Rachel Dolezal, Farcical Blackness and ‘Eating the Other’
By: Imani J. Jackson
One day I was minding my business, as an actual Black woman, when the Internet alerted me of a narrative that captivated America. Rachel Dolezal was a disgraced NAACP president whose whistleblower parents alerted the public of their daughter’s lived lie.
Dolezal had deputized herself as a Black sister, taught Africana studies and filed hate crime complaints that curiously could never be corroborated. Further, the folks she thought she fooled through her racial Rachel curating apparently knew something was amiss.
Y’all, things are still amiss. I do not care how many Ashy Larrys invite her to the function. How tightly she cornrows her hair. How many of-color babies she births. How many mango-scented tanning bed sessions she completes for her complexion to rival the fruit. I find her woefully bootleg: an off-brand Oshun, a parched Mami Wata, a Miss Daisy who wished she was Ms. Tina. And for all the pro-Black, white supremacy opposition she claims to be about, her ethno-racial traveling costume party is fresh out of bell hooks’ “eating the other”, a theory that describes white consumption and assumption of Black and Brown folks’ identities.
Here is a brief analysis of this expedition through farcical blackness:
1. Unlike many actual Black people, Dolezal’s blackness is make-believe.
By physically altering herself and espousing experiences as a Black woman, Dolezal continued a traditionally white history of dishonestly performing blackness. Her actions reflect hooks’ description of a dominant cultural actor, a white person, who “establishes a contemporary narrative where the suffering imposed by structures of domination on those designated Other is deflected by … longing where the desire is not to make the Other over in one’s own image but to become the Other.”
Yes, society includes identities beyond blackness and whiteness. But, Dolezal claims a blackness that has not been proven attenuated. It’s non-existent. She is not a Creole colleague, like many I encountered as a Louisiana college student at Grambling State University. She is not some nearly white-passing, but socially Black-identified, person who celebrates her African ancestry because it is the most vulnerable part of her. No Black parents, grand-parents or even great-grandparents have been unearthed. Actually, an ironic plot twist of Dolezal’s race lie is that mixed race Black women or very light-skinned Black women are defending their belonging. (My little sister, who is tan and green eyed, sighs with the weariness of fiddylebben ancestors at the mere mention of Dolezal.) A white woman with an imagination “jumping like Jordan” should not shift our belonging dynamics.
2. She sued Howard University, as a white woman, for discrimination (and lost).
She felt so entitled to a teaching assistant position, more employment and a scholarship that she embroiled one of the most revered Black universities in a lawsuit. The same institution that gave us the United States Justice Thurgood Marshall defended itself against an essentially reverse racism claim by a white woman who likely dug into the cultural capital of diverse blackness in D.C. and ran out west with it like a typical colonizer. These shenanigans demonstrate the “de-contextualization” that hooks references, and which results when an outsider learns enough about us to attempt a community takeover for personal gain. Dolezal felt as if she was owed professional opportunities and money from Howard. Abigail Fisher felt owed a University of Texas at Arlington acceptance. Both women litigiously addressed their perceived losses to Black and/or Brown people.
3. She changed her name to Nkechi Amare Diallo.
As Denene Millner wrote for NPR, “In taking an African name, Dolezal looks to change her destiny — to revise history. To claim what is not hers to claim.” Names are often cultural connectors. Many Black Americans, knowing the necessity of race awareness and pride, name their children African Diasporic names. These names are a reminder for people whose histories were obscured by oppression. They are signifiers of strength and resilience. Especially for people whose last names convey a linkage to slave-masters who trafficked our ancestors, the freedom to name is powerful.
Similarly, Dolezal’s “freedom” to choose blackness willy-nilly reflects a misalignment with many Black people whose identity choices have always been – to some degree – squelched. In manufacturing a Black woman’s identity, and obnoxiously speaking into this space, she demonstrates hooks’ assertion that “the over-riding fear is that cultural, ethnic and racial differences will be continually commodified and offered up as new dishes to enhance the white palate- that the Other will be eaten, consumed, and forgotten.”
In the final analysis, I do not wish (or have the power to bring about) isolation, instability or hardship for Dolezal. Actually, preoccupation with her is a reminder to continuously dig into the real work. We can advance the safety of missing Black women and girls. We can combat deadly patriarchy. We can cite the Black women scholars whose ideas inform the social justice frameworks on which scores came to rely: Kimberle Crenshaw’s intersectionality, Moya Bailey’s misogynoir, Cheryl Harris’ “Whiteness As Property.”
We can support Black businesses, especially those led by Black women. We can pursue equal pay for equal work for all people, especially Black women. We can remember that an inclusive society understands how cultural appreciation, appropriation and assimilation have different origins and aims. We can tell dark-skinned Black girls that they are beautiful because of, not in spite of, their blackness. We can have entry requirements of honesty before accepting folks into the fold. And at a minimum, we can remember that which is constructed on a sinkhole only lasts so long.
Imani J. Jackson is a columnist and policy adviser with Dynamic Education Foundation. She earned a mass communication B.A., with a journalism focus and psychology minor, from Grambling State University and a J.D. from Florida A&M University College of Law. She has written for a variety of publications including the Black Youth Project, USA Today, Teen Vogue and Politic365.