On the Irrelevancy of Rachel Dolezal

The internet is ablaze with the widely circulated story of Rachel Dolezal, a woman from Spokane, WA who after years of passing herself off as black, has been revealed to be a white by her own parents.

As Steven W Thrasher said in an astute article for The Guardian:

“…the reason that her story is so fascinating to me and to the rest of the world is that it exposes in a disquieting way that our race is performance – that, despite the stark differences in how our races are perceived and privileged (or not) by others, they are all predicated on a myth that the differences are intrinsic and intrinsically perceptible.”

But that’s not the message most people out in the universe of blogs, twitter, and television seem to be taking away from the scandal. Instead of recognizing this as an opportunity to nuance our collective understanding of race, we are spending our energy mocking Dolezal because she was delusional enough to think that she wouldn’t get caught.

On twitter, the hoopla has taken the form of the hashtag #AskRachel, where people post questions from black pop culture and list multiple choice answers that black people ought to get, but a white person wouldn’t (You can check them out here. As much as I’m annoyed by the phenomenon, they’re funny as hell).

On the other end of the spectrum, people are expressing outrage that a white woman would be so absurdly presumptuous that she not only tried to pass as black, but also is raising black kids and is the President of her local NAACP – I mean really!

Y’all. We need to get it together.

If we truly believed what the so-called “woke” among us like to post on Facebook – that race is a social construct – then those of us who aren’t from Spokane or in the Dolezal family would pay this woman, and this story, no mind.

Because Rachel Dolezal is small potatoes. She’s a distraction. So what if she passed as black for a bunch of years? At least she used that time to participate in the struggle for civil rights through her service to her local NAACP. Is her net contribution to the black community any less than somebody like Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, who uses his position to actively tear down policies that the black community so sorely needs?

Thrasher’s point that Rachel Dolezal’s strange racial charade shows us the artificiality of race, should also remind us that in our work to ultimately tear down those categories, we must avoid playing harmful identity politics.

As much as race, class, sexuality, etc. are important in terms of how we engage in social justice work, what’s most important is who’s doing the work. And it seems as if Dolezal was not only doing the work, but also went about it in a way that garnered her respect in her local community.

And so as we waste our energy debating the meaning of why a random white woman tried to pass as black – what are the costs?

One of the costs is that we’ve redirected our energy away from the black folks being murdered by the white supremacist system that gave someone like Dolezal the gall to think she could become a black person.

We’ve focused our attention on a random white woman.

While black people are out here dying and protesting and fighting for justice.

Let that sink in. Then let’s get it together and refocus on what actually matters.

by Eshe Sherley 

One comment
  1. While I appreciate the perspective, I found it pretty belittling. I like to think that even the minor players effect the overall impact. And while Rachel may be just one woman (so is Abigail Fisher…) she has ushered in a new chapter of racial politics that can’t be ignored if only for the fact that it adds an interesting new chapter/layer/dimension. Her strategy/identity(?) could change who our allies/antagonists are and how they conduct themselves in strategically black spaces…

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