By Isabel Manuela Estrada Portales, Ph.D., M.S.
It has taken me a long time to write about Rachel Dolezal, the white woman who passed as black and rose through the ranks of her local chapter of the NAACP. That incident represented such an entanglement of factors, conditionings and narratives that story and structure the black experience in America that I was puzzled and mesmerized. I was also conspicuously silent to my own surprise.
Whiteness ascribes racial identity to itself and others. I am suspicious of people claiming the right to name. To name others. To name me. Besides, I am not “just” black and I am Afro-Latina, black from Cuba, with an accent and a story that’s not the same as that of U.S. blacks. I can see how I could be considered an outsider, like Dolezal. But I live here and fight here and pay taxes that help war and incarcerate here.
On the other hand, so many smarter people spoke at length that I was unsure I had anything to add. I still am. However, current discussions about criminality and the black body have taken me back to this issue because it clearly portrays privilege and pathology.
Dolezal’s entitlement speaks to the essence of white privilege. Passing is also a privilege of whiteness and, at least, or particularly, in this case, in its manifestation it provides confirmation or reassurance of blackness as pathology.
Beyond the performative nature of her actions, there is much of pathology involved in the situation of Dolezal which confirms the preexistent assumptions in the white imaginary: a white person enmeshed, immersed, in the “black world” has been rendered the poster child for pathology. The heuristics here are complex. A clear case can be made that Dolezal herself was betrothed these tropes and beholden to them. She used them in her performance of blackness, with all the assumed maladies, the broken family, the black costume.
One fact makes the strength and pervasiveness of those tropes particularly worrisome: being in the midst of, dwelling with black people did not change Dolezal’s outlook, mind frame, preconceptions. While one may be inclined to think it was a purposeful and opportunistic use of those tropes, I wonder if there was any awareness of the entitlement vehicle that allowed her to ride high and far. She was a very close witness to the reality of race as lived by those of us who are raced, those without a choice to opt for colorblindness and it did not call out her consciousness.
Color lines have been fiercely policed, and that policing began on the white side of the tracks. I have always rejected the extent to which blacks have assumed the “one drop rule” to the point of disparaging those who “pass” or “outing” someone as black – it does not matter if the person actively negates it or just does not actively proclaim it. Why act as if there was something wrong with being black? Why demand allegiances someone does not want to assume? Why live by the white supremacist rule that biracial people can only be black? Why couldn’t consider themselves white? Of course, the other side would never accept them, but that’s for them to deal with. I understand the essentialist need for a united front, but there has always been something oppressive – something learned from the oppressor – about our need to “force” the acknowledgement of their blackness on those who don’t want to. This is, though, a common feature of oppressed groups as they have adopted unwillingly and unconsciously the dominant frame and sickness.
While passing has a long and complicated history, it almost always leaves you with an after taste of masquerade. I do juxtapose passing as resistance and passing as taking advantage. Passing was – perhaps still is – a way of not accepting the rules created to subjugate you; a just and justified trickery on the trickster. It was an insufficient and unfair fighting strategy, as it left the structure in place – and I am not even mentioning the hurt it did to the passer. While it has been common all over, I have been inclined to think passing, in its keen individualism, is a very American tactic, a way to overcome my own problems at whatever cost to the whole.
What should we make of Dolezal’s masquerade? She did bring to mind for a while Norman Miller’s white Negroes, without a sliver of revolutionary nihilism or, truly, any trace of respect or kindness towards the black culture she was phagocytizing, rather than adopting. Whatever contempt white Negroes may arise, Dolezal’s actions are worst. She was not merely adopting the ways of blackness or trying to assimilate, she was trying to be one of us, minus the painful historical baggage that actually made us. Would she have passed if she would not have had any benefits? Would she have gone back to white?
No place has been more contested than the body of black women. Dolezal did the last bit of black expropriation and exploitation. She ate black womanhood and mocked it. She usurped it as if it was just performance, and in performing blackness, she gave back to white America what it expects and understands as Blackness: a garb that can be put on or stripped out, a costume of sorts, an attitude and an outward fashion that is little more than affectation and, hence, neither is wrought by the continuous denigrations of lived blackness in America, nor by the cloak of warmth and protective coverings the black community puts up as a shield, nor by the structural conditioning of an inescapable raced life.
How does she care about blacks? Her acts are a mockery of affirmative action. Then, she sustains she is “challenging the construct of race.” How? By avowing every stereotype and benefiting from the spoils?
She profited from the fact that blacks had to accept all comers because whiteness was policed to no end and had naming privileges. But also blacks would accept her for the same reason whites would believe her: What white person in her right mind would want to be black? She knew that!
Race is ascribed by lineage, appearance or cultural assimilation. In the US, race is ascribed by lineage and appearance because it is assumed. Dolezal knew people would assume the lineage and played to that. As a scholar of much of this, she knew of her own privilege. One cannot adopt victimhood, as real victims never actually have that choice.
DISCLAIMER: These are my personal views and do not represent the opinions of my employer, or any other organization.