Nope. I did not want to give Rachel Dolezal a second thought.

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.

Mark Lamont Hill on Jezebel

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.

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Nope. We are Still Not Ready For This Jelly

In the past week, Vogue Magazine declared in an article headline, “We’re Officially in the Era of the Big Booty.” Patricia Garcia, the article’s author, credits first Jennifer Lopez for introducing us to big booty appreciation, then Kim Kardashian for helping us become more comfortable with full curvy bottoms, and then Jennifer Lopez again as our era’s preeminent big booty pioneer. Garcia also cites Destiny’s Child’s “Bootylicious” as a gateway track of sorts – getting us ready for when big butts finally become a mainstream thing and wotnot – but swiftly dismisses the song and video since “it would be another decade before people were ‘ready for this jelly’ to become the ultimate standard of beauty.”

Who are these “people” who needed the decade after 2001 to get ready for the bootylicious jelly? That women (and not only ones of colour) have long reveled in their possession of this particular asset seems conspicuously immaterial in the article. Also immaterial is that Sir Mix A Lot sang praises of the big butt, despite derision, in the hallowed halls of mainstream culture a little over a decade before Jenny From the Block appeared in the same sphere. This popular homage to buns also predates by two decades the moment when Kim Kardashian started facing us with her behind in selfies. I won’t talk about Iggy Azalea’s unreal proportions, because, as with Nikki Minaj, I can’t substantiate any of that, and puzzling the difficult subjects is not about throwing shade. Suffice it to say, I am thinking about how something African descended women have worn naturally for centuries – with varying degrees of swagger and shame – does not become “a thing” until white women begin flaunting their own equally naturally occurring derrieres. This isn’t about who wore it best or made it popular or acceptable, though. That is too simple and we do difficult subjects over here. Stick with me; I’m going somewhere.

Which brings me to the next stop on this journey. Also, this past week, on September 11, Danièle Watts, an African American actress best known for her role as Coco in Django Unchained, was handcuffed and roughly handled by a police officer for canoodling publicly with her boyfriend. By canoodling, I mean witnesses say she was straddling her boyfriend in a car, fully clothed in broad daylight. The officer said he received a call that folks were performing lewd acts in public, and insisted on Ms. Watts showing him her ID, a request she refused. I’m sure some would say there would be nothing to write about if she had simply shown her ID as requested. Given the too-many-to-wrap-your-mind-around incidences of racial profiling – too many recent ones ending fatally – I can understand why she refused and why she asked the officer if it was a race thing. But let us be clear, asking why she didn’t just show her ID is akin to asking why Janay Rice married a man who physically abuses her or why she stays with him. All of these are the very wrong questions that displace culpability unto the injured party and leave a destructively violent patriarchal status quo unchecked.

If you are also still hung up on questions of indecency and pubic lewdness – things like why she was straddling the man in public in the first place – permit me to cite another related incident involving three other black women who were perceived as behaving “inappropriately” in public. These women, a lawyer and two educators, in late last month were hanging out at The Standard Hotel in Manhattan. Their professional affiliation, I think, should be immaterial here, but as with the ID, various versions of “papers” are often required. The women spent some time in the hotel’s club and then settled in the lobby for drinks, where they were approached by an African American man who introduced himself to them. Shortly after a security guard approached, whispered something in the man’s ear and ushered him away. One of the women, Kantaki Washington, said the following of the incident: “After the security guard ushers the brotha away, he comes over to me and my friends and says, ‘Come on, ladies. You can buy a drink but you can’t be soliciting,’ … ‘We were like, soliciting?’ He said, “Don’t act stupid with me, ladies. You know what you’re doing. Stop soliciting in here.” If you missed it, the guard, seeing three African American women talking to a man in a bar, was unable to imagine any other logic for this scenario beyond prostitution. These women had to be selling their bodies. Let’s bring this back to Ms. Watts and whatever this adult woman was doing in a car, fully clothed, with another adult. The police, and perhaps whoever called in the report, seem to have made assumptions about Ms. Watts similar to those that The Standard’s security guard made about Ms. Washington and her companions. Black female sexuality is not only automatically equated with the clandestine; in these two instances it is also criminalized.

But I’ve really cited these two seemingly unrelated things, the Vogue piece on bottoms and the harassment of black women by the security and law enforcement, to think about how to process something else that’s been on my mind: Lifetime’s new reality show Girlfriend Intervention. Briefly, the show features four black women, who each week stage an intervention for a white woman the show dubs a “BW” or “Basic Woman.” The basic here is meant to be derogatory; as one of the show’s hosts explains, it is how women who are unable to keep up with themselves and those around are described “in our culture.” Think about this show as TLC’s What Not To Wear meets Bravo’s Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, but with four black women who will tell you, bluntly but with love, what all the other suburban moms (read white women) are thinking but won’t say. There is a platform/runway where the individual being helped via fashion intervention is critiqued by the show’s hosts for her wardrobe choices, and there are four areas (fashion, design, hair/makeup, and soul) in which the four differently skilled individuals help dig some poorly dressed schlub’s confidence out of the trenches. In Queer Eye the style mentors were gay men; in GI they are black women. Those being helped on GI are always white women, because as the show’s tagline suggests “trapped inside every white girl is a strong black woman ready to bust out.” Shall we linger briefly on the “girl” versus “woman” here, and all the attendant implications for maturity and capability to function? I’m going to put the Mammy card on the table now, to signal that this show does deal heavily in problematically essentialized racial and gendered stereotypes, particularly ones that determine how women of different races are situated culturally in relation to each other. But again, like the matter of who wore big butts first and best, binaried and hackneyed frames will only get us so far in thinking about what is going on in this show. So let the Mammy card sit in the corner for a little bit.

You see, it is too simple to say this show is all bad. Its reclamation of non-traditional standards of beauty – full figures, post-baby and mommy bodies, for example – through black female bodies and sexuality, is a powerful thing. When Tracy (hair and make up) tells a young wife and mother, whose confidence has flatlined and who disparages what she calls her “baby area,” to look at herself in a mirror sans extensions and makeup, and then asks her “do you understand how beautiful you are,” it is a powerful and countercultural thing. It is a gesture that forces the BW to recognize herself as beautiful before any of the make-up brushes and hair extensions come out. The show is also body positive in ways I can completely appreciate. In the premiere, when Tiffiny and Tanisha say a size zero androgynous mannequin that is prominently placed in a store’s window is not “equal opportunity,” it speaks an emotional truth about the struggles the many women who cannot wear mannequin clothes have with dressing and feeling comfortable with themselves. There are real feel good moments here, especially when the BW seems to begin experiencing very real and life-changing confidence boosts. The four girlfriends are good at what they do. All four also have different body types, none more or even less fabulous for their variation. This also sends a powerful message about standards of beauty, reclaiming glamour as a space of equal opportunity.

Ultimately, though, the show’s overly simplistic version of sisterhood, which is marshaled via thickly laid references to the hip-hop gods, what white women do versus what black women do, and girl talk over pink drinks in martini glasses, traffics too heavily in the same problematic stereotypes that overshadow the good the women do for their BWs. The positive affect associated with offering counter-narratives to traditional standards of beauty does not automatically equate to good politics. So, while Tanisha, Tracy, Tiffiny, and Nikki are teaching white women to reclaim their sexuality and become more confortable with their bodies through burlesque or salsa dancing, what has last week’s example of Ms. Watts and Ms. Washington taught us about the lived reality of black women who publicly express varying degrees of their own sexuality? What these events have taught us is that black women’s sexuality – when expressed by black women – continues to be cast as lewd and indecent. When looked at alongside GI, however, a commodified version of black women’s sassy sexuality is raced as a “sista thing” available to white women who get inducted into the sisterhood. It does so, moreover, in a void that renders this raced sense of confident sexuality as an entirely unproblematic thing. Black women in America are safe in their public expression of no-nonsense confidence and sexuality, right? Wrong. What happened to Ms. Watts and to Ms. Washington and her friends is evidence of a very real lack of safety.

What does it mean then for white women – like the show’s BW’s, Miley Cyrus, Iggy Azalea, and now even Taylor Swift – to mobilize elements associated with black femininity for their own benefit and commercial success? What does it mean to put black women in charge of facilitating this phenomenon? Further, what does the successful mobilization of black culture by white women mean when compared to the criminalization of black women who are simply trying to exist, publicly, in their own skin? What does it mean to render white-girl problems as fixable by equally essentialized black-woman solutions? Why is a show in 2014 rendering white women as children that only black women can take care of? Do I need to make the connection between the infantilizing of women and the paternalistic ways women’s bodies continue to be treated in political and economic policy? Moreover, what does it mean to make feminine salvation/transformation contingent on the acquisition of consumer goods – a home makeover, new clothes, hair extensions?

Over at Girlfriend Intervention, they did get the memo that African descended women have proudly worn prominent behinds as “the ultimate standard of beauty.” Nonetheless, this knowledge only seems to matter when it is pressed in the service of white female self-improvement – who um, surprise (!), also come well endowed, posteriorly.