Of Sea Witches and Racial Appropriation
My friends keep asking what I think about Rachel Dolezal.
I know, I can feel the whoosh of wind from your eyes collectively rolling. But I do have thoughts and it’s taken me a while to do this because I wanted some time to look at the bigger picture. When the case first came about, it was a hilarious train wreck. Now with some time and some reflection, I'm not laughing.
I suppose I can't start any discussion of her without talking about gender identity too since people won't stop comparing them. Heading to the right, there were a lot of conservatives using Dolezal's situation to point out the hypocrisy of liberals. Then you have lots of woo-woo white liberals on the left mocking Dolezal so they could prove how understanding they are about racial issues. A bunch of tales told by idiots, full of sound and fury, Signifying nothing.
I'm gonna dismiss the comparison to Caitlyn Jenner. It's an understandable one on the surface, but it's fundamentally flawed underneath (much like Dolezal herself). Kaitlyn Jenner may have felt like a woman all her life, but until recently her experiences were those of a heterosexual male. No matter how she felt inside, she was still treated to all the privileges (and struggles) that came with being a man. So transition or not, she can’t speak to the shock of having her first period or being catcalled in middle school. She can't say that someone made her feel ashamed to be a girl who played sports. And no one made assumptions that her only goal in life was motherhood. She didn't experience those things and more importantly, she's not claiming that she did.
The trappings of race are not the same as the experience of race. Rachel Dolezal didn’t simply live a black woman with her cute ‘fro and an over-application of bronzer. She appropriated the hardship stories of living as a woman of color. And not only did she relish sharing these stories, but hers were the most harrowing. She claimed to be stalked by the KKK and that she was a victim of numerous hate crimes. Tales that now appear exaggerated or fabricated.
Make no mistake, Dolezal was grown and harvested in the same cabbage patch that spawned another famous pathological liar, Alicia Esteve Head, who faked being a victim of 9-11. Like Dolezal she was smart, educated and people valued her. But that wasn't enough for Alicia. So she crafted a heartbreaking story of bravery and loss. She claimed that families of 9-11 victims stalked and harassed her because she lived and their loved ones didn't. Her narrative was so powerful that other survivors felt guilty about their own grief because their pain paled in comparison to hers. Much like Dolezal did with the NAACP, this woman became the leader of her community. And as a voice for the World Trade Center Survivors’ Network, she really was a force for good. But she was also a liar who used the other survivors to fuel her narcissistic, parasitic desire for victim-hood and in doing so, she siphoned off compassion and sympathy that should have gone to actual survivors.
So when did the laughter stop in regard to Dolezal? It was about the time I watched a bunch of her interviews on YouTube. I spent far too much time listening to her talk about the difficulties of being mixed race and acting as a bridge between black folks and white folks. She went on for a long time saying that dating black people or having mixed children not give white people a free pass to appropriate black culture (okay I laughed a little here). On one of the videos she gave a talk on the history of black hair. After that, I watched a video where she talked about cultural assumptions and how she didn't feel safe leaving her house with her 'fro messy because she had to represent the race. A vein in my forehead pulsed when I read that.
My hair has been the touchstone for every act of hate that was ever perpetrated upon me by strangers. Growing up as the lone person of color in my itty-bitty town I experienced the things that Dolezal claimed as her own. Harassment, intimidation, violence. Powerlessness when I was punished for defending myself from acts of aggression. Every curl on my head is a reminder of being repeatedly thrown off the school bus for refusing to sit with the kid who punched me and called me a nigger. And thrown off again when I refused to sit with the other kid who routinely spat phlegm into my 'fro. It represents the counselor who straightened my hair. The dead animals in my mailbox. The unwelcome demands to touch. This tangle of beautiful, complicated hair is stubbornly knotted up with my feelings of worthlessness. Of ugliness.
I don't speak for all minority women, but if you spend a lot of time talking to us about our hair, there's a word that comes up a lot. Protective. We are always looking for the most protective hairstyle, the best way to keep our fragile, overworked, disparaged hair safe. I think that's an apt word. There are many blogs and videos out there about protecting our hair. And underneath the twist outs and expensive products these videos and posts have deeper meaning. They are about women of color communing about the pain of invisibility. We are rejecting the notion that our hair is ugly. We are telling each other that we are beautiful. And in doing that we are creating another way to protect our hair.
So Dolezal's smug claiming of the black hair experience makes me feel protective of all of us ladies of color. It also makes me want to scream, how dare you? How goddamn dare you steal our most profoundly painful experiences and shrug them on like a ratty old coat that you can cast off whenever you're sick of playing dress up?
I'm not mad about her hair or her duck-faced selfies. I'm mad because she appropriated the pain of being a minority to feed her ego. She absorbed our history, invaded safe spaces and then felt entitled to speak for us. It’s privilege at its very worst. This wasn't the appropriation of our looks, it was the appropriation of our stories. In order to sing, she stole our voices.
So, dear friends, how do I feel about Rachel Dolezal? Fuck that bitch sideways.
That's how I feel.