The Peculiar Institution of Race

Written by on June 13, 2015

It’s been several days, but I’m still struggling to figure out exactly what I think and feel about the mere existence of Rachel Dolezal. Because, with all tongue-in-cheek puns intended, there’s a LOT of grey area to wade through with this story.

The first wave of outcry, cast by the thousands of Black folks who regularly use social media, centers around the sheer audacity of a White woman making a conscious decision to impersonate Blackness so her advocacy in matters of equality would have more credibility. Yes, it sounds like the plot of an episodic drama. No, I don’t condone her actions, nor do I feel that anyone has the right to co-opt another people’s history of oppression to get more mileage out of their work. But, what harm has she done, really, other than pissing off her parents for dismissing them from her life?

And this is where things get really messy.

One of the things that has sustained our Black community throughout centuries of mistreatment, disenfranchisement, and death is a sense of collectivism. There is a reason why “We Shall Overcome” brings some Black people to tears. The idea of rising above our painful history becomes more meaningful when we truly believe we can do it together. So, to think that so many Black people bought into the idea of Rachel Dolezal as a member of a shared history, shared struggle, shared sense of commitment to right wrongs, and find out that–despite perhaps noble intentions–she is working as an outsider of those experiences, is treasonous. And her impersonation is a painful reminder that our perceptions of Blackness are porous enough to allow this type of deceptive betrayal.

The natural response to this action is equally problematic. My brain is immediately thrust into the documented ridiculousness of America’s Reconstruction period, when census takers would visit residences and make up ethnicities, surname spellings, and whatever other “facts” were being noted. Adults who had no way of adequately articulating their complex post-slavery familial relations, and the US Government’s indifference to respect these connections and circumstances. Or, toss into that, the morally bankrupt practices of the South African system of apartheid. Solely based on complexion, entire groups of citizens were restricted from basic human and civil rights, and required to carry passbooks acknowledging their ethnic/tribal affiliations, subject to persistent police brutality. During Reconstruction, Rachel Dolezal would have been a presumed mulatto. Under apartheid, she would have been called colored and afforded a slightly higher set of privileges and access than her darker counterparts, family or not. None of it is acceptable. No one should be more respected, allowed more freedoms, purely because they are lighter, brighter, Whiter. And Rachel Dolezal playing within the guidelines of those biases further irritates a part of Blackness that remains unfulfilled because we were ever–and still are–being judged by that same set of perceptions.

So here I am, determined to get to the root of my feelings about this, but stymied by all of the emotional land mines unearthed with just this first layer of analysis. It is not a great time to be a light-skinned Black chick who fights for cultural upliftment and justice, but prays for racial reconciliation and has been allowed to move between certain circles due to my education and social standing. Because when the reflex is to circle the Blackness wagons tightly, those of us who lack deeper levels of melanin or who have benefitted from some level of economic privilege often find ourselves in a similar position to Rachel Dolezal. On the defensive. Rewriting the narrative. Calculating the percentages and hoping that our documents hold up to the scrutiny.

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