Cultural Appropriation Part Two: Rachel Dolezal

Have you heard of Rachel Dolezal? I hadn’t until I watched a documentary about her life called, “The Rachel Divide”. She has changed her name, but for clarity in this article, I’ll refer to her as Rachel Dolezal. She is infamous in the United States for representing herself as a black woman even though she was born biologically white. She lead activist campaigns and Black Lives Matter demonstrations in Spokane, Washington where she was a leader of the NAACP. This ruse went on for years until the truth was finally revealed by her biological parents. In this article, I’d like to reflect on racial identity, cultural appropriation and muse on why Rachel Dolezal “identifies” as being black.

Rachel Dolezal caused an epic scandal because she had the audacity to claim that she was black because it was her racial preference; it was not her actual experience. She said she was “trans-racial”, (claiming it was the equivalent of being transgender). The problem with that comparison is that transgender people undergo an initiation process that Dolezal never experienced. Trans people commit to the gender that they identify as through physical and psychological alterations. They have to take hormones, complete surgery and face harrassment by strangers (they have to transition slowly, they dress as the opposite gender for a specified period before the surgery). They’ve been beaten, raped and killed for being transgender and some have committed suicide out of depression. Rachel Dolezal’s “transformation” in comparison is so superficial, that it’s barely noticeable and it’s easily reversible. Styling her hair in blonde extensions, wearing: wigs, scarves, headwraps and turbans designed for black women or spiral perming her blonde hair doesn’t make her black. Most people wouldn’t have thought she was black because of her appearance, she fooled people through outright deceit and took advantage of the NAACP that trusted her as one of their own. Her job belonged to an authentic black person; they’re the ones who deserve to represent their cause. Dolezal the privileged white fraudster pretending to be black, had no right to lead an organization founded by and advocating justice for black people.

The actress, Bo Dereck exemplified white privilege when she wore her long blonde hair in cornrows in the movie “10”. She started an obnoxious trend of cornrowed white women during her five minutes of fame, but she had the sense to know that having cornrows didn’t make her a black person. But that’s not the case with Dolezal, who seems to think hairstyle is the only requirement for inclusion in black culture. She said that she identified as being black since she was a child, her example was that she always chose the “brown crayon”. But as a child, she was never discriminated against because of the color of her white skin or for having straight, blonde hair in the predominantly white culture that she belonged to. She never witnessed her parents’ struggle against racism, and never had anyone call her a n——. Instead she said that she witnessed her adopted siblings (who were black), being beaten and abused by her racist family. But witnessing racism isn’t the same as experiencing it directly. Witnessing violence and trauma is traumatizing within itself, but it leads to a different type of pain, perhaps a form of survivor’s guilt or PTSD. But I think Dolezal’s true motivation for identifying as black is from white privilege guilt. She didn’t want to identify with her bigoted abusive family, but claiming to be black was an insult to black people. She never earned the inclusion. If she suffered from the effects of racism in her family, it was an indirect experience. She was not the victimized target, her black siblings were. She didn’t have to eradicate her true racial identity in order to avoid bigotry.

Screenshot image from The Rachel Divide, Netflix 2018

What Dolezal was doing is cultural appropriation, whether she understood her motivations or not. Cultural appropriation is the institutionalized theft of customs, art, music, dance, style, traditions, cultural identity from one culture to another without acknowledgement, credit or understanding. It’s been the common practice of Colonizers to take the discoveries and inventions of the colonized minority and claim those discoveries as their own. I think this theft reflects racism at it’s core. The ruling white majority never acknowledged the original artists (unless they belonged to their race) because of the insane belief that their race was superior. Throughout history they stole the concepts or style of the original artists by replicating and re-marketing a white-washed version. Remember whiter than white, Vanilla Ice pretending to be from the ghetto? He was an embarrassment not because he was a caucasian rapper, but because he was a fraud. The show “Glee” (with a nearly all-white cast), embarrassingly featured his one hit song on an episode. It was as corny as Pat Boone in a leather jacket on MTV, the middle aged caucasian actor was rapping, “Ice, ice, baby” as if it were a broadway show tune, more than two decades after Vanilla’s false identity scandal ended his career. Being black is not an identity that can be bought or pretended. It’s a painfully direct experience of being discriminated against in white America, it cannot be superficially faked or imagined.

Dolezal could have chosen to advocate for black activist causes without being a fraud. I think her way of thinking was illogical, misguided and on a deeper level, a racist act within itself. It shows the ignorant mentality of white privilege, it’s irrelevant that she believed she was helping black people. She didn’t have to pretend to be black in order to help their cause. She faked being black because it suited her guilt ridden psychology, it allowed her to dramatically distance herself from her bigoted family and it allowed her to undeservingly be a prestigious leader of the NAACP in Washington.

Here’s a link to her semi-nude photo shoot (which she intended as proof of her black heritage), but a fake sun tan isn’t fooling anyone anymore: