Over the past several days I have had so many conversations about race and performance as they relate to Rachel Dolezal. I’ve seen my friends and academic colleagues post articles, videos and insightful commentary on Facebook. But even though I am someone who regularly writes and thinks about race, and who experiences race everyday, where Rachel Dolezal is concerned I have nothing to say. It’s not that I’m not interested — I’m totally fascinated — but I am literally speechless.
This sense of being speechless, of feeling stumped by the provocations about social construction she is forcing us to engage with, is ultimately what’s feeding the now international dialogue.
Here are the 12 things she’s forcing us to grapple with.
1. “Well I’m definitely not white. Nothing about being white describes who I am,” she recently said in an interview. Whether you believe her or not you have to admit this is a totally fascinating statement. What does it mean to be born caucasian but to then essentially vacate whiteness and the place of privilege it affords? What does it mean to say that “nothing about white describes who I am”?
2. At dinner the other day I asked my colleague how what Iggy Azalea does is any different from what Rachel Dolezal is doing? On the one hand Iggy still presents as a white woman and identifies as a white person while appropriating blackness for commercial gain. Rachel has appropriated blackness — she often talks about loving “black is beautiful” when she was a kid — but has for a decade lived her life as a black woman. Is the appropriation somehow different when you’ve embedded yourself in the community, when you’ve created an entire livelihood around it and constructed an entire narrative around your membership in it?
3. Black people, who are dark brown like myself, can’t pass as white. I could get all the blue contacts I wanted and I could perm my hair or plug a bone straight weave in. Not only would I be laughed at and probably end up on Media Take Out but people would still see me as a black person. Period.
4. Rachel’s lies and deceit make us uncomfortable and are part of what frames the negative reception she is getting, the narrative that she could have done this activist work as a white woman. Pathological liars believe the stories they tell are the truth, but after seeing Rachel talk about her background, now I don’t know whether she’s lying or that she’s so committed to her own lies she now believes them.
5. Lots of folks have called her “delusional” and suggested that she has a host of mental health issues going on. While that may be true we also need to remember that these were the same harmful critiques launched at transgender people and gay people. So, high emotions aside, what do we do now?
6. I highly doubt Rachel knew two weeks ago that she would explode onto the national scene in this way. Does that mean she thought she was doing the right thing and living an honest life before the media storm?
7. Does wanting to give her the benefit of the doubt actually reinforce her white or light skinned privilege?
8. Some black people get told “you’re not black enough” or are asked why they talk “white” by other black people. How does Rachel impact debates about the production and performance of blackness within the black community?
9. I’ve known plenty of white people who identified strongly with black culture and with black cultural production but who still went through the world as white people. How is Rachel different?
10. White gay men have often been criticized for saying things like “I have a black woman inside of me,” a deeply problematic phrase that usually results in the stereotyping of black female characteristics to comedic effect. But could Rachel “have a black woman inside of her” that she has now realized by “blacking up”?
11. I should be mad at Rachel but actually I realize she is human and that what she describes is a thing she’s experiencing in her life right now. I don’t know if anybody has a language for thinking about race and social construction in the way Rachel is proposing we do.
12. What if it were actually possible to transition races? Whether you agree with the thought or not, try and process what that would actually mean.