A curious story surfaced recently, when the parents of Rachel Dolezal, an American civil rights activist, revealed their daughter to be a white woman ‘passing’ as black. With racist ideology still embedded in American society, this triggered a national conversation, raising issues which I will aim to address as respectfully as a white, British, cisgender woman can. Is this a case of fraud, of cultural appropriation, or is her claim genuine and harmless?
Cultural appropriation can be defined as a dominant culture taking aspects of a marginalised culture without permission, removing them from their proper context and warping their original values and associations; white people wearing Native American headdresses is a classic examples of this. It is clear how Dolezal’s actions, most noticeably her African American hairstyle, can be seen to constitute cultural appropriation. Some people have excused her because of her charitable pursuits and contributions to the African American community. Nevertheless, whilst this is indeed admirable, it is equally possible to argue that Dolezal didn’t need to be black in order to achieve this; as a white woman, her efforts would still have been highly effective in battling racial oppression. Moreover, her roles as professor of Africana Studies and branch director of the Spokane National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) demonstrate how she has abused positions of trust and power within the African American community.
Some believe Dolezal’s actions should not matter, if race is viewed as a social construct. However, whilst it is true that the concept of race within humanity is biologically false, racism undeniably still exists, and we cannot abolish racism by claiming to be colour blind. Dolezal’s actions are problematic because of the history, power and social values which have been attached to race. She did not grow up experiencing first-hand what it is to be black in modern America. Furthermore, she had the option to denounce her ‘blackness’ and revert to the safety of ‘whiteness’; in fact, her dedication to the African American community seems dubious in the light of the lawsuit she filed against Howard University for anti-white discrimination in 2002. With white people fixed at the top of the societal hierarchy, it seems unjust to claim ‘blackness’ if you are white.
Related to this is the suggestion that if celebrities such as Beyoncé and Nicki Minaj can be sport blonde hair, then why can’t white women mimic black women? The problem here is a misunderstanding of the difference between appropriation and assimilation. Mainstream beauty standards, particularly for women, emphasise whiteness: light skin and smooth hair, for example. It is this demand to assimilate which contributes to the use of skin lighteners and chemical straightening in black communities. During the 1960s, this was countered by the ‘black is beautiful’ movement, a celebration of cultural expressions like ‘natural’ black hair and West African-inspired fashion, which goes against the grain of white beauty standards. This defiance of mainstream values acts as a celebration and reinforcement of a marginalised identity, and an act of anti-establishment protest; Dolezal’s appropriation of this cultural property only devalues it.
Incorrect comparisons have also been drawn between Dolezal and Caitlyn Jenner, the transgender athletic champion whose post-transition photo shoot was published shortly before Dolezal’s story came to the attention of the press. It is, however, erroneous to treat gender and race as interchangeable, as although both are social constructs, they operate very differently. According to Meredith Talusan, gender and transgender experiences feature historically throughout human society, whereas race is an invention of medieval Europe, intended to condone slavery and perpetuate colonial power. Transgender people are the gender they wish to present as and/or transition to, despite the terrible consequences of transphobia. Dolezal may identify as black through exposure to black culture, but she has been able to choose whether or not to use the ‘blackness’ she identifies with, and has benefited politically and financially from this flexibility.
As a white British cisgender woman, I will never fully realise what belonging to the African American or transgender communities means. The same applies for Dolezal. She may have grown up with adopted black brothers, become a professor of Africana Studies and married a black man, but she will never be an African American woman because she is white, both in phenotype and upbringing. White supremacy exists; therefore, racial fluidity cannot.