Rachel Dolezal and Defining Blackness

JEROME A. POLLOS/Press Rachel Dolezal, director of education & curator of the Human Rights Education Institute, discusses the offering of Human Rights Education Institute flags Monday in response to flags flown by local hate groups.

Outside of adoptions, “transracial” isn’t a thing, and race is not a social construct. Let me explain…

By now, we’ve all heard of Rachel Dolezal. Yes, she is president of her local NAACP branch. Yes, she was recently outed by her white parents. Yes, she has been deceptive about her racial heritage.

But transraciality doesn’t exist, so people need to stop it.

Let me get transracial out of the way first. The notion of transraciality is immensely reductive and insulting to our trans sisters and brothers. To insinuate that Dolezal’s deception is in some way equal to the pain of being trapped in the wrong body is just plain wrong. Trans people are not lying about the conundrum of their physical identity; Rachel Dolezal did.

Rachel Dolezal’s decision to occupy blackness was based on her appropriation of blackness, meaning, it was learned through experience and exposure. Her racial identification is not an authentic or intrinsic element of her being, as would be the case for our trans sisters and brothers, whose gender identification is authentic. It is not learned or appropriated (in the traditional sense). It is intrinsic to their humanity.

The issue that is at the heart of the transracial and transgender conversation is identity: authentic versus manufactured (or appropriated). Transgender identity is authentic. It is not related to financial gain or prestige. Transgender identity is about making your outside match your inside in more than a performative/appropriated manner. Period.

Let’s move forward.

When we look at examples of other white women who have sought to “transition” to blackness, in terms of cultural appropriation, we see glaring examples of financial gain and/or prestige. White women performing the cultural music and affect of blackness (ahem, Iggy Azalea) have gained financially and in terms of prestige. Even Dolezal gained a certain amount of prestige in her appropriation of blackness. She became president of her local NAACP branch. She became a professor of African-American Studies. She arguably became one of the leading advocates for social justice and equality in the northwest United States (or was on her way to being so). Would Dolezal have been able to accomplish all of this without physically appropriating black culture? Of course! But she would have remained an outsider. With a black face, she was able to automatically gain credibility for the cause.

The issue that is at the heart of the transracial and transgender conversation is identity: authentic versus manufactured (or appropriated). Transgender identity is authentic.

Was it the credibility that she wanted? She could have been an exceptional ally without appropriating black culture, so was it the credibility that was her selling point? We won’t know until her book and movie deal (because, yes, she’s white, so she will get to tell her story and the stories of black women).

Back to identity and my premise on blackness. Rachel Dolezal isn’t transracial; she is an appropriator of blackness. In and of itself, that ain’t so bad. By embracing black culture, she has educated her community. She has fought for black people in Spokane. She has been a great advocate for civil rights and social justice.

But what is Rachel Dolezal’s identity? So many people are railing against her appropriation of and identification with blackness, but in doing so, they aren’t defining “black.” If you’ve taken AfAm Studies 101, you’ve undoubtedly been taught the standard: that race is a social construct. But what is a social construct? It’s something that society has a hand in defining. Social constructs are created by human choice, interaction, and moment in history. If this is the case, then by definition, Rachel Dolezal has the ability to lend her voice in defining race, and can therefore self-identify as black.

Do you see where I’m going? If race is a social construct, then Dolezal and others can actually identify as black if they were to develop a vocal-enough group. Blackness would have no true definition and would be linked to the colloquial understandings of time and place (which I’m afraid to say, seems to be how we understand race right now).

But consider this: in the UK in the late 20th century, many South Asians and Irish began to identify as black in terms of political struggle. And many black Brits accepted and engaged with them as black people.

Consider this: the first Haitian Constitution recognized and accepted white women who were down for the cause as being black.

Consider this: in modern-day South Africa, the coloured and Indian populations, also negatively impacted by Apartheid, are considered black under the country’s controversial Black Economic Empowerment initiative.

Say what? Blackness hasn’t always been about my great-great-great-grandmama working on a plantation?

Naw, suga.

Blackness was recognized as a political identity—one rooted in oppression and subjugation, one routed through shared histories of a struggle for political agency and equality, one defined to include more than the African Diaspora.

Rachel Dolezal isn’t transracial; she is an appropriator of blackness.

So what is race and who is black? I write here that race is “a concept, created to uphold white supremacy and justify governance and subjugation,” and that blackness “ain’t got nothin to do with skin color.” Has it ever?

When I used to work at America’s Black Holocaust Museum in Milwaukee and gave tours to groups, I always started with this exact line, “Do you think that one morning, the entire population of the African continent woke up and collectively announced, ‘Hey, let’s call ourselves black from now on!’?”

They didn’t self identify as black. They were Hausa and Igbo and Ashanti and Zulu. Black people were identified as black in relation to the “whiteness” (read, white supremacy) of the white colonizers. And remember, white people colonized the entire world.

White people made us black.

Let’s backtrack. Race can’t be a social construct, because all it would take to dismantle our physical notion of race would be for enough “outsiders” to identify as Black. And race is defined through white supremacy, which ultimately means that race is linked to violence, patriarchy, and oppression. There were whites and everyone else. Race is intrinsically tied to exclusion. Always has been.

So who gets to define blackness? Black America wants that distinct honor, so much so, that it often excludes the experiences and voices of our family within the African (note, I did not say “Black”) Diaspora. Blackness is not based in cotton-picking slavery in the rural American South. Blackness is not based in the blues or jazz or gospel or hip hop. Blackness is not skin color. Blackness is not ancestry. Blackness is not a social construct, defining itself with colloquial connotations.

Race is intrinsically tied to exclusion. Always has been.

Blackness is the opposite of colonial whiteness. Blackness is rooted in politics and routed through the many oppressed and subjugated populations of the world.

So back to Dolezal. We got our intellectual black panties in a bunch because a woman who is down for the cause turned out to be white. Yes, she told a lie about her physical appearance and heritage. But if race isn’t a social construct, and is defined in terms of exclusion and oppression, then is it fair to immediately write her off as not having some element of black identity? I don’t venture to say that Rachel Dolezal is black, but she does have a black identity. In purely political terms, Rachel Dolezal’s identity is rooted in black politics. She has embraced and identified with and championed the politics of blackness for years. She is also a woman, a member of a historically marginalized population.

Again, according to the first iteration of the Haitian Constitution (from which I pull heavily when navigating the political landscape of blackness. If interested, check out the Haitian political landscape pre- and post-war for independence), Rachel Dolezal could have a black identity.

Ultimately, we can’t claim that race is a social construct, then get pissed off when someone decides to socially construct themselves as a black woman. If race is a social construct, then Rachel Dolezal can have a black identity. And because race is rooted in the history of white (read “white male”) supremacy, all marginalized and oppressed people who identify with the politics can have a black identity.

I don’t venture to say that Rachel Dolezal is black, but she does have a black identity.

And one more thing. While I think the “transracial” argument is nonsensical, I do see one parallel. People with rigid understandings of gender want to exclude our trans sisters and brothers from the conversation, telling them that they are confused or crazy or that their identities have to be solely male or female. They don’t allow room for nuance or individual political or social expression. They don’t allow room for international historical interpretations of gender (two spirit, etc). They want to define and legislate something that is far more complex than they can imagine.

Why would progressive intellectual African-Americans want to follow in their footsteps? I’m not saying you have to agree with me. But I am saying that you should evaluate the global and historic definitions of blackness and race before vilifying Rachel Dolezal. “Blackness” could have way more allies if we were more inclusive.

Just sayin.

By Bethany Criss-June

Bethany is a black woman. She is also a mother and a wife. She advocates and mobilizes around issues affecting black women and girls. Their stories, identities, representations, and overall flyness consume her. There's nothing she wants more in life than to see her daughter successfully navigate black womanhood in America.