Rachel Dolezal: One thing we must definitely not do . . .
I’m clearly not alone in my utter inability to quite wrap my head around this story. At the most mundane level (i.e., setting aside for a moment the many contentious racial implications) so many details here are beyond bizarre.
I can’t seem to let go of the most surface kinds of questions.
- If Dolezal’s family knew she’d accepted a scholarship from Howard under misleading racial pretenses, why didn’t they say something then?
- The brothers she claimed (claims?) as her children . . . was she (did she? is she?) actually caring for them? Were they living with her when she filed her claim saying they had all been targets of a terrorizing hate crime?
- What else has gone on with her family of origin? What did her parents care of their Black children look like that this could have gone so far?
- What about her husband? (What about her husband?) What about the man she claims as her dad? (How does he understand their relationship?)
- How on earth does someone break familial ties so completely that the deceptions now emerging went undiscovered for so long, even while living such a public persona, in an age in which many us feel there’s almost nothing we can reliably count on as remaining safely private?
- And, I’m sorry: what she did to her brother? Ugh.
This whole episode is a spectacle.
The degree to which I cannot get my brain quite around it unnerves me. It leaves me more with feelings I cannot quite explain than words with which I’m able to analyze the complexities here.
emilie townes’ theo-ethical poetry, which so often evokes truths mere analytical language simply cannot, keeps showing up in my mind, instead.
With her help, then, I venture to put this story in the realm of what she describes as a manifestation of the “fantastic hegemonic imagination.” Or, to name it as a devastating moment when we see again we’re “searching for paradise in a world of theme parks.”
The story is too larger-than-life and fantastical to seem quite real. I feel it threatening to evoke a kind of hysteria manifesting as laughter. (The inappropriate, uncontrollable kind that gets you in big trouble when it overcomes you in church.) Yet, something about it is also so palpably rooted in the deep, thick, ineffable brokenness and evil of our collective racial experience that the laughter it threatens to evoke is of the sort indicating one might be coming undone.
What do we do with this?
There has been a whirlwind of troubling conversations and claims, as well as important and interesting analysis. Amidst this, this story does invite important discussions about:
the nature (or not) of race;
the meaning of appropriation and privilege;
the reality that dis-ease, cognitive dissonance, incoherence and fragmentation often do and always threaten to show up in white racial identities when we who are categorized as “white” in this violent, white supremacist nation contend with the state of our consciences, souls, and morality because we do see, know and acknowledge what whiteness actually does.
But, given the spectacle of this story, in all of our discussions we would do very, very well to be cautious. In fact, one thing we must definitely not do is use it to draw clear, stark and one-dimensional claims about almost anything.
As in a confident statement like this one: “Well, this case clearly shows us ‘x.’”
And, it’s this tendency in the public reaction that is troubling me deeply.
Let me give one specific example of what I mean:
Do you know how many times I have heard a white person, who was in an early stage of struggling to figure out how to live with and respond to the terrible weight of their complicity in white supremacist legacies say something like “I know I shouldn’t say this, but sometimes I just wish I were Black”? More times than I can count.
Dolezal’s story does and should invite scrutiny of widespread tendencies in white racial identity development. Such scrutiny can help us identify and understand the ways particular, predictable aspects of white development—“white guilt,” for example—get in the way of meaningful antiracist engagement, and what strategies, tools and practices we must develop to enable whites to move through such impediments.
But it’s a very different thing to engage those kinds of questions because of ways this story troubles us, than to pin down precisely who Dolezal is, why she did what she did, or claim with certainty what her behavior does or does not indicate about her own psychological state relative to white identity. That just goes too far.
It’s precisely our tendency as whites to feel “overdetermined” by our white racial identity/location that often impedes our ability to engage in active antiracist postures and struggles. And part of the work of enabling and growing our abilities to do so requires that we recognize our agency in responding to white supremacy. In other words, despite the ways racist systems and structures daily draw us into their violence and daily shape our lives and identities as white people they don’t have to utterly determine who we are.
But, we don’t know if, ironically, Dolezal actually didn’t feel “determined” enough by her whiteness (i.e., thus thought it was okay to just “jump ship” to her own racial history and story) or if she felt more “overdetermined” by it that even the most immobilized-by-white-guilt person out there; so much so that “passing as Black” was the only way out she could see. Either of these responses is morally reprehensible. But, we don’t know which this was.
And, maybe it was neither of these, perhaps she is just or also deeply unwell.
So, a discussion of white identity challenges we can see resonating in this story? Yes. A diagnosis of Dolezal with crisp, certain conclusions drawn about what her behavior tells us generally about white people trying to grow into antiracist, ally work? No.
I’m especially frustrated by the quick moves to which this spectacle has led us in terms of claims that it somehow shows clearly how much of an illusion this whole racial construct thing is (interestingly, I’ve read both conservative and progressive pieces making this claim; hmmm). A house is constructed too. That doesn’t make it an illusion.
I have more to say about this soon, but in the meantime this account by a Alicia Waters, an actual, Black woman who grew up in Spokane, Washington is a must read. Again, in the arena of caution, let’s not so quickly claim that this spectacle makes clear that race is more illusion than anything. False.
This is an oh-so-intensely-disturbing spectacle of a story. It’s a story produced by the fantastic, hegemonic imagination and puts us in touch again with the reality we are bereft: unable to find paradise a world of theme parks.
It’s a story so “beyond the pale” (choice of terms here intentional) that it should trouble us, worry us, make us ache, self-reflect, and—especially for those of us who are white—provoke us to lament (another posture to which townes calls us in the face of our evil legacies) about just how malforming and insidious legacies of white supremacy continue to be; at every level.
But what it shouldn’t do is lead us to easy, rushed conclusions about what we, thus, know.
On the contrary, given the perilous gaps it exposes, it should make us very, very, clear about just how much we don’t.