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THE RACHEL PAPERS
June 15th, 2015 by Clark Humphrey

mgm/this tv

Some pseudo-random thoughts about l’Affaire Rachel Dolezal, the just-resigned Spokane NAACP leader who’s claimed at various times to be black, part-black, and Native American, but whose parents claim her to be white (and who have the blonde, blue-eyed childhoood pix to support their claim):

If it weren’t for white people pretending to be black, we’d have no jazz or rock n’ roll or R&B or even hiphop as we know those genres today. American white pop music would still sound like “How Much Is That Doggy in the Window?” British pop music would still sound like “Drink To Me Only With Thine Eyes.”

(We also wouldn’t have sorry minstrel-show acts, macho-baby-boomer blues bands, or fratboy rappers either; but you’ve got to take the bad with the good, right?)

There’s a long-running meme of college-educated white women identifying, or trying to identify, with black women of “lower” castes. It ranges from recent works such as The Help, back to the predominantly white-female audiences for Alice Walker and Toni Morrison. Walker especially depicted Af-Am womanhood as an ultimate embodiment of a specifically feminine wisdom and righteousness.

Could Dolezal, who had Af-Am adopted siblings, have envied their specific “tribal” identity, collective-struggle heritage, etc.? Not for an outsider like me to say.

It can be said that she should have known “being black” involved more than just looks and “soul,” but (as shown gruesomely in recent news items) a continuing legacy on the receiving end of repression, injustice, and brutality. (As Tavis Smiley asks, “Who’d sign up to be black?”)

Dolezal is the second Spokanian to re-invent herself so thoroughly. The first, of course, is Billy Tipton.

Tipton, a small-time jazz pianist and a bio-female who lived as a (hetero) man until his death in 1989, was essentially (in my opinion) a trans who never had reassignment surgery, but who simply tried to create a being and a life for himself and succeeded completely.

Dolezal attempted a similar life-feat, trying to create a present by rewriting her past. Our age of instant information made that ultimately impossible.

There’s nothing wrong, as Smiley’s above-linked essay notes, with being a white person devoted to helping her less race-privileged fellow humans; people who…

…have the courage, conviction and commitment to unapologetically use their white face—and their white voice, hands, feet, head and heart to make America a nation as good as its promise.

The NAACP has (openly) white local and national officers, past and present. More famously, the late Westinghouse and CBS exec Michael H. Jordan (absolutely no relation to the basketball star) was chairman of the United Negro College Fund for a decade.

In the statement announcing her NAACP resignation, Dolezal stated she won’t stop fighting for justice.

Dolezal has been a student, and occasionally a teacher, of Af-Am culture and history. She assuredly knows, both from book-learning and from those in her life, about what black life is really like.

She could have used this knowledge to work at bridging our racial divides.

If she can transcend the unfortunate image of her own “race drag act,” she still can.

Everybody seems to have an opinion or an angle on the tale:

  • Dolezal’s brothers have spoken on camera: “It started out with the hair.” (ABC)
  • The Daily Beast parses out the whole history of Dolezal’s carefully constructed identity.
  • Variety claims a Dolezal biopic “is inevitable,” and postulates whether it will be a comedy or drama or both.
  • Ijeoma Olio proposes a bargain for white people who want to be black: the ability to dance, a history of triumph over diversity, and the looks of white women clutching their purses when you walk past them. (Slog) 
  • Darnell Moore at Mic.com calls the Dolezal affair a “fiasco” and “a glaring example of white privilege in action.”
  • Twitter users are using such hashtags as #transracial and #wrongskin, as other Twitter users ruthlessly mock them. (KING) 
  • A self described “gay Black man” explains the terms “transracial” and “transethnic,” in terms of the furry community. (Fusion.net)
  • Kara Brown at Jezebel: Girl, WHAT?”
  • Explaining the “passing” as a quest for “empathy.” (USAT) 
  • Gyasi Ross at Indian Country Today compares Dolezal to decades’ worth of white folk pretending to be Native Americans.
  • Author Michael P. Jeffries calls the incident “a lesson in how racism works.” (Boston Globe)
  • As you might expect, the social sub-network known as “Black Twitter” has plenty of snarky reactions. (The Culture)
  • Vox has a think piece on how it proves “race” isn’t a cut and dried issue anymore.
  • Salon has a harsher piece by Mary Elizabeth Williams, claiming Dolezal’s “fraud is unforgivable.
  • For compare-and-contrast, here’s the story of local author Mishna Wolff, whose white father “identified” as black for many years. (KUOW)

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