This past semester I took a course in biological anthropology – a class devoted to the study of how evolution and biology – and in effect, race – impact cultural development. So much of the class was devoted to studying how biological theories of race had come about, the impact those theories had on social stratification and what discoveries had been made to squash previous notions of genetic differences between races. While there are physical variations amongst ethnic groups – long-term genetic, developmental and physiological adaptations – there is no inherent difference in our DNA. Race is bullshit. Racism is very real. My professor loved nothing more than to have us repeat this sentiment as he waved his hands like a conductor in front of the class.
Knowing what we know now, race is not something inherent to one’s genetics, but rather a social construct built on how we perceive groups of people. Race is a made up concept used as a tool for oppression. Ethnicity, cultural practices, gender, sexuality and individual experiences are what define our identity. And some of that identity is tied into the racial stereotypes that define how we are perceived, what privileges we receive and the opportunities that we are either provided or deprived.
So no, you can’t just choose to identify as a different race. You’d have to be pretty fucking pompous to assume that you can take on the entire experience of an oppressed minority just by changing your outward appearance. And my god, imagine the hubris one must possess to take a position as the head of a community organization devoted to causes affecting that community. I mean, what kind of a person would disguise themselves as a member of a different race and then intentionally lie about their upbringing in order to gain notoriety as leader of that community?
Oh hey, Rachel Dolezal!
We don’t know the reasoning behind Rachel Dolezal’s con. We don’t know her motivations and we may never know – though she’s damn insistent that we don’t know the “full story.” But what we do know is that you can’t take on the weight of an entire culture as a personal experience by deciding to mimic their looks halfway through your life. Rachel Dolezal cannot, and will never be able to, personally speak to the black experience because – SPOILER ALERT- she isn’t black. You’d think a woman who teaches African American studies would have some knowledge about that, but apparently not.
I’m not sure if it’s because people are seeking the answers that Rachel won’t provide, or they simply can’t believe that a person could do something so blatantly fucked up, but this past weekend has been abuzz with theories and justifications for her behavior. And so, so many of them are … well … just wrong.
But I think I can provide some clarification.
Poppin’ Molly’s handy guide to discussing Rachel Dolezal
* Particularly handy for the “whatever makes her happy” argument
Transracial is not a thing
Gender identity is inherent to how we feel about ourselves and are perceived in the world. I’ve been privileged to always feel that my gender matched my sex organs, but there are many individuals who are not so lucky. I can’t imagine what this must feel like, but have been very lucky to know several transgender individuals who have been open with their experiences – and more importantly, have been able to transition to a public life that matches their gender identity. It’s an incredibly complex issue (one of my friends even stated that she messes up terminology and she lives it) and one that can have dire consequences up to and including suicide and murder of transgender individuals.
Pretty serious stuff, right?
Claiming that Rachel Dolezal is “transracial” – that she was a black woman born in the skin of a white woman and is finally living her real truth – is incredibly offensive and trivializes the legitimate struggle of transgender individuals and the victims of transphobic crimes.
Transracial is not a thing. It is not the same as being transgender. Rachel Dolezal’s experiences are not comparable to Caitlyn Jenner’s, so please stop photoshopping her image onto Caitlyn’s vanity fair cover with the tagline “Call me black.”
Annie Liebowitz did not take such beautiful photos in order to have pseudo-enlightened asshats bastardize them with claims of individual identity and a post-racial society.
Community activism isn’t a get out of jail free card
Rachel Dolezal devoted the last ten years of her life to activism in the black community. She was the president of the Spokane branch of the NAACP. She gave lectures about the experience of being black in America. She headed a committee devoted to issues of police brutality. But that doesn’t erase the fact that she robbed a black woman of those positions in order to give herself an authoritative voice. She appropriated the identity of a black woman in order to give herself credibility (maybe? She still won’t say her motivations) as a leader in the black community.
There is a space for white people in black social justice movements – it’s called being an ally. Rachel Dolezal didn’t have to con people in order to devote herself to the cause. She just had to humble herself and check her privilege.
I realize that can be difficult, but it seems a lot easier than alienating your entire family and deceiving your community. But hey, that’s just me.
You don’t get to claim mental illness
Somebody doing something you think is fucked up is not a free license to claim they are mentally ill. Just as you can’t diagnose somebody as diabetic just because you think they are fat. You can’t diagnose somebody as “about to die” just because you think they’re too old. Diagnosing illness (or imminent death) requires a professional (or a tail-spinning airplane) and a set of strict diagnostic criteria.
There are tons of people with mental illnesses who live completely functional lives and don’t behave in culturally appropriative and racist ways. Tons of them, I swear! There are also tons of mentally ill individuals who are not being properly treated and need understanding and compassion – not harmful stereotypes. Making knee-jerk claims of mental illness regarding Rachel Dolezal’s actions is demeaning to those with legitimate mental health issues and insinuates that, by doing something largely considered wrong or crazy, you qualify as diagnosable.
Insinuating that those with mental illness are just crazy people who lie, cheat, manipulate and (insert other hurtful stereotypes about the mentally ill) is not only wrong (people with mental illness are statistically more likely to be victims of crimes than perpetrators) – it’s ableist as fuck. Just because it wouldn’t occur to YOU to masquerade as another race does not mean it takes a mentally ill person to commit such an act. Healthy people do fucked up shit all the time.
Unless you are Rachel Dolezal’s psychiatrist, you don’t really get a say about her mental state.
It’s not bullying
Criticizing a public figure for misrepresenting herself and speaking on behalf of a community to which she does not belong is not tantamount to bullying. Cries to “leave the poor woman alone” because she’s “just a human who made a mistake” have been clogging up twitter and I’m sick of it.
Rachel Dolezal isn’t getting sand kicked in her face at the beach by some oil-slathered beefcake as he steals her girlfriend. She’s being justifiably questioned and criticized regarding her lies and deception. She’s being asked to take ownership for her mistakes.
That’s not being bullied. It’s called being an adult.
“She’s done more for black people than they’ve done for themselves”
Hopefully we’ll get the full story as to Rachel Dolezal’s motivation for this ruse eventually, ideally through a pull-no-punches interview with Anderson Cooper. This should be followed by an over-dramatic Lifetime Original Movie where, in a delightful twist, the role of Rachel Dolezal is actually played by a light-skinned African American woman (because it’s about damn time racially fucked up casting worked in favor of people of color). However the story continues to unfold, one thing is clear – Rachel Dolezal is seriously committed to this identity.
From her devotion to appropriating the hairstyles of black women (by a stylist that deserves an Academy Award for hair and makeup) to her claims that her adopted black brothers are actually her biological siblings – Rachel Dolezal’s commitment is unwavering. She has been adamant that she identifies as black. I’m adamant that you cannot identify as black, but rather can identify WITH the black community (“If we let you!” as one of my friends joked the other day).
But Rachel Dolezal didn’t identify with the black community. She appropriated the experience of people of color. She took space that wasn’t hers. She lied and manipulated her way into a position of authority so that she could tell members of an oppressed community what is best for them.
Hate to break it to you Rachel but, historically speaking, that’s kind of the whitest thing you can do.
Molly Regan is an improviser and writer in Baltimore. She likes chicken pot pie, Adam Scott’s butt and riot grrl.