On Passing, the Performance of Blackness and the Rachel Dolezals I KnowBy Shanta Lee
Why do some individuals want to exchange their white privilege to be a person of color?
I am not a stranger to Rachel Dolezal. In fact, I’ve met many like her in my own life.
“I never liked the white man’s music,” one of my boyfriends once said to me. He continued, “For years I kept convincing my ex-girlfriend that the both of us would be able to produce a black baby.”
I heard this and just laughed at the ridiculous statements he made. Over time, I realized that John was serious about his feelings while he maintained his place in the social hierarchy as a white male from an upper-middle-class background while cherry-picking from what he perceived to be the black experience.
The plot thickened around internal/external racial dysfunction when I met my second husband, Brent. It was our third date and the first overnight. I awoke on Sunday and slowly proceeded downstairs in a half-sleep slumber as the tunes of Tupac reached my ears. I was surprised, but he did share with me that he’d spent a good portion of his life as a b-boy. As I greeted him with a look of surprise on my face I said with a joking sass, “What do you know about that?” He said the music was part of his videotaped collection of Yo MTV raps. Somehow this added some comfort, familiarity and a feeling that he might just get it, especially because his family included multi-racial members.
We shared many moments in our relationship in which Brent would disclose his passion for all issues involving race. In addition to our discourse about racial politics, Brent would share stories of his youth confessing his long-time desire to wake up with brown skin. “Sometimes I would be disappointed upon looking in the mirror and seeing that I did not wake up brown,” he’d say. I would laugh and ask more questions about his need or want to identify or connect as a person of color as opposed to being comfortable in his own skin as a white man.
The case of Rachel Dolezal is obviously more layered and complicated than some of the scenarios I’ve experienced, especially because Dolezal ventured to pass as a black woman. But I’ve always questioned why, like Dolezal, the individuals I encountered wanted to exchange their white privilege for being a person of color. I wondered if it was easier for them to envision a fantasy that did not match their reality—as I did growing up a black child.
I remembering being 6 years old, sitting next to my dad on our grey couch anxiously awaiting the upcoming episode of Charlie’s Angels. In between the flashes of Kate Jackson, Farrah Fawcett and Jaclyn Smith during the intro to Charlie’s Angels, I thought it was a good idea to ask my dad some questions about race, such as, “Dad when we get to heaven, can we change our skin color?” He answered tersely, “No.” Silence followed and I chimed in with another question, “Can we change our hair? Can we have long silky flowing hair?” My dad once again answered firmly, “No!” and more silence followed. Those questions were never addressed.
As an adult, I realize how troubling those questions were. Why was I curious about swapping out my skin color? Was I thinking that I, at some point, would get a ticket to ride a different train of racial reality?
Rachel still insists that she is a black woman. But at any moment (even now) she can decide to halt the extreme tanning, uncurl her hair and return to her previously scheduled life as a white woman. In other words, passing, even if it is called by another name, is very much a privilege.
I am not angry with Rachel and I can’t question her decision to stake a claim as a woman of color. However, there are nuances of the experience of being non-white that Rachel can bypass that people of color cannot.
Rachel can bypass the repeated stern advice from parents to “Keep your hands out of your pockets” while in any store—advice that included disciplinary action if forgotten. Rachel can bypass my experience of being a little girl in a supermarket with a cold and a tissue in my pocket, nervously looking at my mother to see if it was OK to break this rule just to blow my nose.
Rachel can ignore the feeling of constantly replaying various interactions wondering if she, at any point, portrayed the stereotype of a loud and sassy black woman. Rachel can also ignore my regular practice of negotiating and navigating moments of public frustration and anger for fear that certain natural human reactions would be interpreted as the “Angry Black Woman.”
Rachel can bypass feeling like an instant criminal (though no crime has been committed) upon the mere sighting of a state trooper or police officer behind her vehicle.
Learning how to navigate the terrain while living black in America is beyond “looking” or “being” black (and I am still not sure what those things mean) but it is also an issue of safety. And for those with the privilege of passing, these unpleasantries can be avoided.
While Rachel Dolezal may not be aware of these nuances, I do have questions in regards to her individual perception, reality and identity. How has she defined black experience in such a way to duplicate it? What does it ultimately mean to “feel” black if one was not born into that reality? Is Rachel Dolezal not entitled to her reality if she really did feel like someone else inwardly as opposed to what was outwardly presented? What did she see as the privilege in brown skin (beyond leading an NAACP chapter or teaching African studies) as opposed to the privilege she gained as a blond-haired, blue-eyed white girl?
I have no answers around this complex case of race and identity but there is one looming question that I do sometimes ask individuals who might be facing the same situation as Rachel Dolezal: Why would anyone truly want the reality or burden of being black in America, fraught with textures of internalized and institutional racism?
The truth is they don’t. However, the lucky few get to cherry-pick what works and does not work in regards to the black experience while perhaps navigating some other complex quandaries about how and who to be in the world.
Originally published in Ms. Magazine Blog