Rachel Dolezal, Blackface, and Choosing Your Race
A couple years ago, some apparently crazy lady named Rachel Dolezal was outed as being white. What's weird about that is that you usually don't have to be 'outed' for your race. It's obvious in how you look and what ethnicity you tell people you are. But Dolezal had spent the better part of a decade pretending – or believing, depending on your interpretation – that she was black. This lie had been a decade-long one, which was finally broken down when she was asked the simple question of "are you African-American?" to which she carefully responded "I don't understand the question."
Of course, Dolezal is a liar. It isn't hard to see (just look at a teenage photo where she has lighter skin and a conventional white hairstyle) or hear (her parents, both white, say that their ethnicity is Czech, Swedish, and German). And this is where she goes wrong – she built up success based on a lie that was fueled by race. It was a self-serving flavor of casual racism.
In the following months, Dolezal maintained her claim, despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary. She invoked what would be the first real use of the term 'transracial', something that hadn't been widely explored outside of movies like White Chicks and Tropic Thunder. That argument was widely criticized, as was her choice to identify as black, for her apparent cultural appropriation. But it seems that in the (justified) race to find fault in Dolezal, the notion surrounding that claim was also discredited as ridiculous. After all, how could you choose your race?
Of course, Dolezal isn't the ideal standard-bearer for a 'transracial' movement. She once tried to sue the historically black Howard University for denying her a position because (in her own words) she was a white woman. She purportedly wrote about the treatment of her ancestors in an erroneous and implies-that-they-were-black kind of way in an admissions essay. She allegedly lied about hate crimes that she was the victim of, and a subsequent police investigation found that her claims didn't quite hold up. But the outrage and vitriol directed against her aren't really because of any of those things – rather, it's because she posed to be black. The notion of being transracial shouldn't be judged by the first to claim it, but rather on its effects as a societal construct alone.
That's where we get into the weeds about appropriation.
Things like blackface are often brought up in context of appropriation. The backlash against blackface was rooted in the desire for a preservation of dignity. After all, it's not that hard to understand why using blackface to dress up as a 'gangster' or a 'rapper' would be disrespectful, since it implies that a certain ethnicity is associated with the negative connotations thereof. But the action and the intention have become deconvoluted to the point that the intention doesn't matter anymore, and the action is vilified on principle. Blackface was used inappropriately in such a number of ways that any use of it is considered to be in bad taste. Which is weird when you think about it, because no element of cultural appropriation is quite as frowned upon. It isn't considered cultural appropriation to speak another's language, worship their gods, or enjoy their food. It's only kind of cultural appropriation if you wear their clothes (mostly if you're a white fashion designer) or adopt their hairstyle (didn't Justin Bieber have dreads at one point?). But it's definitely seen as appropriation if you use a different skin color.
It doesn't follow why any of these facets of culture is required to be tied to the whole thing. You often hear that you can't take another group's hairstyle if you're not willing to bear the burdens that the group faces and be an ally in their fight. It's the idea that says if you have cornrows, you have to be on the frontlines of Black Lives Matter.
Calling it appropriation implies that it was taken without 'permission', which further implies the concept of ownership. The average white girl wearing dreads wouldn't claim that they were her original idea, or take credit for the innovation. Sure, it's a built-in privilege that a white girl with dreads is looked at much differently than a black girl with an afro would be, but that's a function of the ethnicity, not the hair. That's why it doesn't feel like any ownership claim is really valid when it comes to things like this. Sure, there should be some amount of respect and understanding for the history, but there shouldn't have to be any social capital earned in order to wear a hairstyle. Because it's almost as if America was some kind of giant… melting pot.
Related Sidepoint: Take this in contrast to the n-word. That's a word that was used to disregard, degrade, disrespect, and demonize a race for hundreds of years in a very explicitly it-was-because-of-your-race kind of way. So when black people claim ownership of the n-word to the extent that other races can't and shouldn't use it, that's understandable. That word is hurtful. And black people in today's society have found a way to use that word and modify it to where it's become a term of colloquial endearment. Using that would be appropriation – taking something that belongs to a certain group of people without their (collective) permission.
Back to Dolezal – some may be too quick to brush away the well-isn't-this-the-same-thing-as-transgender argument. After all, what's different about it? Both are examples of situations where someone believes that they are something other than what they are or what they were born into, despite all physical and visual evidence to the contrary. A big part of the transgender movement and the tolerance it preaches is the idea that everyone should be happy in their own skin. After all, it doesn't hurt anyone else if someone wants to transition genders, it only helps that person achieve contentedness. So who cares if someone is happier living as a black person? It's not a detriment to black people that someone wants to be like them to the extreme that they would change a number of things about themselves to (literally) embody the culture. Women don't decry those who transition to being a female because they've lived their whole lives as male and as such can't truly be women. Not that it's a competition, but it could be argued that transitioning race is less of an impact on someone's life than transitioning gender.
It seems like literally no one bothered to ask Rachel Dolezal whether she was black because no one thought otherwise. She taught African Studies at a university where she led courses on race, culture, and black feminism! She was the president of the local NAACP chapter! She even legally changed her name to Imani Green! I'm kidding on that last one of course, but you thought it was true, right? Actually – and this is 100% true – last March, she changed her name to Nkechi Amare Diallo! That's not a joke! And isn't that kind of the point? If you can live for so long and act in a way where no one suspects that you're not black, isn't that the essence of living as a black person in this country?
And yes, this should work the reverse way as well. If you're a minority and want to identify as white, then you should be able to. Of course, just like Rachel Dolezal, such a change is really only for your own personal satisfaction. A cop won't think you're white when they pull you over even if it's written on your driver's license, and the TSA will still frisk you because of your brown skin despite what your passport says. People can see what you look like and make judgments and take actions based on that. Even today, years after she was outed, Dolezal still claims that she has African heritage and styles herself as a black woman. No one believes her, but she still identifies as such. She should be allowed to. Anyone should.
I'm not saying that any of these things are necessarily good ideas. It probably just makes your life more complicated and might not improve it that much, especially if you're trying to be a minority. Changing your name or your hairstyle probably makes it harder to get a job. But if you advocate by striving to be an NAACP leader, if you educate by teaching classes on the African studies, if you're more comfortable identifying with some other group, then where does it cause harm? This circles back to the point about blackface. It was decried because it was considered insulting, disrespectful, and uneducated. Dolezal's actions can be described in a lot of ways, but the intention behind it was none of those things.
Progress casts an intolerant view on its predecessors. Being mildly racist was a widely accepted part of American society a half-century ago. Now it's not. That doesn't excuse everyone's actions during that time, but it also doesn't make all of them racist either. The racist ones were the people who used the n-word, who wanted 'separate but equal', and the ones who lynched people based on the color of their skin. The real moral void comes about when change happens and one's mentality continues to live in that time – like the ones who haven't realized that 'sugartits' isn't an appropriate thing to say. A decade ago, people who were transgender were labelled as 'freaks'. Now, they're not. People who are anti-trans are seen as intolerant. And a decade from now, we'll likely look on being transracial in just the same way. Rachel Dolezal may not truly be African-American, but if she wants it, we can all certainly say she's culturally black.