Rachel Dolezal: “Blackface” in 21st Century America

C. Matthew Hawkins
C. Matthew Hawkins

Rachel Dolezal has apparently been living a lie. She is a White American woman who has pretended to be Black for the past eight years, and her pattern of racial deception appears to go back even further, approximately 18 years.
The 37-year old professor of African American Studies at Eastern Washington University has created a bit of a media firestorm as reporters have discovered that the social activist, who is the head of the Spokane, Washington National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) and serves on the citizen police ombudsman committee in Spokane is not who she has pretended to be.
Her defenders say that the brouhaha over Dolezal’s deception is much ado about nothing and, in typical postmodern fashion, they say that she can be whatever she “feels” like being at any given moment. If she feels Black then she is Black — simple as that.
Her critics, however, are not so sure. They argue that they do not have a problem with a White person who identifies with causes affecting Black people, nor do they have a problem with a White American assuming a leadership role in an organisation designed to promote racial equality on issues primarily concerning Black people.
What they do have a problem with is when a White person passes him or herself off as being Black and presents herself for scholarships at historically Black universities and becomes a “Black” spokesperson for the Black community in a carefully crafted game of deception.
That transracialism is not a socially or politically “progressive” concept, because it is not generally a two-way street; while Whites may more easily get away with pretending to be some version of a light-skinned Black person for a day, the reverse is seldom possible.
The Dolezal story raises questions that reflect the complexity and confusion of the contemporary American social landscape, namely: How does the concept of being “transracial” compare with the concept of being “transgendered”? Some have compared the Rachel Dolezal story with reactions to Bruce (Catelyn) Jenner’s claim to be “transgendered”.
Are well-intentioned “White alies” in the struggle against racism more effective as Whites who are speaking and acting against racism, or would they be more effective and more credible if they were able to pretend to be Black? Are White sympathizers with struggles against Black oppression only willing to work for these causes when they are in leadership positions and in positions as the brains and spokespersons for these causes?
Additional questions arise: What is the moral difference between the historical practice of very light-skinned African Americans passing for White, or “performing Whiteness” and Dolezal’s game of performing Blackness? Was Dolezal’s activity a form of “Blackface”, a term for White entertainers who darkened their faces in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and had fun at the expense of Black Americans?
Did Dolezal benefit from some sort of “minority privilege” in getting scholarships to historically Black institutions of higher education? Is there such a thing as “minority privilege”? What exactly is wrong with the act of appropriating and making a fetish of Black American hairstyles and culture?
For me, one of the most disturbing things about the Rachel Dolezal story is that she was able to fool so-called “conscious” Blacks as well as well-intentioned racially progressive Whites by manifesting the stereotypical thoughts and modes of expression that these “enlightened” groups have come to expect — even to demand — from Black people as a whole.
In order to pass for Black, Dolezal appears to have played the “Black essentialist” game, where the rhetoric of grievance and suspicion is ever-present, and where Blackness itself is an ideology or an attitude rather than a more varied and nuanced lived experience.
Dolezal claims to have been the victim of multiple threats and hate crimes in both the states of Idaho and Washington. These incidents, however, appear to be suspiciously fabricated. Dolezal also wrote a commentary on the Movie “12 Years a Slave,” in which she was derisive toward Whites in the audience whom, she said, laughed at inappropriate times in the movie, were hostile toward Black movie-goers and were generally clueless about what was going on in the movie.
She also allegedly wrote critically of interracial marriage. These are neither the words nor the actions of someone who is attempting to build bridges between people, rather they reflect a person who is heavily invested in the notion of the essentialism of racial identity, even as she, herself, was crossing those boundaries.
One must ask what it was that made a young White woman from Montana such a convincing specimen of “Black thought” to Black racially-conscious academics and White racially progressive postmodern intellectuals. The answer to that particular question should be unsettling if it is what American linguist professor and political commentator John McWhorter refers to as being a therapeutic sense of alienation.
Blacks who fight to build bridges between people of different races in the United States, but who do not affect such alienation and who prove themselves to be competent in the mainstream discourse are not thought to be authentically African American by these same intellectuals and activists at all; the only “authentic” Black person, in the world that praised and promoted Dolezal, is one who perpetually wears one’s injuries on one’s sleeve.
They are so heavily invested in the discourse of Black alienation and essentialism that they will search high and low for a poster-child of racial victimhood and resentment to “authentically” represent the race. They will promote their poster child of victimization and grievance, and defend her, even when their symbol of woundedness turns out to be White after all.
Woundedness is how they prefer to see Black people. It is the only image of Blacks and of the Black American experience, that they consider to be authentic. That, my friends, is a big problem.
C. Matthew Hawkins is a Research Analyst at Imani Christian Academy. He  was director of the Literacy Center at Imani Christian Academy,  taught history at Carlow University and Social Work at the University of Pittsburgh. He is now entering the Seminary for the Pittsburgh Catholic Diocese.

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