Let me start this plainly. I don’t care about Rachel Dolezal as a performance — not really. I don’t care that she had a weave, braids or a ‘fro. I don’t even care so much that she bronzed her skin to appear darker. I do care that she lied; fabricated trauma and fake hate crimes to give herself a backstory as a fake “black” woman.
Ultimately, race is a construct, which means that, for all purposes, it exists only in so much as people accept its existence. But — and this is a capital BUT — the implications of how the construct of race functions in America has tangible and deadly consequences. People have died and continue to die because of race. We see this demonstrated time and again on television, the Internet and in our newspapers.
In our binary America, blacks suffer from ridiculous inequalities across the spectrum of experiences — from education to work to recreation. With the dregs of colonialism continuing to hang on to power, White Americans suffer from the sheer ignorance of how difference functions. In actual America — the one where people who are not black or white exist — the previous issues are true. In this America in addition to the problems between white and black America, the stratifications of race function to make indigenous persons invisible, Asians the “model minority” and Hispanics scapegoats.
Created to keep us subjugated and separated, we can’t ignore that race as an idea has become race the cultural elephant in the room. Ignoring it creates bigger problems —grander elephants. We have to talk about it. Race does matter. Repeat after me, IT DOES MATTER.
One of the pieces that I’ve read about the incident, written for The New Yorker by Jelani Cobb called, “Black Like Her: Rachel Dolezal and Our Lies About Race,” engages the quandaries Dolezal presents rather honestly but focuses its attention only on the construct of race as performance and why the conversations that have followed about Dolezal appear flawed and problematic. I get Cobb’s point and somewhat agree only in part, but it isn’t about her costume coonery — her performative ‘blackness.’
Even with the knowledge that race “doesn’t exist,” I cannot shirk it off and say, “Fuck it, let her be black.” When I go to a store and get followed — the construct turns into flesh. When I see the legacy of my ancestor’s rapes and labor in the torment of slavery being co-opted by someone with absolutely no connection to that very real heritage, reflected every day in my own skin — the construct turns into flesh. When I read the news about nine African Americans shot dead in their place of worship — the construct becomes flesh.
These are the times when I get angry about Dolezal’s hoax. I don’t care that she played dress up and slathered on some blackface. She is obviously a troubled fool but lying about her trauma and discrimination as a “black” woman lessens the impact and frankly erases the experiences that racial violence has brought against black people — black women especially.
I grew up around kids who were white and raised in proximity to many African American people. They dressed the same, listened to the same music, but not one of them ever felt the need to appropriate the heritage of their black friends.
Since the story broke, I have been repeatedly asked what I think about Dolezal. I find myself again seeing the construct become flesh when I have to explain myself to help others understand why this white woman’s fetish is an issue for me as a black woman. In addition, her foolery has become a problem for members of the transgender community. Her “feeling” black is in no way akin to being a transgender person; and people who use that analogy are creating false equivalencies and ignoring medical science. Dolezal’s problem is not identity; it is fixation and desire to escape a past that she doesn’t like. This is her privilege at work — take whatever feeds her selfish purpose. Those who attempt to draw phony connections between her and those in the transgender community are essentially asking the rest of us indulge her egocentric fantasy and that is disgusting.
Why did her family out her? Who knows but the result is a discussion about race that is unfortunately centered on the ability of a pathological liar with family drama to enjoy the privilege of “feeling” black therefore allowing her to “be black.” I am sorry. It doesn’t work that way.