Theory Teacher's Blog

The Obvious Question about Rachel Dolezal that Nobody Is Asking… and Why It Matters

The past week, the image of Rachel Dolezal has been almost obsessively posted, tweeted, hashtagged, social-mediated, and journal-ismed, prompting a flurry of anger to be directed at this one individual by other individuals of all racial backgrounds. Her story about racially passing as a black woman — perhaps most concisely and thoroughly summarized by this NY Times article — has clearly fascinated ever since her parents outed her white identity to journalists. Photographs have even inspired conversations about how she does her hair. Her long history as an activist for social justice for the black community, including her position as president of the Spokane chapter for the NAACP and her masters degree from a prestigious historically black university, has befuddled both mainstream media and black media that very quickly questioned her motives. This befuddlement has spurred the interests of academics such as myself. The philosophy blog DailyNous surveyed several expert professors who all raise important questions about how race has been historically and culturally constructed. Finally MSNBC host Melissa Harris-Perry brought onto her show the leading expert on “passing” — the scholar Allyson Hobbs, whose important book A Chosen Exile: A History of Racial Passing in American Life was published by Harvard University Press last year.

I think both the DailyNous and Allyson Hobbs have some very thoughtful things to say, and what I like about them is their openness to continue to wonder about the whole story that still hasn’t been fully told, rather than to quickly define, condemn, or defensively react. As Hobbs remarks, the story is interesting more for what it says about us and how we understand race than it is for what it says about Rachel Dolezal. However, there is an obvious question that I haven’t yet really heard anyone raise or address, and for me, the obviousness of this question is what makes it an important question: why, after all these years of Dolezal living her life and working for the NAACP did her parents choose this moment to out her? Why now?

Like Professor Hobbs, I wondered why they would choose to out their daughter at this moment in time, as I watched an interview with them, and then I realized — in fact, they didn’t choose. Rather something else happened that all this obsession with Dolezal’s identity has somewhat covered up. Back in March, Rachel Dolezal allegedly received death threats because of her work for the NAACP. The hate mail didn’t only threaten her life, but also the life her son, whose racial identity nobody is questioning (Dolezal’s ex-husband being black.) Back then, the story was all over the local Spokane news, eg., [here] and [here]. The local chapter of the NAACP released a formal statement and the community rallied in support. This is the event that prompted journalists to uncover her white identity and seek out her real parents for questioning.

So, if we revisit some of the angry response from some black individuals who claim that Dolezal can’t claim to be black because she hasn’t experienced racial prejudice, one could argue in response that she has. (I admit that the truth of her alleged experience is debatable, but you can check out a useful time-line [here].) In any case, the various individuals who threatened the NAACP clearly didn’t know that she wasn’t black. Legally, of course, in a case of hate crime, the actual identity of the victim doesn’t matter; it is the action of the perpetrator, however misguided and misinformed, that matters.

We might also wonder why the media is so interested in her racial identity rather than in the fact that the NAACP is receiving threats and being broken into. I don’t know if I’d go so far as to suggest that this is a classic case of shifting the blame onto the victim rather than the perpetrator (like blaming a girl for wearing a short skirt and questioning her identity as a chaste and upstanding citizen after she’s been raped), but there is a political context here. In effect, the media’s questioning of Dolezal’s racial identity was strategically used as a tool for undermining the legal case against hate crimes. Notice how this CNN journalist tries to imply that Dolezal was lying about the hate crime as well.

One thing we might well pay attention to is the statement by Cornell William Brooks, president of the NAACP, at the end of Melissa Harris-Perry’s show about Dolezal’s past “leadership” and the “work that she has done.” Although he rightly questions her “candor,” he does not question her labor on behalf of the local community. His point might give us the context to appreciate why Dolezal insists on the term “black” rather than the term “African American,” because as we know from the global Negritude movement and the Bandung conference of the 1950s, “blackness” has the connotation of a political identity (that includes South Asians in Great Britain, for instance), in contrast to the more racial connotation of “African-American.”  After all, the NAACP works for all people of color (including Native Americans, which, by the way, Dolezal’s parents did claim as part of their ancestry — which is significant especially for this specific case since Native Americans are a very visible community in Spokane’s history, including intermarriage between Native Americans and African Americans.)

It interests me that Brooks’s emphasis on the labor of social justice is so different from the theorizing of identity that we see in the media which effectively sidelines that labor and what that labor does. And it interests me because I think there is a deeper philosophical underpinning to all of this. Not only mainstream and black media, but also expert philosophers and historians were all caught within the discourse of identity politics and its generalities so much that they failed to notice the rhetorical situation of the specific event. In my view, they unfortunately got caught in the echo chamber of identity essentialisms that the mainstream media built around the case. If instead we focus on the politics around identity, rather than identity itself, then I think we might shift the conversation in a more useful direction. If we focus on the context for speech-acts, including the context of hate crimes, and the context of labor, including the labor for social justice, we might nudge the conversation towards a more human appreciation for the relationship between individuals and communities. We might then be less worried about motives and about the so-called appropriation of authentic identity. As academics and scholars, we have an obligation to move the conversation to more productive questions and insist on bringing to the foreground the context of a situation that the media might ignore or relegate to the background.


June 15, 2015 - Posted by | Uncategorized

1 Comment »

  1. Thanks Steve. I haven’t had time to really think about this. This has helped me resolve some of my initial reactions.

    Comment by Sallie | June 21, 2015 | Reply

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