I lived in Spokane for 10 years and Rachel Dolezal was someone I considered a friend and deeply respected and admired. When the news broke that she has two whites parents and is not multi-racial I was surprised, as I had no idea.
As the story has developed I cannot help but think of the movie Avatar. A movie released in 2009 in which a white man, Jake Sully, is initially linked mentally to an alien’s body with the intention of convincing the Na’vi to allow humans to mine their planet. In the end, he falls in love with a Na’vi princess and takes on the fight of the Na’vi against the humans. He also transforms from being just mentally linked to an alien body to becoming a Na’vi. He then becomes their hero and saves them. It is a fairly typical Hollywood story about a white man becoming part of an oppressed class and saving them. The film, though critically acclaimed, received criticism for basically being a white savior story.
In so many ways I can see Rachel’s story as the Avatar story. Here is a white woman who develops a strong mental, emotional, and spiritual connection with the African-American community. Is it really so hard to believe that a person can move from a strong affinity with a group to eventually wanting to adopt that group’s identity? Whatever happened in her life, she developed a deep connection with the struggles of this group and determined that she wanted to not just be their ally but to be one of them.
When she transformed herself into being part black, she set out to support social justice causes, challenge inequality, and become a leader in the community, much like Jake from Avatar and other white people in other movies such as Kevin Costner in Dances with Wolves. In essence she become a white savior to the black community by becoming one of them and rejecting her past and her heritage. Goodness knows that whites have been writing enough fictional stories about this topic, it was just a matter of time before someone started living it.
The problem here is that race is complicated and it is not simply a matter of claiming oneself to be a new race that makes it so. Yes, race is a socially constructed concept built on the physical reality that there are many different skin tones in the world. Despite the fact that it is socially constructed, it is not as easy as saying I am now a new race and claiming another people’s struggles as one’s own. It is not acceptable to claim another group’s voice as one’s own and to speak for them.
I believe there are a few struggles that sometimes get confused. One is the struggle against racism, which is a struggle all of us can join. However, people of color also have what I think of as a primary struggle and that is the struggle to be a person of color living in America. This is a struggle I can never be a part of. I can listen to people of color and empathize with their experiences but I cannot join them in that struggle no matter how much I wish I could. It is not the struggle for social justice or against racism that impacts the identity formation of many people of color but the struggle of declaring one’s basic right to life that forms the identity. This is a struggle that starts at birth and ends at death and one which I as a white person will not ever experience or fully understand. I cannot claim blackness as I do not have nor can I have this same experience.
The other thread that goes through this for me is white supremacy and white privilege. A white person gets to claim that she is black because of some outward changes and a claim that she is part black. Let us think about this for a moment.
Someone who claims to be a light skinned biracial person gets to claim being black or African American because whiteness in our society is based on being pure. If you have one drop of blood that is not white, simply put you are not white even if you look the part. A dark-skinned biracial person does not get to claim their whiteness as their only racial identity. Someone who is black does not get to wake up and claim to be white. In bother these cases, most of us would look at the person like they were in denial. Simply put, this is societal white supremacy at work. You are either pure white or the other. When was the last time you heard someone say, “I am a dark-skinned white person.” Yes, there are many different shades of whiteness but “dark-skinned white” is not an expression that is used.
Another concern I have with this idea that a white person can claim a black identity, is that it reminds me of colonization. The white race colonized large portions of the world and in that process stole land, committed genocide, enslaved millions, and exploited the resources of other nations. We created the concept of race to benefit ourselves. Now, are we saying that white people can claim the black identities we socially constructed? Are identities that are rooted in a person’s experience as being of color now open to being colonized by white people? We took their lands, resources, people, and lives, and now we are going to take their identities. Nothing is safe.
By taking their identities, it also means we get to colonize black spaces within the U.S. Blacks or people of color can no longer have spaces that are theirs as whites begin to claim a black, or any other race, identity and claim their struggle as our struggle. We can claim their voice as our voice and act as if our experiences since birth were the same. We know that such a statement is untrue. To me, claiming another group’s identity without having lived their struggle, without having to live how they lived, and being able to move in and out of that identity as needed is just another form of violence against them and another example of white privilege and supremacy. We as white people need to just stop.
One thing I know about Rachel is that she has a powerful voice. She truly is an amazing person who is committed to social justice. I do not question her commitment to the social justice struggle. It is unfortunate that she decided to usurp an identity to do it. She could have been a strong white ally. I strongly believe we need more strong and outspoken white allies who are moving the white community toward understanding racial issues in this country. People of color cannot be expected to keep teaching us whites about racial issues. As whites we need to educate ourselves and to teach one another. Rachel could have been one of our great teachers and a role model for being a white ally.
I guess she is becoming one of our great teachers but probably not in the way I would have wanted. We can see in her the struggle of being white and wanting to be an advocate for change, equality, and justice while having to confront the fact that historically we as a people created this system of oppression.
The questions I see here are how can we as white people be advocates with others while accepting our background, heritage, and history? How do we raise up the voices of others while not claiming to speak with their voice? How do we bring our voice to the struggle in a way that is authentic and does not drown out the voices of people who are already marginalized, oppressed, and unheard?
Finally, as a white man I am not in a place to say what racial issues are the most important to discuss at a national level. I can understand why it has received national attention. This story presents itself with a lot of human drama, intrigue, and questions about race. However, what I have heard from friends and have read from people of color is that this issue is a distraction from other issues that have a major impact on their lives such as police brutality, high incarceration rates, lack of access to jobs and opportunities, and other issues.
If this issue, of a white woman claiming a black identity, is seen as a distraction from more important topics by the African-American community then I say leave this issue to Spokane to manage. It does not need national attention. I do understand why it is an issue within the Spokane community and I trust them to figure this out and find the best way for them to move forward.
Though I do not support the idea that a white person can claim another group’s identity, I send Rachel my love, care, and positive energy. She remains a human being who should be treated with dignity and not our scorn, pity, or mockery. I know this is not an easy time for her.
I will also leave with this final thought. Maybe in 10 years I will have a change of heart and see race as something that is changeable and acceptable. However, at this moment I cannot accept such a concept since it seems to be a one-way street – whites get to claim any identity they want and no one can claim to be white unless they are born that way.