Dear Dolezal: Here’s Who You Hurt When You Pretend To Be Black

Photo: Dan Pelle/AP Photo.
On Thursday, Rachel Dolezal, newly-elected president of the Spokane, Washington chapter of the NAACP, was outed by her parents as a white woman. Unsurprisingly, outrage (along with some nuanced discussion and various pointed memes) ensued. Dolezal, whose childhood pictures show a blonde, freckled young woman with white parents, has apparently been living for the last seven years as a Black woman. She has spoken out about "natural" hair, filed police claims about racially motivated hate crimes — and become an outspoken leader for civil rights and racial justice. When Refinery29 first reported the news, many commenters wondered if what she'd done was really so bad — strange, yes, and the kind of elaborate dishonesty that's a little hard to fathom, but wrong? To some, she could be seen as an inspiration. She represented not only a success story for women, but was also dedicating her life to service. The NAACP released a statement of support Friday lauding Dolezal's work and stating "One’s racial identity is not a qualifying criteria or disqualifying standard for NAACP leadership." [Read about Kivie Kaplan, a white president of the NAACP and friend of Martin Luther King's here.] No harm, no foul, right? Yes, harm. Yes, foul. For me, a black woman, there are serious, detrimental consequences to her behavior. She distracted us from real racism
This week (and heck, this year) there has been a national conversation on systemic and institutional racism. The most recent case involves 15-year-old Dajerria Becton ,who was physically assaulted by a police officer at a pool party last weekend in McKinney, Texas. The manner in which the African-American teenager was treated serves as another insidious example of the devaluation of Black women’s lives. White-centric feminist organizations have been so silent on the issue that Black male activists have openly wondered why. But, people are paying attention to Dolezal. As of the time of this writing, Google returned 129,000 hits for “Dajerria Becton." For Rachel Dolezal, it was 243,000. As African-American theologian Broderick Greer tweeted, “Only a white person could get this much attention for being Black.” She trivialized issues that are key to Black women's lives
Yep, the hair. As Jezebel’s Kara Brown wrote, regardless what you think of Dolezal, she sure nailed that hair! With faux locs, sew-ins, and braids, Dolezal took on what she thought represented a Black woman without the pain (hot comb, anyone?) and racial taunts that many of us experienced as children about the “state” of our hair. She even gave a lecture on history of "our" (Black) hairstyles. Dolezal took what once what could be perceived as a powerful political statement by an accomplished woman — the decision to have big, natural hair — into a parody. Then there is her complexion, Even while living as a black woman, Dolezal had advantages based on the color of her skin. The reality of a racist world means that colorism exists within the black community. We see examples of light-skinned privilege every day. Darker-hued Black women find online dating challenging, and light-skinned actors are often chosen for roles to portray darker-skinned characters. To be fair, there is no way to know if Dolezal felt that her "lightly tanned” skin would grant her more privileges in society than a darker-skinned woman, but she did have the nerve to criticize Black men for their preference in dating white women. Her deception festers open wounds within Black communities and makes light of issues that can be detrimental our collective self-esteem. She belittled the reality of Black experience
If Dolezal had truly been concerned about really helping the community that she passed into, her energy should have been directed towards creating awareness about how Black women are treated within society. Instead, she tried to emulate one. Dajerria Becton and the other Black children at the Texas pool party do not have the ability to pass into another culture so easily. They couldn't change their skin color to one that would shield them from being assaulted by police brutality, discriminated against, or ignored by white feminism. (And, if they did, the penalty for "passing" as white is far greater than any Dolezal will face for passing as black.) They cannot transform their skin color so they will be perceived as teenaged kids having a good time and not intimidating thugs out to destroy a neighborhood. And, that's the thing we need to fix.

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