The People of Color Commission of the Socialist Party USA invited folks to have a discussion. Check it out!
Last week, the People of Color Commission began discussing the Rachel Dolezal case. Some of us decided to write down our individual thoughts as people of color, and post them here:
By now, most folks have read about the case of Rachel Dolezal, now former president of the Spokane, WA chapter of the NAACP who seemingly pretended to be a black woman for years. After the “say whaaaaat”s and the chuckles subsided, some serious feelings linger concerning this case of reverse passing. Passing has been used by POC as a means of unlocking opportunity , raising one’s class and social status by denying who they truly were. (Read or listen here for more.)
In White America, there is a two strains of socio-political thought when it views Black and Brown people.
In one extreme, you have the White Southern conservative view that distorts the reality of the past (specifically slavery). It’s takes history and distorts it. It views the horrid years of slavery in idyllic terms. The genocide and enslavement did not occur in this narrative, but rather you have reframing in which slavery was a benefit granted to the less fortunate. Here the White conservative in the guise of a benefactor is seen as the savior. This is the ugly face of the Southern White that surfaces once in a while when as they say they go impromptu.
But obviously in Dolezal’s case, this is not what transpired.
In her case, she fall on the other extreme found among the Liberal/Leftists Whites or the “hipsters.” The idea often called “love of the noble savage” or the view that the suffering of black and brown people though horrible creates a certain “existential coolness.” During the ‘70s, there were Whites who took this view that in order to be part of the Chicano and Black liberation movements, the White person had to take on the persona of the oppressed people. This led in certain instances of White young Leftists doing “racial mimicry” of the oppressed people. This attitude is best encapsulated in this short quote from Jack Kerouac’s On the Road (1957)”:
“At lilac evening I walked with every muscle aching among the lights of 27th and Welton in the Denver colored section, wishing I were a Negro, feeling that the best the white world had offered was not enough ecstasy for me, not enough life, joy, kicks, darkness, music, not enough night… I wished I were a Denver Mexican, or even a poor overworked Jap, anything but what I was so drearily, a “white man” disillusioned. All my life I’d had white ambitions; that was why I’d abandoned a good woman like Terry in the San Joaquin Valley I passed the dark porches of Mexican and Negro homes.”
You get a peek of this in Dolezal. A woman who for personal gain, hipster existentialism, horrid parents, or what not decided that she was to become “Black”. Not just put on blackface (carrotine, make-up, etc) and curl and color her straight blond hair, but start to slowly lie and invent a “Black” past. To invent a persona that like a mask she wore when it was beneficial for her and take off when not (she sued Howard University for supposedly discriminating against a White woman). But here is the one point that White Leftists/Liberals do not reflect on when they take on the persona of an Asian American, Latino, or Black person. They do not live within the reality of living in our “skins” as people of color. They are not born, live and die under our conditions. No matter how good they may mimic us, they will not be stopped, frisked, and chokehold to death for being what we are. They will not be shot from the back by the police. They will not be segregated in the barrios or face discrimination in the job market.
I am not against White allies. But I am not in favor of Whites who wear masks, even if they did good work in the community. What we need is honesty in our being.
Paz y Socialismo,
– Erik (Texas)
One of the things that strikes me the most in the case of Rachel Dolezal is the missed opportunity by someone who could have served as a bridge between white communities and communities of color — someone who could have been involved in honest conversations about what identity means in a culture of white supremacy and how it manifests in our social, political and economic lives. Few white folks are willing to engage in those conversations because they are difficult. But someone like Rachel — who claims to have been totally immersed in Black culture — could have become a true ally to people of color if she had represented herself honestly.
Instead, she fetishized Black identity. In doing so, she trivialized the violence and trauma that Black people (and other people of color) have faced and continue to face.
Changing her outward appearance to “look Black” only gave Rachel cursory knowledge about what it’s like to actually be a person of color who has struggled from birth to exist in a world where notions of white superiority proliferate. As a white person, Rachel can never know what that’s truly like. An honest ally would acknowledge that fact but still work to struggle with people of color. By falsifying her identity for personal gain, Rachel showed her true colors.