Rachel Dolezal has shocked the world. Not really, but she has shocked America. After living as a black person for many years, the former president of the Spokane, Wash., NAACP was recently outed by her parents for actually being white. A disgruntled adopted brother described her shenanigans as a kind of ‘blackface’. Dolezal, a professor of Africana Studies, has created quite a stir in our race-addicted America. She has provided an obvious break in the endless stories about police brutality, the TPP and McKinney, Texas overzealous law enforcement of a public pool. Still, as Dr. Cornel West reminded us in 1994, race in America does indeed matter. Sistah Dolezal, in opposition to academic and political pronouncements, demonstrates that race has a growing rather than a declining significance. The media frenzy is stupendous, but the lessons significant. Here are five things Rachel Dolezal teaches us about race in America:

 

  1. It’s alright to pretend to be white, but it’s not alright to pretend to be black.

Race in America has a checkered past. Color defined opportunities. Color set limits and barriers on social, political, economic and legal action. People of European descent became and valued being white. People of African descent were labeled and dealt with being black. The few blacks that had light, bright or almost white skin would often shake off the scourge of being black and pretend to be white. They passed. In modern memory, many of people of non-European background simply assert that they are not black, but Asian or Brazilian. Whatever the case, these attempts at pretending to be white are met with little fanfare and few calls for accountability, veracity and integrity. Nobody begs or demands that the passers come home. They are not strange. They may be envied, but are applauded if they can make it out of blackness into the marvelous white.

 

  1. Bruce Jenner is a hero for changing his gender identity, but Rachel Dolezal is strange for changing her racial identity.

In June 2015, Bruce Jenner, a former U.S. track and field athlete, motivational speaker, socialist, television personality and businessman, came out as a transgender woman. He was assigned male at birth, but has the gender identity of a woman. As a trans gender woman, Bruce Jenner has not undergone sex reassignment surgery. In an interview with Diane Sawyer in an April 2015 20/20 interview, Jenner said that she dealt with gender dysphoria and views being a woman as primarily a matter of mental state and lifestyle. In the wake of her transition, Caitlyn Jenner has been applauded – almost heroified. On the other hand, Rachel Dolezal, in a reversal of James Weldon Johnson – the ex-colored man, adopted the mental state and lifestyle of a black woman and has been asked to give up her strange experiment and come back home to white America.

 

  1. Even though race is a fiction; in America, you can still lie about race.

Whether you’re Cornel West and think race matters or William Julius Wilson and think race has a declining significance, the truth is that race is a fiction; it is not real. There is only one race – the human race. There is no biological or genetic justification for our understanding of race in America. There is no naturally occurring white race or black race for that matter. Race is an artifice. Race is socially constructed. Race is a product of human imagination like Neverland and unicorns. Which raises an interesting question, if race is a product of human construction, why does Rachel Dolezal have to apologize for making her race up? How can you lie about something that isn’t real?

 

  1. You can have an affinity for black culture, attend a black college and fight for black people – just don’t let it affect you.

The image of Rachel’s parents asking her to come home, their cry for her to give up her strange addiction and lifestyle is symptomatic of the parents of 60’s white civil rights activists, Occupy Wall Street activists and Caucasian millennial hip hop heads. The sentiment is clear – read the history, watch the films, love the music and promote justice, but don’t let it make you cross the color line in any significant way.

 

  1. “Are you African-American?” is a question only white Americans completely understand.

Rachel was asked if she was African-American. “I don’t understand the question,” she replied. Frankly, I don’t understand it either. After moving through the labels of nigger, negro, Negro, black, Black American and now African-American, what’s clear is that the last thing that we need is another label for white America to use to group and limit people. The election of Barack Obama was supposed to be the end of white supremacy as a legal, economic and political agenda and the beginning of carefree colorblind living. As we move close to the end of his historic presidency, old fault lines and older questions remain: “What are you?” “Are you black?” Like Rachel, I don’t understand the point, meaning or need for these questions.


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