But here I am, giving this more than a couple thoughts – committing thoughts to text even. I blame the ubiquity of the conversation about this white woman who passed as black for the last ten years, achieving what are considered benchmarks of African American ethnic responsibility and success such as presidency of an NAACP chapter, racial activism, and an academic position in an Africana Studies department in an American university. She came up at a dinner party last night; then two different people asked me what I thought about it; the likkle man inboxed me not one, but three truly perplexing additions to the batshit crazy story this morning, because he knows I am just here quietly and sometimes not so quietly wrestling with this. Like Jacob with the angel, I can’t let this mess go until it makes some kinda sense to me, but as I have said when asked, I don’t quite know what to make of it. Neither do I have any cans for this and hope in earnest that Luvvie Ajayi recovers from jetlag soon, so she can set things right with the insightful snark.
Everything I know about the workings of race, ethnicity, and identity in the hegemonic organization of society offers me no reliable insight. Instead my thoughts are working in concentric circles that don’t help me form an opinion about Dolezal and what she has done, certainly not one that I am willing to utter out loud, with conviction, much less one I am willing commit to print. Should we celebrate her as relinquishing white privilege and embracing blackness as progress? Isn’t the idea that you can relinquish white privilege the very essence of white privilege? I can’t even touch the transracial mess yet. Intuitively I know it’s not quite right, but I have yet to read our think any thoughts that explain why it isn’t quite right convincingly enough, so I will sit on my intuition and keep reading until such time. Couple days ago, Kara Brown, on Jezebel, identified the visage of our collective response to this perplexing madness as the expression on Marc Lamont Hill’s face as he watched the Huff Po Live segment where Dolezal’s parents revealed her whiteness.
I am Mark Lamont Hill’s face. I mean, humph. Ok. Lets run through some possible options of what exactly might be going on here. What exactly are we to make of this woman’s decade long existence as African American (or, as she says she prefers, black)? I’ll start with ones that seem generous: maybe we are being punked. Ashton Kutcher is about to make the prank comedy comeback of a lifetime and he has enlisted the help of Rachel Dolezal to develop an elaborate performance art project to do it! See? Makes sense, right? Ok maybe not the Ashton Kutcher and Punk’d part. But she is a visual artist, and a la Vanessa Place—who has been tweeting Gone With The Wind verbatim for the last six years to bring attention to the text’s racism (as if we didn’t already know)—maybe Dolezal has made herself into an art project to bring attention to the problems of institutionalized and systemic racism in America today. Of course this would mean, as with Place, that we have to ignore all of the problems of disavowed privilege that attend such projects, and so the art project route hardly constitutes a pacifying explanation for this behavior. Ok, let’s try another one.
Maybe the two white people who claim they are her parents are hoodwinking us. Maybe she really did live a life filled with experiences of class, race and gender based strife, violence, and trauma. Who are we to say that Jesus Christ is not the witness on her birth certificate because she was not born in a teepee in the Montana bush? We don’t know that she and her family did not hunt for food with bows and arrows. Here’s the thing: maybe because we are so familiar with what the stories of black women are supposed to look like, we become all the more suspicious of stories that seem to reflect the stereotypical facets of such lives too perfectly. Why should we believe her parents’ narrative and not the one she lives out, perfectly, on Twitter, Facebook, local papers and other media, at every opportunity God gives?
No? The argument that maybe we are judging her incorrectly from false information from unreliable sources isn’t quite right either? Alright, last one.
What if she has the condition, the opposite of Michael Jackson’s that Uncle Ruckus of The Boondocks claims to have: revitiligo?
Fine. I know you can tell I’m being disingenuous with this one. But, while I hesitate to invoke health pathologies casually, because that would be irresponsible, maybe Dolezal really does think of herself as an African American woman and has lived a life that manifests what she imagines that to be. The end.
Syke. While I don’t think the answer to the question of what exactly is going on with Dolezal can easily be answered by any of these three scenarios, I also don’t think parsing this particular question is the most interesting one that might be asked here. Rather, what is most interesting to me is how she was able to be as successful as she has been at this particular performance, and what that in turn means for me and other young black female educators who also do the very hard, often thankless, even more often embattled work of teaching about the relationship between power and racial identity while occupying raced bodies. Yep, this is where we lay off the jokes and be serious for a second, because what disturbs me most about this entire kerfuffle is how it will make an already hard job harder.
In thinking about Dolezal’s success at performing the role of a young black educator, activist, and artist, we have to also think about the intellectual capital inherent in the dissemination of knowledge about identarian difference in American institutions of higher education (however embattled this intellectual capital has always been and continues to be). What I am thinking about here is similar to what Iggy Azalea does with African American cultural capital in the realm of music. Bear with Iggy and me for a couple of sentences. The cultural capital of hip hop, as an ethnic American popular form, relies for its popularity, marketability, and ultimately profitability on its practitioners. And a performer draws on that capital whether or not they happen to belong to the group whose experiences vouchsafe it. The thing about understanding race, culture, and ethnicity as a set of social relations, habits, practices, and traditions, is that the aspects of these that are celebrated are all the more susceptible to commodification and appropriation. If you can gain popularity and wealth from doing so, bully for you, Iggy! But what does this all mean in terms of academia?
In the last forty years – the last decade of which sees Dolezal coming into her intellectual and personal renaissance – ethnic studies units have become a significant facet of the university landscape. One of the many institutional purposes these units serve is to signal an institution’s commitment to the very important work of diversifying predominantly white spaces, not only demographically but also in terms of curriculum. Thus, new spaces for intellectual engagement and advancement were created, and are now predominantly occupied, by people of color. Moreover, in the last couple of years, since the onset of the social media age, more and more platforms exist for successful racial activism at the grassroots level and these operate primarily on the premises of wide dissemination and visibility. It has been incredible and empowering to watch the rise of phenomena like “Black Twitter” which, never mind heinous trolling, nonetheless function as decentralized but powerful hubs of contemporary social justice activism.
This unofficial movement, for instance, pressured Bank of America to in turn pressure one of its subcontractors Core Logic to investigate and eventually place on administrative leave one of its employees who was caught on camera during the pool party incident in McKinney Texas being verbally and physically abusive to teenagers of color. Rahiel Tesfamarian of Urban Cusp, for example, is among those who have been doing good and high profile work with the #blacklivesmatter, #notonedime, and other anti-discrimination movements, all through the power of social media based mobilization. It is by no means easy work to be an activist, but because there is work to be done, the ease of social media dissemination means there are tools to do good work and be visible doing so.
What’s a white woman gotta do to get a real chunk of that intellectual capital? Well, we kinda know what she has done.
I don’t raise this as an issue of intellectual capital to suggest that a white person (female or otherwise) has no place in ethnic studies or even racial activism – far from it. As many in the various social media spheres have resoundingly already said, knowledgeable non-black allies are an extremely important part of the work of agitating for true/material/equitable racial equality. The decision to don blackface to do this work however – and fun and jokes aside, I don’t doubt her earnest (if not misguided) commitment to this work – does real harm to the cause, because it threatens to delegitimize hard fought battles. Now the national discussion on race (and everybody knows we can only have one of these at a time) focuses not on the role of police in protecting racialized forms of community property, or God forbid on the racial attitudes held by people who were pushing risky mortgages on black communities not too long ago, but . . . on Rachel Dolezal.
One more thing, before I issue the benediction, church. Performing specific versions of racial identity, typically associated with stereotypes, such as Dolezal does – the squalid childhood; the much-photographed hair game; the end of semester sweet potato pies for students; the stories of physical and sexual violence, and trauma – not only foreclose the imaginative possibilities for other kinds of African American and even non American black female lived realities, it does so by reinforcing a particular kind of narrative as the only one with the power of authenticity. This is not to say these experiences only exist in the realm of stereotype, and I mean in no way to delegitimize them. In fact, if the violence, discrimination, and trauma that are a part of her narrative are not her actual experience (or are but are perhaps not attributable to race), it is tantamount to a dangerous fetishization that takes (among other things) real victimization and trauma experienced by women of color and reduces it to a prop in an ultimately selfish personal performance. It trivializes and delegitimizes serious social justice issues at a time when many are working hard to make these issues matter to those beyond the victims, black, white, or otherwise.
The cause of universal equity and equality among all humans, I finally want to say, is done more harm than good by circumscribed logics of identity and belonging. Dolezal’s entire person is an expression of a circumscribed logic of identity. She achieves belonging at a skill level that is impressive, but nonetheless worrisome. Worrisome, because she brought this logic into her classroom and disseminated it to students, with a fishbowl activity no less. Now, at my Midwestern state institution, I have enough problems with students who come into my classroom with limited experience of fellow students not of their race, much less their non-white, young, female professor whose accent clearly indicates she is not from the US. The need to now also have to deal with the ways Dolezal’s performance undermines my efforts to help students think about stereotypes in complex ways that go beyond simple “see race is just a performance it doesn’t matter” declarations makes me want to curl up into a ball and cry.
This is why I did not want to think about this woman and what she has decided to do, for whatever reason, earnest, malicious, or whatever shade between. It makes an already personally and emotionally exhausting job harder. It’s summer. School is out. I really don’t want to have to think about this particular kind of bullshit. Other bullshit, sure, but not this. And while I am aware that me writing a post about it just contributes, I on another level eagerly await her departure to the place where we send all our formerly trending topics.