In a world where media is at the center and cultural appropriation seems to continuously present itself, racial controversy seems inescapable. Appropriation was eloquently described by 16 year old Amanda Stenberg, most commonly known as the actress who played the character of Rue in the Hunger Games:
“Appropriation occurs when a style leads to racist generalizations or stereotypes where it originated but is deemed as high-fashion, cool or funny when the privileged take it for themselves.”
Source: Amanda Stenberg “Don’t Cash Crop My Cornrows”
Well, that is, nobody except Rachel Dolezal.
Rachel Dolezal has infamously grown in popularity in American media as the white woman who changed her hair, darkened her skin color, and claimed to have a black father just so she could pass off as a black woman. On June 11, 2015, it was brought to public attention that Dolezal, who at the time was the President for the Spokane chapter of NAACP, had been passing as a black woman since 2010.
Rachel Dolezal before (left) and after (right) her racial transition.
Dolezal’s true racial identity was discovered when her biological parents, both of which are very obviously white, unashamedly outed her white identity in an interview with CNN. Needless to say, this public revelation incited major backlash for Dolezal. People took to all forms of social media, attacking and mocking Dolezal’s transition from white to black using hashtags like #AskRachel that soon became top trending searches on Twitter.
Even when this evidence was brought to Dolezal’s attention while on record, she kept on persisting that her true racial identity was that of a black woman’s by stating:
“I just feel like I didn’t mislead anybody; I didn’t deceive anybody. If people feel misled or deceived, then sorry that they feel that way, but I believe that’s more due to their definition and construct of race in their own minds than it is to my integrity or honesty, because I wouldn’t say I’m African American, but I would say I’m black, and there’s a difference in those terms.”
Source: Vanity Fair Magazine “Rachel Dolezal’s True Lies”
Dolezal further backs up these claims by stating:
“This is not some freak “Birth of a Nation” mockery blackface performance; this is on a very real connected level. I have actually had to go there with the experience.”
Source: Today News “Rachel Dolezal breaks her silence on TODAY: ‘I Identify as Black’”
Clearly, Dolezal is grounded, convinced, and certain in her racial status as a black woman. It is this perceived racial identity that she used to her advantage, helping herself gain the presidency at the Spokane chapter of the NAACP. Through her leadership at NAACP, she did aim to help better the lives of blacks in Spokane, Washington. Drawing even further back in her life, we see that she did in fact dedicate her time to studying and analyzing Africana studies in her collegiate career. These facts influenced others to come for her defense. Keri Hilson, was one of some to defend Dolezal’s intentions:
And this does bring up a good point. Although Dolezal deceived people into thinking she was black, she did so while also working day and night to help solve problems faced by the black community. However, she deceived people nonetheless and as Jonathan Capeheart of the Washington Post stated, “blackface remains highly racist, no matter how down with the cause a white person is.”
In essence, no matter how much work Rachel Dolezal did to help the black community, it is tainted by the fact that she did so using a black mask.
Well, for one, her ability to appear a different race in the first place, occurs because of the white privilege she was born with. In the racial order, put forward by society, each race is given a sort of level or status. Needless to say, by this order, whites are held higher than blacks. Therefore, in accordance to this system, Dolezal’s transitions down, thus using her white privilege to transcend boundaries put in place to affirm her white privilege. As one would guess, the transition down the ladder of status is far more feasible than the upward climb, so by Dolezal transitioning from white to black, she takes advantage of the status given to her by an oppressive system. Hence, even though she states that she is living the black experience, and therefore combating racism, by taking advantage of her status, founded in racism, to move along racial boundary lines she ends up contradicting herself.
Furthermore, her racial identification as a black women proves to be highly problematic in the sense that it reveals the perceived necessity of being black. Dolezal chose to not complete her African-American studies and human rights work as a white woman because it was easier to do so as a black woman. This thought process alone perpetuates the idea that one has to be a part of a race in order to actually sympathize with or help that race. Therefore, this identity does not cross racial boundaries in any way, it perpetuates them. By feeling the need to change one’s outward racial appearance in order to “match” one’s inner self, one states that one’s mindset and actions cannot transcend one’s outward racial appearance. Therefore if you believe that black people deserve the rights and opportunities that everybody else has then you must be black because white people just don’t think like that.
Even though Rachel Dolezal may have had good intentions, the manner she went about them presented heavily problematic contradictions that promoted racism. How can one attempt to transcend racial boundaries while adhering to them? Is there no other way to sympathize with the “black experience” without being black? #AskRachel