, no less, so she no doubt understands appropriation, blackface, and racial passing. She is aware that “reverse racism” is not a thing, regardless of how many white people want it to be, so why is she doing this “reverse passing” while also not admitting any wrongdoing?*

Black academics like myself expect certain things in our quest for equality and spreading of knowledge:

When people in the public eye make racial fauxpas we expect them to apologize.

When people unwittingly and unintentionally perpetuate white supremacy and anti-blackness, we expect that to be acknowledged, and hope it to be remedied.

And when they refuse to do these things, usually with the excuse of “I did not intend to be racist” or “but look at my charity work/black friend/good heart” we have to explain (slowly) that none of this matters if they aren’t willing to admit when they’re wrong, grow, and move on.

Rachel: What you’re doing is blackface and serves nothing other than your ego. You can be white and an ally. You can be white and an NAACP chapter president. You can be a white Africana Studies professor.

Rachel: By being paid to tell your (fake) stories of growing up black and disenfranchised, you have taken that opportunity away from actual black women, whose experiences so often go ignored and unheard.

Rachel: My race is not a costume. I am more than my skin tone, my hair texture, my box braids. My experiences are not fabricated attempts to make my racial identity more legitimate. I was born black, I was raised black, I have lived black, and I will die black.

By refusing to apologize, you demonstrate your privilege. By passing in this way, you have taken opportunities away from black women in the worst way. And by lying, you have lost the respect of many.

By performing race in this way, taking opportunities from other black people, while blocking white allyship, Rachel, you have sufficiently defined the word “irony.”

Maybe you should have been an English professor.
*Edit: I stated that because Dolezal is an Africana Studies professor and has professed a black identity and understanding that she understood that “reverse racism” is not real. However, in the days since this article was written, it has come out that Dolezal sued the historically black university she attended (Howard University) for reverse discrimination against her because she was white

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