Rachel Dolezal a lesson in how racism works

Roundup
tags: racism, NAACP



Michael P. Jeffries is an associate professor of American studies at Wellesley College and author of “Paint the White House Black: Barack Obama and the Meaning of Race in America.”

Legendary comedian Paul Mooney once famously quipped, “Everybody wanna be a nigga, but nobody wanna be a nigga.” Mooney, who is black, was describing whites’ fascination with blackness, their penchant for consuming and performing black culture, and the notion that the fantasy would be far less appealing if whites actually suffered the violence and discrimination of racism. The bizarre story of Rachel Dolezal, the NAACP administrator who considers herself black despite white biological parents, adds a twist to Mooney’s prophecy. Unlike most impersonators, Dolezal seems wholeheartedly committed to living as a black person. Her failed reinvention is a lesson about racism, privilege, and identity as choice. 

Scholars and cultural critics have long noted that because white culture is viewed as either nonexistent or boring, whites consume and adopt nonwhite styles and practices to build hip and exotic identities. And since whites can “wear” blackness without the threat of being harassed or murdered by police for no reason, the thrill of performing blackness is far less risky than real life as a black person. Moreover, whites can stop the performance whenever they like and return to being racially unmarked.

What is so striking about Dolezal’s case however, is her persistence. Even after being exposed, she has no plans to stop calling herself black. We have little reason to doubt that the blackness she performs is not simply enjoyable, but personally and politically meaningful. According to Dolezal’s biological mother, Rachel first began to disguise herself after her parents adopted African-American children. In her role with the NAACP and as an adjunct professor of Africana Studies, Dolezal understands herself as an advocate for black people and a member of black communities. Dolezal’s investment in her story is attached to the love she has for her family and her understanding of justice. She does not acknowledge her biological parents as her mother and father. She believes those who question her identity do not understand how race works, and that her self-definition, bolstered by her chosen family and profession, is the only definition that matters.

But that’s not how racial identity and racism work. The racial categories inherent to institutional racism are the product of law and social custom, but they are not randomly generated or freely chosen. They are informed by and inscribed in our legislative history, and they are violently policed by civilians and stewards of the state such that white people benefit at nonwhites’ expense.

These benefits are manifold. White households have far more wealth than black and Hispanic households, as economic class privilege has been generated, passed down, and protected through slavery, Jim Crow, and continued discrimination in housing, banking, and the labor market. Whites are presumed innocent and nonthreatening, and are allowed to assemble freely and move through all sorts of public spaces without being labeled deviants or “thugs.” Racial identity is always linked to privilege. ...




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