HCN Talks: Race, Culture and the Rachel Dolezal Scandal

Earlier this summer, a civil rights activist and head of the Spokane chapter of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) Rachel Dolezal, was accused of lying about her racial identity. Born to white parents, Dolezal identifies as a black woman. While many were offended by her deception, Dolezal refuses to back down and claims that from her earliest memories, she has had “an awareness and connection with the black experience”. This month, Rachel gave an interview on the American daytime talk-show The Real, where she hoped to explain her experiences as a “trans-racial” woman.

We opened this up to our team and asked: what are your opinions on Rachel Dolezal? Was she being deceptive?

Olivia*: Personally, I think she's ignorant. There is nothing wrong with appreciating other cultures and races, and enjoying parts of those cultures- for example, music and food etc. But in Rachel’s case, this is an issue of appropriation. Dolezal as a white woman doesn't face the double standard of oppression that black women face. She can 'remove' her blackness, when other black people can't (not that they should want or have to).  But she can effectively index her white privilege whenever she wants to and that isn't fair.

Elise*: I'm a firm believer that God created us, and we should strive to appreciate and be content with whatever our race/gender/body is! I think you should still be able to be an activist for a certain group without feeling the need to pretend you are of that group - be real and honest about who you are and feel free to fight for other people's equality, don't pretend and don't lie.  

Zoe*: Some might respect her efforts as an activist campaigning for racial equality on various scales, but her personal stories have been proven to be entirely fabricated. Dolezal has become more a problematic example of cultural appropriation.

Dolezal has said that while she may not be an African-American, she is black and that “whiteness is a state of mind”. In doing so, she infers that there is either a black culture, experience or characteristics that she feels more connected to. Is there a black culture?

Chloe*: Personally I would have said there was, but there are subgroups and other groups to go with them.

Joanna: I agree, there are generally white and black cultures. Not everyone necessarily relates to the culture that matches their skin colour. I think it originated as different cultures geographically but with more people moving to different countries it’s become more of a white and black culture.

Veronica (pointing out the role of fashion and media in appropriating a black culture):  “We see celebrities of all races choosing to wear braids, and others have a more robust behind rather than a robust bosom.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Some of us disagreed. Why do you think there isn’t a black culture? And where do you think this idea comes from?

Rebekah: Being black is simply the colour of one's skin.  There aren’t any characteristics to people’s race. I do think you're a product of your environment and your personality isn't something that's innate. Therefore I don't think there's a single black culture.  Black Africans will have different experiences to African-Americans who will again, have cultural differences to the Black-British community. And even within these groups, you have individuals who may be of an African or Caribbean descent for example. However, one thing that the black community may have had shared experiences on, is oppression and racism.

Zoe*: Rachel’s fake tan and braided hair is a ridiculous and offensive attempt at 'becoming' black. I don't think she realises that in trying to help the black community she is instead making a fool out of herself and diminishing their struggle. 'Transracial' is not a thing!

Jemima: For a start, there are a lot of cultures across the globe - not just two! The colour of your skin doesn't relate to your culture - your heritage does. It just so happens that colour and heritage sometimes overlap. You certainly can psychologically feel as if you belong to a skin colour, but it would be based on internal stereotyping.

Veronica: As a Latina who doesn’t fall under either category, I would say that culture depends to some extent on your upbringing. The idea of a black culture is based on stereotypes.  I don’t know many black people that act in a stereotypically ‘ghetto’ way.

I’ve heard the term 'Oreo' that is used to describe black people that behave white. This idea of being white is that you're 'educated, well spoken, good background, well balanced, successful, and ambitious’. In some people's eyes (unfortunately some people are turds) that is what being white is. So when someone with a darker complexion is all of the above (due to upbringing, good education, good opportunities), people instantly assume that black person feels white. When the reality is- why should they?

In society today, where an individual can be born male and identify with being female, is Dolezal wrong to liken her experience to that of Caitlyn Jenner’s? Can an individual be “trans-racial”?

Olivia*: I see where this argument is coming from but it is problematic. Race is a genetic disposition whereas gender is a social construct – that’s the difference. Obviously you could say that there are elements of race that are a 'mentality' and construct but again and this highly problematic!

Rebekah: Gender and race are completely different.  There are specific norms for what it is to be male or female which people can now say they don't agree with or feel like they identify. But I don’t think this is the same with race. Gender is a lot more fluid whereas the colour of your skin is largely due to your genetic make-up.

The idea of being transracial is a bit stupid because it only applies to a specific group of people. A black person – particularly someone with a dark skin tone- wouldn't be able to identify as white. Why? Because people would still see the colour of their skin and label them, and treat them as a black person.

Rachel identifying as black is simply an example of the white privilege she has. Ironically, she later tried to sue Howard University (the historically black university she attended) for racial discrimination - as a white person. This just shows how easily she can switch between races and this isn't a privilege other people have.

Gagandeep: There is a big difference between being transgender and transracial. While gender is strict - female or male, race is a mix of various factors and the line cannot be drawn so easily.

With race comes the issue of cultural appropriation which I believe is different from her believing that she is a certain race.

We should be open minded, but if she is just associating with being black in order to feel closer to the idea of being black and the culture that comes with it, she oversteps the line and is extremely insensitive and naive in her belief that a certain race is just defined by the culture they live by. It would be totally dis-respectful for example, to tell everyone that you were Indian just so that you could wear saris etc. We need to get to the bottom of why she feels the need to identify with black people as a race and make sure that it is not a twisted form of cultural appropriation.

 

Closing Remarks and where Dolezal gets it right

There’s nothing wrong with a white person having braids, or going to a historically black university, or joining the civil rights movement.  You don’t have to be black to stand up to racism, in the same way you don’t have to be gay to stand up for LGBTQ rights.

Dolezal is right about one thing, there IS a racial mentality. But she’s missed the mark. Whiteness is not a state of mind. There is however, a mentality that comes with being in the racial minority because of the way this minority is treated by society.

When asked by singer and talk show host Tamar Braxton whether she believed she has walked the walk of a black woman, she answered yes. Rachel cites an example where she had been speeding and stopped by a policeman, who later on identified her as black on her ticket.

Her weave does not offend me, I’m actually impressed – it’s a job well done! What is offensive to me is that today, the black community are not being pulled over because they are breaking laws. They are being pulled over because they are black, and the police suspect that this means they are breaking laws. The fact that she got caught and at the end of the day, the policeman thought she was black shows that perhaps she does not understand the walk of a black woman.

*names have been changed. 

What do you think? Get in touch and let us know! 

Edited by India-Jayne Trainor 

Images sources:

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The Interview:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=54QrcxCKo1o