The term “transracial” has been incessantly misused in the past week since the Rachel Dolezal story hit the mainstream media cycle. The President of the NAACP Chapter in Spokane has been, apparently, living her life as a Black woman for at least two decades despite having White parents. Not only has she been pretending to be something she is not, she has even lied about who her father is and used her adopted Black siblings as a part of her Black performance.
Claims that she might actually be a Black woman trapped in a White woman’s body have been used to defend her appropriation and exploitation of stereotypical mischaracterizations of Black women’s skin, dialect, and hair. But, no public intellectuals have entertained this notion. Well, until this past weekend.
On Saturday’s airing of the popular “Melissa Harris-Perry Show” on MSNBC, prominent feminist, author, and news host Melissa Harris-Perry offered the idea that Dolezal might in fact be “trans-Black.” And, she suggested that the term “cis-Black” could be a realistic way to conceptualize the contructive nature of race. Oddly, she was speaking with Stanford professor, Dr. Allyson Hobbs, whose iconic work on passing in America, A Chosen Exile: A History of Racial Passing in American Life, details how racial passing has been used for survival usually by people of color. So, how exactly does this phenomenon map onto Rachel Dolezal? What exactly is Dolezal trying to survive by posing as a Black woman?
What is paticularly problematic about using this language for Rachel Dolezal is it allows for her story (one of lying, manipulating, deceit, and secrecy) to be conflated with the lives of trans* folks. While Dolezal has been living a lie, trans* folks are focused on the polar opposite. The goal is living one’s truth. This is where Harris-Perry misses the mark. And using the language of passing is both violent and harmful to the legacy of queer and trans* folks and people of color who have had to use this strategy for survival.
The hope is that Harris-Perry revisits this topic perhaps with folks who share the identities she addressed in the discussion. In this conversation, she is, in essence, silencing and erasing the very people she has noted as prominent agents in her activism. That is the most disappointing result of this baseless defense of Rachel Dolezal.
See the clip at MSNBC.
Photo Credit: MSNBC Video Image/Still
Jenn M. Jackson is the Editorial Assistant for The Black Youth Project. She is also the Editor-in-Chief and co-founder of Water Cooler Convos, a politics, news, and culture webmag for bourgie Black nerds. For more about her, tweet her at @JennMJack or visit her website at jennmjackson.com.