A black de­cep­tion

Her suc­cess makes it more than a sideshow spec­ta­cle

Los Angeles Times - - THE NATION - SANDY BANKS

Rachel Dolezal may have had the style right, but the sub­stance was wrong, Sandy Banks writes.

I can’t help but pity Rachel Dolezal, the white woman whose mas­quer­ade in mod­ern­day black­face has been en­ter­tain­ing us since last week.

Dolezal, who headed the Spokane, Wash., chap­ter of the NAACP un­til she re- signed Mon­day, was ex­pected to ad­dress the con­tro­versy but in­stead posted a mes­sage on Face­book about “chal­leng­ing the con­struct of race” — as if her years of role-play­ing were just some high-minded in­tel­lec­tual ex­er­cise.

Since be­ing pub­licly outed by her white par­ents, Dolezal has been pil­lo­ried and ridiculed for try­ing to co-opt black “sis­ter-girl” sta­tus with a dark tan and kinky perm.

Yet for years the cha­rade worked.

That’s what makes this more than a sideshow spec­ta­cle. Dolezal’s suc­cess in slid­ing from white to black raises ques­tions about the na­ture of racial iden­tity: what ac­counts for it, how much it mat­ters and who gets to de­cide.

The “col­or­blind” crowd says this sce­nario shows how in­signif­i­cant race should be.

Race scholars — yes, that’s an aca­demic spe­cialty — say the episode may her­ald a new era of racial flu­id­ity.

“Peo­ple have be­come more as­sertive and com­fort­able about de­mand­ing public recog­ni­tion of their racial iden­tity,” said USC Gould School of Law pro­fes­sor Camille Gear Rich, who coined the term “elec­tive race” be­cause it’s rooted in per­sonal choice.

Dolezal “may have taken it a bit too far,” she said. Most peo­ple who la­bel switch are multi-racial. “She’s mak­ing these claims with­out any bi­o­log­i­cal ba­sis.... Peo­ple find that of­fen­sive.”

Par­tic­u­larly ac­tual black peo­ple, who see Dolezal as an im­pos­tor turn­ing cul­tural touch­stones into trite com­modi­ties. Some­one who wants the ben­e­fits, but none of the bur­dens, of be­ing black.

I’m not of­fended by Dolezal’s de­sire to stake a claim to black iden­tity. That sort of cul­tural ap­pro­pri­a­tion is ir­ri­tat­ing, but com­mon­place: Look at Kylie Jen­ner’s newly full lips. Lis­ten to Iggy Aza­lea rap.

But I am in­sulted that so many peo­ple find it so hard to be­lieve that a white per­son would want to be black.

More of­ten than not, it’s ac­tu­ally quite nice on this side of the color line.

Un­til Dolezal pub­licly ex­plains, we can’t know how or why her sub­terfuge be­gan. That hasn’t stopped arm­chair shrinks from try­ing to ex­plain it:

She’s act­ing out some kind of weird emo­tional fam­ily drama. She’s try­ing to boost a flag­ging ca­reer with af­fir­ma­tive ac­tion points. She’s el­e­vat­ing her sta­tus from or­di­nary blond white woman to stun­ning light-skinned sis­ter with blue eyes and good hair.

In Cal­i­for­nia, we’re ac­cus­tomed to racial am­bi­gu­ity. But in Spokane, the ex­otic Dolezal was like a celebrity. I’d be sur­prised if any­one ever asked out­right if she was black.

It’s a touchy prospect, try­ing to dis­cern a stranger’s pedi­gree. I know be­cause I’ve fum­bled through it over the years.

I’ve been on the re­ceiv­ing end of that quin­tes­sen­tial Cal­i­for­nia ques­tion — “Where’re you from?” — that teeters be­tween com­pli­ment and in­sult, depend­ing on the set­ting and tone of voice.

And I’ve in­ter­ro­gated my chil­dren about the her­itage of their friends. “She’s pretty. What is she?” I used to ca­su­ally ask, af­ter I’d met another olive-skinned, curly-haired girl. “She’s a hu­man be­ing” was the usual re­sponse I’d get.

I was ask­ing be­cause I wor­ried that my daugh­ters didn’t have enough black friends at their sub­ur­ban high school. Race meant more to me than it did to them.

Dolezal’s back­ground sug­gests she came of age in a racially ob­ser­vant house­hold too.

She grew up in Mon­tana, with par­ents who adopted four black chil­dren when she was in her teens. She went to a Chris­tian col­lege in Mis­sis­sippi and vol­un­teered with its “racial re­con- cil­i­a­tion” min­istry. She earned a master’s de­gree at his­tor­i­cally black Howard Univer­sity. She mar­ried a black man, and they had a son be­fore they di­vorced.

She con­sid­ers her­self an ac­tivist. She led the Hu­man Rights Ed­u­ca­tion In­sti­tute in Idaho, taught in the Africana stud­ies pro­gram at Eastern Washington Univer­sity and guided the Spokane NAACP through a prof­itable and pro­duc­tive resur­gence.

None of that re­quired Dolezal to be black. In fact, civil rights bat­tles ben­e­fit from the sup­port of white al­lies.

When I was in high school, my black history teacher was a white woman who pushed us to dis­patch pro­pa­ganda and seek truth. We learned that skin color wasn’t a mea­sure of com­mit­ment. She was so in tune with her stu­dents — on a cam­pus where al­most ev­ery stu­dent was black — that her lack of melanin never mat­tered.

Her hon­esty did.

The long-run­ning lie is the most craven part of Dolezal’s cha­rade. That’s what fu­eled the sense of be­trayal that lighted up #black­twit­ter and dom­i­nated Face­book news feeds.

“It is no dif­fer­ent,” one Face­book post read, “from some­one claim­ing to be a war vet­eran and join­ing the VFW, when they never served a day in their life.”

Dolezal had the style right, but the sub­stance was wrong. Se­ri­ously wrong.

I re­al­ized that as I poked around online, re­search­ing her past. I came across a se­ries of video in­ter­views con­ducted by a young white stu­dent re­ly­ing on pro­fes­sor Dolezal to de­con­struct black women.

Ac­cord­ing to Dolezal — speak­ing as one of us — we’re al­ways wor­ry­ing about our hair. And how we dress. And how we talk. And whether to use our EBT cards to buy gro­ceries when white cus­tomers are around.

Some­times we want to be free to not care about our ap­pear­ance, she said. But we don’t want whites to think “those peo­ple have a lower stan­dard of hy­giene.”

This is all a “fairly uni­ver­sal ex­pe­ri­ence for black women in a ma­jor­ity white area,” she in­sisted as the cam­era rolled.

She was be­ing asked to de­scribe the lives of “nor­mal” black women; to trans­late our lives for her stu­dents. And in­stead of il­lu­mi­nat­ing the range of cir­cum­stances, she per­pet­u­ated tired and in­sult­ing stereo­types.

The sub­ject of race is tricky enough to nav­i­gate with­out a phony ex­pert throw­ing stink bombs on the path.

Dan Pelle As­so­ci­ated Press

DELLA MONT­GOMERY- Rig­gins, left, Charles Thorn­ton and Rachel Dolezal, then pres­i­dent of the NAACP’s Spokane, Wash., chap­ter, at­tend a rally in March.

Tyler Tjomsland As­so­ci­ated Press

RACHEL DOLEZAL meets in Jan­uary with Joseph M. King, left, and Scott Fin­nie, di­rec­tor of Eastern Washington Univer­sity’s Africana Ed­u­ca­tion Pro­gram.

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