The Politics of Passing: Rachel Dolezal is a Living Case of Plagiarism
In the days since Rachel Dolezal’s infamous interview exposed her lies, we’ve dug for answers to our confusion, laughed at the memes created by social media and questioned our definition of race. We’ve come up with a plethora of questions every Black person should proverbially be able to answer, including everything from Tommy’s occupation on Martin, pointing to “the kitchen,” and singing the second verse of “Lift Every Voice.” I scrolled through the #AskRachel tweets and laughed with the questions I could answer, remaining unbothered by the ones I couldn’t. Blackness has little to do with trivia. All of the answers to these questions cant be found perusing printed text or Google. I have learned how to clean my Jordans with a toothbrush, to know my momma’s Crisco can didn’t actually hold Crisco, to pat and not scratch my scalp, and to eat black-eyed peas for New Year’s had little to do with wearing braids in the summer. My Blackness is not a circumstance of isolated events and ideas, compartmentalized in a vacuum, exorcised from context so that I can freely conjure up Blackness in the matter and moment I am inclined. My racial identity is the result of experiences, attitudes, perceptions and practices built from being beholden to a body that is uniquely vulnerable to the whims of a socio-cultural matrix of institutions that propagates itself by never giving me the room to exercise my full right to define myself on my terms.
We see this everywhere. When Beyoncé took a selfie showing off the full lips she was born with, she was accused of copying Kylie Jenner’s purchased pout. When Nicki Minaj hit the scene, she was consistently called the “Black Lady Gaga” for her pink wigs and provocative style, despite it being the signature Minaj was creating for herself in the legacy set by other Black female MCs such as Lil’ Kim. In the continual movement of our right to be “carefree,” kids such as Willow and Jaden Smith continue to confound for the very fact that their form of existence is never expected for little Black boys and girls, but rather for their White counterparts.
The rule in society is that we are to be contained and emptied. Whether this comes up in social commentary that credits any and all of our cultural innovations, or as the national guard confronting peaceful Black protesters with military-grade weapons in the wake of racial injustices, it makes no difference. The message is the same:
“You don’t have shit. You don’t own shit, not even the shit you created yourself.” – Azealia Banks
Azealia Banks’ words ring true just as much for the state of hip hop as they do to the very breaths we take and give with our bodies. For everything and anything that we do as Black people, we are and have always been at risk to have it and ourselves taken away.
This is the one thing that remains unique to the African-American experience — our proximity to death. And even that is not on our terms. As we are shown time and time again, our dead are denied the dignity to rest in peace — at least not until the media and the general public have decided they are done crucifying our corpses. It matters not whether the dead have actually done anything at all, let alone something wrong.
Here lies the limit. Here stands the reason W.E.B. DuBois, scholar and co-founder of the NAACP, could write in Dusk of Dawn (1940), “The concept of race lacks something in personal interest, but personal interest in my case has always primarily depended upon this race concept.” Here lies the root reason why Chris Rock could look at his audience and say, “There ain’t a White man in this room who would change places with me. None of you. None of you would change places with me, and I’m rich!” Here is the source for the classic Paul Mooney adage, “Everybody wanna be a nigga, but nobody wanna be a nigga.”
Dolezal casually slipped herself into this reality and just as casually slipped out, which is what makes her 10-year stint as a Black woman a masquerade, one that is both insidiously disingenuous and dangerous.
For all the ways loss emerges as a precondition of Blackness in a system of White supremacy, Dolezal has lost nothing she did not willingly relinquish and that she could not get back. There is something to be said of the problem of her parents publicly outing her through shame, especially as we find ourselves less than two weeks out from the news of a Washington teen who took her life after being publicly shamed by her father online. But the embarrassment Dolezal has incurred at their hands is inextricably linked to her choice to defy the patterns of inheritance that racial identities are expected to obey. As the biological offspring of two people who self-identify and are recognized by society as racially White, Dolezal is expected to do the same. For most of her life, she did. The “problem” here is that for the past 10 years she hasn’t. She faces the similar shaming Justin Bieber faced when Sharon Osbourne chimed in on Bieber’s “bad boy” activities two years ago. Just as Osbourne sought to steer the budding pop star away from his then version of himself for not “realiz[ing] he’s White and not Black, that’s a huge problem,” so too the Dolezal’s find “it is very disturbing that she [Rachel] has become so dishonest.” In each case the goal of the elder is to rescue a younger White person from catching the residual negative effects of Blackness they were never meant to possess, as they simultaneously guard the idea of White purity and the myth of its superiority and security. Bieber and Dolezal are consequently identified as being possessed by a false consciousness, that by merely accepting the “truth” of their identities, they could be exorcised from and return to their [former] selves.
Her body and the biography of her biology are her receipts.
Not only does this demonstrate how she continues to be White, but fundamentally how, regardless of her choices, she is not Black and is certainly not passing. While we continue to fetishize racial and ethnic ambiguity, that ambiguity is tied to how the uncertainty of one’s racial identity has been brutally policed historically in this country in order to empower and sustain the mechanisms of White supremacy born out of chattel slavery.
Enslaved African people were already being denied the right to their familial ties under the circumstances of their kidnapping from Africa to the Americas, only to have even their blood ties reduced to nothing at the whims of a White person who could sell anyone of us at anytime to anywhere they chose without accountability. This is one of the many reasons why, when it comes to ancestry, Black people don’t have receipts. However this was not enough to maintain the relationship of domination when it began being confronted with the faces of the children born from enslaved women and White masters. As a remedy, the “one-drop rule” was conjured. Blood suddenly became the arbiter of a genealogy of parentage accompanied by each parent’s respective racial identity.
Or at least one of them. The proverbial spectre of the “one” who was Black. Having any relative who identified as such was enough to discredit the descendants any claim to the rights of Whiteness, particularly the unencumbered mobility and the wealth accrued in its name. This is how some of our ancestors became unnamed, and how others were able to name themselves anonymous.
And yet, despite all the labor meant to uphold this system, it was never guaranteed that the phenotype would match the biography of blood it was expected to assume. For those who looked White to the world but were born to someone of African descent, a unique situation emerged: follow your flesh or abide by your biography. The choice was theirs to make but it was not negotiable, and neither option could escape social death. Either accept it in choosing to be Black, or choose to be White and cut all of your ties to those who could out you for “fraud.” For everything that could be gained, this always came at a price.
You had to lose something. Passing has never been a matter of freely and fluidly moving from one racial category to another, but of the unique circumstances of navigating the inequality between them. That inequality does not go away simply because Dolezal self-identifies as Black; it is further reinscribed. By taking on a Black father, she makes a mockery of the historical practice of adopting people as our kin in order to maintain some semblance of relationships despite the world of her Whiteness that never resisted the opportunity to disperse us around the world like jacks without our consent. And despite the losses passing is supposed to precipitate, Dolezal has done nothing but gain. She’s accumulated “family.” She’s been given the position of heading a chapter of the NAACP. And even after being called out, the NAACP has not critiqued her for her embodied everyday performance of blackface, but instead rallied behind her.
Some arguments have sought to relegate this to living in an age where we can just “choose” our identities, as if choice hasn’t always already been weaponized as something bestowed to some who can deploy it to deny the choices, even the lack thereof, of others.
Dolezal has risked little more than her ego, but has sacrificed so many Black bodies in her name.
Because here’s the thing: for all of the ways I have tried to eloquently lay out how she is not Black, as a Black person, I will never be able to name her. None of us will ever be able to name her. Me calling her a fraud bears as much weight as me calling her kin. It means nothing when put in front of this White woman’s imagination, one that knows no boundaries that she does not recognize herself as creating, even if they are experienced and produced by someone else’s hands.
She is a living case of plagiarism.
After all of this hype in the news and social media Rachel Dolezal will be forgotten and actual Black people will continue to face the consequences of.
And, in the face of everything, we will, despite.
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