Rachel Dolezal had quite a week, perhaps
unlike anyone you know, as her parents revealed that the
African-American studies professor, #BlackLivesMatter activist and head
of the Spokane branch of the NAACP, is not a black woman but white.
Despite the scathing criticism and unforgiving memes this sister has faced, perhaps even well-deserved, all is not lost for Dolezal.
Can she redeem herself as an ally, after all this backlash?
Yes, she can, with the potential to have an even more effective
civil rights career and a more meaningful impact on the lives of black
people. However, some changes need to be made, and she will need to do
First, Dolezal must apologize publicly for deceiving those around
her. Please believe that a spray tan and a perm do not a black woman
make. Plus, concepts of passing and wearing blackface have a long,
tortured history touching on sore spots in the black community.
The issue never was that she is a white woman in the NAACP. That
esteemed civil rights organization always embraced people of all races
and ethnicities, and white folks are on the move in places such as
North Carolina, where they have joined the NAACP and Rev. William
Barber’s multiracial Moral Monday movement.
Rather, people took issue with Rachel Dolezal for representing
herself as something she is not and creating a fictional past for
personal gain. Apparently, she may have fabricated reports of hate crimes
against her. Blackness is not something that one can put on like a
fashion accessory and then simply take off when you get tired and want
to move on to something else. Black folks are in this for the long
haul, but is she?
Next, Rachel should give us her true biography and express how she
fell in love with fighting for issues that affect our community. There
is no question that Rachel Dolezal has fought on the frontlines of
issues that are impacting African-Americans, arguably with more zeal
and consistency than some black so-called leaders.
But there is evidence that, arguably, her good intentions snowballed
into a huge display of white privilege. Further, news that she gave
lectures on “nappiness” and the brown paper bag test and told a student
she did not look Hispanic enough only made things worse.
Now, Dolezal needs to demonstrate that she is a good ally. A good
ally is someone who advocates for black people, but knows how to stay
in her lane, versus someone who appropriates the very blackness she is
supposedly supporting, runs with it and exploits it with reckless
Unless there is something we do not know or her parents have not
revealed – perhaps some hidden black ancestors that are not reflected
in their daughter’s birth certificate — Rachel Dolezal was not born a
person of African descent. But that does not mean she can’t be down,
that she can’t associate or identify with blackness. The abolitionist
John Brown was almost certainly a white man, and yet, as someone who
led an armed insurrection and made his best effort to wipe out the
institution of slavery, we are hard pressed to find anyone blacker. He
was captured and hanged, but it was his commitment and realness that
got the ball rolling and led to the Civil War.
Better yet, Rachel Dolezal should take a lesson from the late R&B
singer, producer and songwriter, Teena Marie — who was technically
white but was functionally black. Once described by Radio One founder Cathy Hughes
as “a black voice trapped in a white body,” Lady T had a loving
relationship with the black community unlike any other white artist
before or since.
As Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote in The Atlantic
after her death in 2010, Teena Marie demonstrated that blackness is
cultural and not biological. She once said “I’m a black artist with
white skin. At the end of the day you have to sing what’s in your own
soul.” To that end, she sang for black folks and of black folks, and
never found crossover appeal. Whether it was “Square Biz,” “I Need Your
Lovin’,” “Lovergirl,” “Ooh La La La” or “Fire and Desire” — her duet
with Rick James — Teena Marie’s “whiteness” never really came into
view. And in any case, more than a few black people actually believed
she was black. Rachel Dolezal needs to show the black public she has a
black soul — if she indeed does — and help us understand the process
that led her down this path to embracing us.
Finally, Dolezal can become a vocal advocate against racial bias in
the media. After all, as a woman who has lived both black and white in
this color-coded society, she is uniquely positioned to speak on
white-skin privilege and anti-black racism. Remember that racism
involves perceived differences, whether those differences are
real or imagined. And since Rachel was perceived as a black woman, not
to mention with a black husband and adopted siblings, certainly she has
lived black experiences that provide the flipside to her inherited
white card status.
The media shape perceptions by perpetuating stereotypes of people of
color and help create reality. Despite a black president and an
increasingly browner America, Hollywood and the TV networks, controlled
by middle-aged white men, still act like the good old days. Often, they
pretend people of color are invisible, whitewashing our images,
perpetuating the stereotypes about black criminality and inferiority,
and keeping us out of the newsrooms and new media startups. Meanwhile, outlets such as Fox News engage in blatant race baiting to boost ratings.
This could be one of those teachable moments that will move the
dialogue forward and help Rachel Dolezal in the process. There is no
use in wasting too much time holding a grudge against a woman who has
invested a great deal of effort advocating for the black community.
Look around, and it is clear we can use all the help we can get right
now. Black America is falling off a cliff into the ocean, tied to an
anvil. Poverty is up and economic opportunity is down. When the police
are not shooting
or strangling us, they are abusing our teenage daughters at pool
parties with the camera rolling. And fifty years after the Voting
Rights Act, we are still fighting for our voting rights, as the
Republicans are acting like it’s 1955.
So Rachel, we need backup, but now you know what you have to do.
This commentary originally appeared in theGrio