When I first heard the Rachel Dolezal story, my initial thought was, “this woman is crazy!” I laughed. I was initially amused – and confused – not upset.
The first significant question that came to mind was: Is the fact that Dolezal would go to such great lengths to advocate on behalf of Black people indicative of a profound commitment to Black causes and the depth of her desire to help?
Briefly, I gave her the benefit of the doubt. She has done good work. She’s a graduate of my alma mater Howard University and a member of the organization that, on Howard’s campus, introduced me to organizing and advocacy – the NAACP. Why be upset with her for trying too hard to fight for Black people?
I still do not believe that anything Dolezal did she did maliciously. I don’t think she intended to be disrespectful. I think, for her own reasons, she genuinely and desperately wanted to connect with the African American experience and to be a force for positive change. Nonetheless, after a a few laughs courtesy of Black Twitter’s always-poignant response hashtags and further preponderance on the long-term implications of Dolezal’s actions, I came to the conclusion that, despite her good intentions, what she did is incredibly problematic.
Indeed, Dolezal’s actions speak volumes about her commitment to Black causes – but what they say is how misguided her commitment actually is, and how little she understands about what it means to be an ally to a marginalized group.
Allyship is about taking a supportive role in efforts lead by members of the group to which one is an ally – centering them in the work, not oneself. It’s about, not speaking for the members of the group, but using one’s privilege and the platforms to which one has access to amplify their voices – allowing them to tell their own stories and to speak for themselves.
Rachel Dolezal, though, had a personal agenda that eclipsed her good intentions. In pursuit of the actualization of her “Blackness,” she sought to be – for lack of a better term, yet perhaps still used appropriately here – the savior of Black folk in Spokane, Washington. She wanted to be the one to speak, to make decisions, to give direction. She seized – under the guise of Blackness – as NAACP president, one of the few leadership roles reserved by Black people for Black people in Black spaces. And at a time when the perspective of actual persons of color is so needed in conversations about police policy and reform, she assumed a position as Spokane’s Police Ombudsmen, a post created to provide community oversight to police conduct and engender police-community trust. (How ironic that, appointed to a post intended to build trust between the police and communities of color, was a White woman lying about her identity.)
In doing these things, Dolezal deprived other, actual Black people of crucial platforms. She deprived them of the opportunity to tell their own stories, to bring needed perspective based on lived experiences to the conversation surrounding racial inequality, as well as leadership and direction informed by that perspective to the work of combating such inequality – things which she cannot do as a person who has never been Black before.
But Dolezal’s brand of allyship is also uniquely problematic because it involved performance Black face. Dolezal selected Black cultural markers – braided hair, African jewelry, garments, and head wraps – and, literally, wore them as a costume to feign Blackness. Perhaps most troubling, she donned Black pain and struggle to complete her act. She fabricated stories about her parents abusing her and her siblings based on skin color, alleged that she and her son moved multiple times in Idaho to escape the Ku Klux Klan and that each time KKK members found them and attacked their home again, and filed multiple claims of hate crimes with the Spokane police, none of which, police say, they can find any evidence. With this false personal narrative in tote (one which Dolezal, presumably, touted, in addition to the various leadership posts she had held within advocacy groups, as her source of expertise on the Black experience given that both of her degrees are in art – not Black studies) Dolezal gave speeches at events and paid lectures in her African American Studies classes about the African American experience.
Rachel Dolezal profited from pretending to be Black. But Blackness for actual Black people comes with costs, not benefits. While Dolezal can remove her costume when it behooves her to be White, Black people cannot remove our Blackness when it might behoove us to be something else. We cannot remove our Blackness when the police show up, or when we walk into a job interview, or walk into a bank for a homeowner’s or small business loan. We cannot remove our Blackness when we move into suburbia and attend a pool party in the predominately White neighborhood in which we live. We cannot remove it when we need to hail a taxi, or walk into a store, or pass nervous White people on the street at night. And because we cannot, we face discrimination, not rewards.
What Rachel Dolezal did is not allyship. It is anti-Blackness. Dolezal could have been an active member of the NAACP as a White woman. She could have attended public meetings of the Office of Police Ombudsmen and voiced her opinion. Instead, she chose to occupy positions of power herself, to displace Black people from Black spaces in an odd exercise in gentrification, when the interests of the people she sought to assist would have been better served with an actual Black person in her position. Indeed, I believe it was her racial privilege as a White woman that prevented her from recognizing this seemingly obvious point.
Allies – be they White allies to the Black struggle, straight and cisgender allies to the LGBTQIA struggle, men allies to the feminist struggle, or otherwise – must recognize that, no matter how much they have read, know, or think they know about a subject, as persons of privilege who exist outside of particular marginalization, they are never in a better position to speak about the experiences of the marginalized than the marginalized themselves. Listen to Black and brown people when they tell you about their experiences with discrimination. Listen to LGBTQIA people when they tell you about the ways in which straight and cisgender people erase their identities by imposing binary gender and sexuality standards. Listen to women when they tell you about the things men do that make them feel uncomfortable and unsafe.
The best thing that White allies can do to help Black and brown movements is to acknowledge their privilege, talk to other White people about White privilege and White supremacy, and use the platforms to which they have access to get out the message of people of color to other White people who don’t get it yet. Dolezal, by adopting a new identity and attempting to govern from within, did the opposite. She centered herself. And, in doing so, she became a hindrance, not an asset, to the movement.
Brandon Ellington Patterson is an editorial fellow at Mother Jones Magazine in San Francisco, CA and a contributor to NBCBLK. He is a graduate of Howard University. Follow him on Twitter @myblackmindd.