It’s been a week of reinvented, reissued, and freshly insisted upon phrases. As word spread of the white American woman, Rachel Dolezal, who had faked being black for years, a whole string of labels issued forth: some piped up the misused term “transracial” to define Dolezal, pursuing this all the way to “transracephobic”. Meanwhile, her adopted children spoke of her as being “culturally black” and others have said: Why not, if she wants to be?
Dolezal’s darkened skin and convincingly coiled hair enabled her to “pass” as black, all the way to being chapter president of the NAACP in Spokane, Washington. A civil rights activists, her white parents outed her as being of Czech and German, rather than African-American descent. But she self-identifies as black – and her pretence prompted an avalanche of reminders that “race is a social construct”.
Well yes: Race as an idea is more a product of social definitions than of actual biology. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t matter: Racism is a social construct, too.
Hinterland of biases
Of course, it isn’t this Rachel Dolezal case itself, but our reactions to it that has exposed a hinterland of biases and blind spots. Some people couldn’t fathom what all the fuss was about, suggesting there were more important things, like poverty in Africa or war in the Middle East, to worry about – as though our attitudes around race and the current realities of the world are in no way connected.
As social media riled against Dolezal, some urged that we consider she might be “troubled” – thereby suggesting an inclination to view as “vulnerable” what other people thought was a straight up case of entitled appropriation, that shouldn’t be excused away.
In the immediate responses to Dolezal, predisposed assumptions seemed to dictate whether we focused on the woman herself (Is she ok? Why did she do it?), or the damage she had caused (the self-serving claim to a racial identity, without any of the heritage, legacy or trouble that goes with it).
The ability to choose black is in itself a manifestation of racial privilege – and so the seemingly liberal permissibility around Dolezal’s identity is in reality selective and segregated.
Meanwhile, one of the problems with what poses as a seemingly enlightened position of fluidity around Dolezal defining her own race is that it’s a one-way street. The US-instigated “one drop” rule of race was defined through its long history of slavery and segregation, to perpetuate white privilege legally premised on purity: The idea being that anyone with a bit of black in their heritage should not pose as white (although many have in fact tried) and thereby access all the perks of this colour category.
Rachel Dolezal can choose to be black but, as author Tamara Winfrey Harris wrote in the New York Times: “Actual black people, like me, don’t have the option of choosing.”
Manifestation of racial privilege
In that sense, the ability to choose black is in itself a manifestation of racial privilege – and so the seemingly liberal permissibility around Dolezal’s identity is in reality selective and segregated. As Winfrey Harris concludes: “I will accept Ms Dolezal as black like me only when society can accept me as white like her.”
Ethnic romanticisms and preoccupations are part and parcel of colonialism, interlinked to practices of dispossession and control premised on white superiority.
Such perceptions have historically been one arm of the distorted view of the non-white world – exotic, but also backward, uncivilised and not to be trusted – that enables the politics of intervention, invasion and subjugation. In this context, calling yourself “culturally black” is on par with the Orientalism definitively deconstructed by Edward Said: A jarringly uncomfortable attachment to an “other” that warns of the assumption of a “lesser”.
And along with that, Dolezal’s assumption of “blackness” is a sharp stab at an already open wound of cultural appropriation – a long history of cherry-picking bits of non-white culture (music, food, style; take your cherry-pick), without knowledge of what it represents, how hard it was fought for, or how this process reinforces and re-exploits power imbalances.
The ease with which culture is swiped (not just respectfully enjoyed, but actively taken) still stands in sharp contrast to the damage the appropriation causes – and the Dolezal case has in some ways served to highlight the painful gulf between the two.
Playing colour for laughs
One of Dolezal’s adopted brothers, Ezra, recently described her racial transformation as living in “blackface” – the entertainment genre whereby white actors blackened their faces with burned cork or shoe polish, playing black people for laughs.
This routine, incredibly, survived from the 1820s well into the late 1970s, with the UK’s Black and White Minstrel Show. Who can look at a blackface performance now with anything other than utter, disbelieving horror as to how anyone ever thought such offensive racism was OK?
So maybe, of all the labels, that’s the one to keep in mind with Dolezal’s case. Maybe that’s the one to help us get it, to bridge the chasm of incomprehension, to see the deep pain and the endless struggle that this story has both reinforced and exposed.
Rachel Shabi is a journalist and author of Not the Enemy: Israel’s Jews from Arab Lands.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.