Originally posted on: 2015/06/15
Like many folks across North America, as soon as the Rachel Dolezal story broke, I was baffled. Here was yet another example of cultural appropriation of Blackness, which is quite commonplace (think Iggy Azalea, for example), but this story is a bit different. Usually the stories we hear of are people who identify as white, using Black cultural consumption for financial gain or access to what Rebecca Walker calls “Black cool”. However, this is the first story in a while where the person was outright living as Black for financial and social gain. Already on day three since the story broke, there are several excellent articles out there that outline the many ways in which Rachel’s behaviour is so problematic, so I will stick to what I think are the three biggest issues.
Appropriation is usually socially normalized into oblivion or seen as a trivial issue amongst much bigger issues like police brutality. However, appropriation has a long history that continuously works to snatch away all that marginalized groups have created and hold dear. This can range from Madonna’s “Vogue” video that appropriates Black Queer culture, to co-eds dressing up as “squaws” for Hallowe’en, to the “Harlem shake” craze, and so on. This reminds us that nothing we create is truly ours and that while we are doing “it” (whatever “it” happens to be), it is too ghetto, too ethnic or too queer, etc. Though the moment that the first daring outsider tries it on for size, it becomes a commodity for mass consumption, leaving the marginalized group, once again, marginalized. Rachel’s particular form of appropriation in this case is especially violent. From taking scholarships from a Historically Black College (Howard), to being a Professor of Africana Studies at Eastern Washington University, to of course being the President of the Spokane chapter of the NAACP; Rachel has deliberately used funding that is supposed to be earmarked for Black women for her own financial gain. For anyone who argues that she was “helping the cause”, that is more than enough evidence that she has done more harm than good to deserve any kind of pass. In addition, she also appropriated Indigenous culture by claiming that she was born in a teepee and hunted with bows and arrows for food. Unfortunately, this is a common issue for Indigenous Nations, as Black and white people across North America are prone to say “and a little bit of Native” when asked about their ancestry. While there is so much more one could say about appropriation, I’ll end with the fact that you can’t style your hair and tan your skin into Blackness or any other marginalized group for that matter. Blackness is so much more than what you wear and what you look like – it is an incredibly nuanced, layered and intersectional lived experience that goes way beyond anything that you can purchase, read or wear. Whether or not you identify as mixed-race , Blackness is something that no one can take away from you. And in the same way, it cannot be borrowed, bought or sold.
Everything that Rachel “did for Black people” she could have done as a white woman. White people who acknowledge and leverage their privilege exist. However, it is an incredible abuse of white privilege to assume a Black identity, let alone to gain financially and socially from that decision. At any moment, Rachel could have chosen to wash off her fake tan and permed hair and live out the rest of her life as a white woman (again). On the other hand, no Black woman has that option unless she is racially ambiguous or white passing, which is a completely different situation. In that circumstance, passing for white stems from trying to access those very privileges that Rachel has had access to her entire life – including her time as a fake Black woman. As a cisgender Black-mixed racially ambiguous person who is often white passing, I also access many of the privileges that Rachel had while pretending to be a Black-mixed woman. Shadeism, yet another bi-product of colonialism, works to ensure that lighter skinned people have access to more jobs, better healthcare, better education, lower arrest rates, lower prison sentences, and the list goes on. So even if Rachel was in fact a Black-mixed woman like me, she would still have access to an incredible amount of privilege. The fact is that we all access privilege in some way or another (some much more than others, of course), and it is important to acknowledge the ways in which privilege can be accessed. Once we acknowledge said privileges, we can work to leverage them to benefit society and not be obliviously complicit in oppressing other people. One example that is particularly abhorrent is when she sued Howard for reverse-racism. Yes – you read that correctly. Before she became “Black”, she sued Howard University for not hiring her as a teacher because she was white. It just doesn’t get much better than that, folks. Rachel, as a cis white woman, was enormously privileged and her choices are just plain inexcusable.
Transracial is – and is not – a “thing”. It is a term that is commonly used to speak about children of colour that are adopted by white parents. As Lisa Marie Rollins wrote in her article “Transracial Lives Matter: Rachel Dolezal and the Privilege of Racial Manipulation”:
“For the past 35ish years, I’ve considered myself to be a transracial adoptee. The “trans” in transracial for me, never meant my race changed. It meant I was a multiracial black girl, adopted into a white family. It meant I was taken without my consent from one home, one place of origin and put inside another family, another culture, another race, one that didn’t belong to me. It meant I had to learn how to navigate my blackness and my black girlness, inside an often times racist, religious, violent and rigid white world. It meant living in a house and community that simultaneously erased me, racialized me and tokenized me. It gave me a language to articulate what was happening to me. But you know what it didn’t do? It never actually changed my race. And even with all the ‘privileges’ of whiteness, even with all the education, the middle class living, camping, fishing, hunting — it never made me white”.
In the case of Rachel Dolezal being “transracial” – that is most definitely not a thing. Just as the 2nd trans woman to grace a major cover was still making headlines, Rachel’s story totally derailed what was the culmination of years of trans activism.
As Tiq Milan writes:
“To draw parallels between the exploitation and fetishizing of Black culture to the transgender experience and existence of trans folks is completely ridiculous. It’s insulting particularly for trans people of color because, this silly fiasco has completely hijacked a moment. We’re having serious discussions about race and being trans after Caitlyn Jenner’s debut seemingly eclipsed every other trans experience including those who have fought their entire life for that very same validation. Now here is another white woman, in all of her opportunistic chutzpah, co-opting a Black experience. I, as a Black transman, feel triggered because our intersections are being coveted and we have less space to stand. We’re back to questioning the validity of a transgender identity because this one white woman took things too far. We’re pivoting from meaningfully discussing racialized trans-misogyny and its systemic effects on our community because Rachel Delozal, the President of the NAACP Spokane chapter, catfished everyone around her. Instead of looking at the differences between race and gender and it’s intersectional influences folks are using this as an indication that they exist in the exact same way. It’s unfair and maddening.”
Misusing “transracial” is problematic in part because it is very similar to mythical ideas like “reverse racism”, but much more importantly because it puts trans people – and particularly Black trans women’s – lives in further danger. Janet Mock says it best below:
Janet Mock also very astutely points out that to call Rachel’s behaviour “mental illness” is ableist and opts her out of her agency to make decisions that have impacted and continues to impact Black trans and cis women.
There are so many more things that can be said about Rachel and the people who are defending her, but anything that further disenfranchises Black women and endangers Black trans women is absolutely violent and inexcusable. If any good is to come of this situation, I hope that it is yet another opportunity to remember to tell the Black trans and cis women in our lives that we love them, and that the Rachels of the world can never sit with us.