DISCLAIMER: I began the below blog post before the tragedy in Charleston, South Carolina. The Rachel Dolezal media coverage borders on the ridiculous in light of such a horrific incident. Joan Walsh has a piece sympathetic to Dolezal in context of the Charleston event here. On with the post....
At the risk of adding yet another opinion to the Rachel Dolezal maelstrom, I’m compelled to respond.
Starting at the ending first: Couching Dolezal’s adoption of a black persona and the corresponding physical transformation in the language that a transgender person* might use places race, sexual identity and gender on an equal and interchangeable plateau that I’m not sure can or should bear the weight of these vital yet vastly different issues. That Dolezal could assume the identity and legacy of an African-American simply because she wants to is entitled - uniquely white and uniquely privileged.
(*After reading this piece in the New York Times, I learned that the term ‘transracial’ pre-dates Dolezal’s appropriation of the term. In my piece, I’m referring to Dolezal’s use of ‘transracial’ not its more valid context.)
That said, I understand and even relate to Dolezal’s choices.
Back in the early 1990s when I was in college, many of us liberal-arts-minded folks loved the higher education experience so much that we wanted to become university-endorsed artists and college professors. I, for example, watched my creative writing instructor rumble down the mountain to teach—often stoned—two days a week and then rumble on back up the mountain to get stoned some more, and I thought,
“That’s the job for me.”
A university writer/teacher seemed like the ideal career choice.
Alas, I’m a white male, and there were two movements blossoming in the 1990s that killed the dream – the university-driven literary world was expanding the ‘canon’ by actively seeking out and publishing the works of women, ethnic minorities, gays and lesbians, and post-Colonial displaced persons, while at the same time the broader university system was in the midst of rectifying centuries of societal wrongs by favoring the ascension of female, ethnic, queer, and displaced candidates into their academic ranks.
Setting aside for a moment how these twin movements affected my own professional trajectory, I do support both of these endeavors: expanding who we claim as part of a literary movement or who can teach at a university are the right things to do. Representation is vital.
But one of the unintended consequences was that you had writers and teachers (or writer/teachers) brandishing how much they were oppressed by the dominant white male paradigm as a means of cachet, as a way of getting promoted. The more checkboxes of your damage that you could mark off—the more ways in which you were hurt or wronged—the better your prospects.
Some of the folks who benefited from this victimhood system generated output that deserved this special attention, and some, perhaps many, did not.
Rachel Dolezal’s decision to transform herself from a racial-equality-advocating white woman to a—ta da!—black woman echoes my own experiences in weird ways. There is in higher education a kaleidoscope ceiling. And if you really, really, really want into that academic world, and if you’re only as talented as the other three hundred candidates vying for ever-diminishing positions, there are few ways to distinguish yourself.
This doesn’t mean that we white people don’t have opportunities or that we can’t find ways of getting at our goals – options that marginalized populations often don’t have. But we have to be honest that while it is not reverse racism, exactly, the university has caused damage in trying to repair damage. Favoritism always excludes someone.
Rachel Dolezal and her claim of being transracial is the result.
And Dolezal’s choices have to be viewed in this context. However wrong-headed the execution, Rachel Dolezal tried to reverse-engineer the system, to game it back into favoring her. All of this, again, driven by what I believe are her genuine sympathies toward African-Americans and their fight for racial equality.
Rachel Dolezal’s situation draws out complicated feelings of anger and understanding. A microcosm of our nation’s still despairing attempts at racial equality and acceptance. Adding ‘transracial’ to the dialogue, though, doesn’t get us closer to unity or to equality.