Rachel Dolezal had quite a week, perhaps unlike anyone you know, as her parents revealed that the African-American studies professor, #BlackLivesMatter activist and head of the Spokane branch of the NAACP, is not a black woman but white.
Despite the scathing criticism and unforgiving memes this sister has faced, perhaps even well-deserved, all is not lost for Dolezal.
Can she redeem herself as an ally, after all this backlash?
Yes, she can, with the potential to have an even more effective civil rights career and a more meaningful impact on the lives of black people. However, some changes need to be made, and she will need to do three things:
First, Dolezal must apologize publicly for deceiving those around her. Please believe that a spray tan and a perm do not a black woman make. Plus, concepts of passing and wearing blackface have a long, tortured history touching on sore spots in the black community.
The issue never was that she is a white woman in the NAACP. That esteemed civil rights organization always embraced people of all races and ethnicities, and white folks are on the move in places such as North Carolina, where they have joined the NAACP and Rev. William Barber’s multiracial Moral Monday movement.
Rather, people took issue with Rachel Dolezal for representing herself as something she is not and creating a fictional past for personal gain. Apparently, she may have fabricated reports of hate crimes against her. Blackness is not something that one can put on like a fashion accessory and then simply take off when you get tired and want to move on to something else. Black folks are in this for the long haul, but is she?
Next, Rachel should give us her true biography and express how she fell in love with fighting for issues that affect our community. There is no question that Rachel Dolezal has fought on the frontlines of issues that are impacting African-Americans, arguably with more zeal and consistency than some black so-called leaders.
But there is evidence that, arguably, her good intentions snowballed into a huge display of white privilege. Further, news that she gave lectures on “nappiness” and the brown paper bag test and told a student she did not look Hispanic enough only made things worse.
Now, Dolezal needs to demonstrate that she is a good ally. A good ally is someone who advocates for black people, but knows how to stay in her lane, versus someone who appropriates the very blackness she is supposedly supporting, runs with it and exploits it with reckless abandon.
Unless there is something we do not know or her parents have not revealed – perhaps some hidden black ancestors that are not reflected in their daughter’s birth certificate — Rachel Dolezal was not born a person of African descent. But that does not mean she can’t be down, that she can’t associate or identify with blackness. The abolitionist John Brown was almost certainly a white man, and yet, as someone who led an armed insurrection and made his best effort to wipe out the institution of slavery, we are hard pressed to find anyone blacker. He was captured and hanged, but it was his commitment and realness that got the ball rolling and led to the Civil War.
Better yet, Rachel Dolezal should take a lesson from the late R&B singer, producer and songwriter, Teena Marie — who was technically white but was functionally black. Once described by Radio One founder Cathy Hughes as “a black voice trapped in a white body,” Lady T had a loving relationship with the black community unlike any other white artist before or since.
As Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote in The Atlantic after her death in 2010, Teena Marie demonstrated that blackness is cultural and not biological. She once said “I’m a black artist with white skin. At the end of the day you have to sing what’s in your own soul.” To that end, she sang for black folks and of black folks, and never found crossover appeal. Whether it was “Square Biz,” “I Need Your Lovin’,” “Lovergirl,” “Ooh La La La” or “Fire and Desire” — her duet with Rick James — Teena Marie’s “whiteness” never really came into view. And in any case, more than a few black people actually believed she was black. Rachel Dolezal needs to show the black public she has a black soul — if she indeed does — and help us understand the process that led her down this path to embracing us.
Finally, Dolezal can become a vocal advocate against racial bias in the media. After all, as a woman who has lived both black and white in this color-coded society, she is uniquely positioned to speak on white-skin privilege and anti-black racism. Remember that racism involves perceived differences, whether those differences are real or imagined. And since Rachel was perceived as a black woman, not to mention with a black husband and adopted siblings, certainly she has lived black experiences that provide the flipside to her inherited white card status.
The media shape perceptions by perpetuating stereotypes of people of color and help create reality. Despite a black president and an increasingly browner America, Hollywood and the TV networks, controlled by middle-aged white men, still act like the good old days. Often, they pretend people of color are invisible, whitewashing our images, perpetuating the stereotypes about black criminality and inferiority, and keeping us out of the newsrooms and new media startups. Meanwhile, outlets such as Fox News engage in blatant race baiting to boost ratings.
This could be one of those teachable moments that will move the dialogue forward and help Rachel Dolezal in the process. There is no use in wasting too much time holding a grudge against a woman who has invested a great deal of effort advocating for the black community. Look around, and it is clear we can use all the help we can get right now. Black America is falling off a cliff into the ocean, tied to an anvil. Poverty is up and economic opportunity is down. When the police are not shooting or strangling us, they are abusing our teenage daughters at pool parties with the camera rolling. And fifty years after the Voting Rights Act, we are still fighting for our voting rights, as the Republicans are acting like it’s 1955.
So Rachel, we need backup, but now you know what you have to do.
Follow David A. Love on Twitter at @davidalove