Why Black America Doesn't Get to Define Blackness ... Or... In Defense of Rachel Dolezal


"Transracial" isn't a thing, and race is not a social construct. Let me explain...

By now, we've all heard of Rachel Dolezal. Yes, she is president of her local NAACP branch. Yes, she was recently outted by her white parents. Yes, she has been deceptive about her racial heritage.

But transraciality doesn't exist. So people need to stop it.

Let me get transracial out of the way first. The notion of transraciality is immensely reductive and insulting to our trans sisters and brothers. To insinuate that Dolezal's deception is in some way equal to the pain of being trapped in the wrong body is just plain wrong. Trans people are not lying about the conundrum of their physical identity; Rachel Dolezal did.

Rachel Dolezal's decision to occupy blackness was based on her appropriation of Blackness, meaning, it was learned through experience and exposure. Her racial identification is not an authentic or intrinsic element of her being, as would be the case for our trans sisters and brothers. For our trans sisters and brother, gender identification is authentic. It is not learned or appropriated (in the traditional sense). It is intrinsic to their humanity.

The issue that is at the heart of the transracial and transgender conversation is identity. Authentic versus manufactured (or appropriated). Transgender identity is authentic. It is not related to financial gain or prestige. Transgender identity is about making your outside match your inside in more than a performative/appropriated manner. Period.

Let's move forward.

When we look at examples of other white women who have sought to "transition" to blackness (in terms of cultural appropriation), we see glaring examples of financial gain and/or prestige. White women performing the cultural music and affect of blackness (ahem Iggy Azalea) have gained financially and in terms of prestige. Even Dolezal gained a certain amount of prestige in her appropriation of blackness. She became president of her local NAACP branch. She became a professor of African American Studies. She arguably became one of the leading advocates for social justice and equality in the northwest US (or was on her way to being so). Would Dolezal have been able to accomplish all of this without physically appropriating black culture? Of course! But she would have remained an outsider. With a black face, she was able to automatically gain credibility for the cause.

Was it the credibility that she wanted? She could have been an exceptional ally without appropriating black culture, so was it the credibility that was her selling point? We won't know until her book and movie deal (because, yes, she's white, so she wll get to tell her story and the stories of black women).

Back to identity and my premise on Blackness. Transraciality does not exist. Rachel Dolezal isn't transracial, she an appropriator of Blackness. In and of itself, that ain't so bad. By embracing Black culture, she has educated her community. She has fought for Black people in Spokane. She has been a great advocate for civil rights and social justice.

But what is Rachel Dolezal's identity? So many people are railing against her appropriation of and identification with Blackness, but in doing so, they aren't defining "Black". If you've taken AfAm Studies 101, you've undoubtedly been taught the standard: that race is a social construct. But what is a social construct? It's something that society has a hand in defining. Social constructs are created by human choice, interaction, and present moment in history. If this is the case, then by definition, Rachel Dolezal has the ability to lend her voice in defining race, and can therefore self identify as black.

Do you see where I'm going? If race is a social construct, then Rachel and others can actually identify as black if they were to develop a vocal enough group. Blackness would have no true definition and would be linked to the colloquial understandings of the time (which I'm afraid to say, seems to be how we understand race right now...)

But consider this - in the UK in the 1990s, South Asians and Irish began to identify as Black in terms of political struggle. And Black Brits accepted and engaged with them as Black people. *1

Consider this - the first Haitian Constitution recognized and accepted white women who were down for the cause as being Black. *2, 3

Say what? Blackness hasn't always been about my great great great grandmama working on a plantation?

Naw, suga.

Blackness was recognized as a political identity - one rooted in oppression and subjugation, one routed through shared histories of a struggle for political agency and equality, one defined to include more than the African Diaspora.

So what is race and who is Black? I write here that race is "a concept, created to uphold white supremacy and justify governance and subjugation," and that Blackness "ain't got nothin to do with skin color."

When I used to work at America's Black Holocaust Museum and gave tours to groups, I always started with this exact line, "Do you think that one morning, the entire population of the African continent woke up one morning and collectively announced, 'Hey, let's call ourselves Black from now on!'?"

Do you see where I'm going? They didn't self identify as black. They were Hausa and Igbo and Ashanti and Zulu. Black people were identified as black in relation to the whiteness (read, white supremacy) of the white colonizers. And remember, white people colonized the entire world.

White people made us Black.

Let's backtrack. Race can't be a social construct, because all it would take to dismantle our physical notion of race would be for enough "outsiders" to identify as Black. And race is defined through white supremacy, which ultimately means that race is linked to violence, patriarchy, and oppression. There were Whites and everyone else. Race is intrinsically tied to exclusion. Yikes!

So who gets to define Blackness? Black America wants that distinct honor, so much so, that it often excludes the experiences and voices of our family within the African (note, I did not say "Black") Diaspora. Blackness is not based in cotton picking slavery in the rural American south. Blackness is not based in the blues or jazz or gospel or hip hop. Blackness is not skin color. Blackness is not ancestry. Blackness is not a social construct, defining itself with colloquial connotations.

Blackness is the opposite of colonial whiteness. Blackness is rooted in politics and routed through the many oppressed and subjugated populations of the world.

Remember, Haitians included white women in their definition of Blackness.

So back to Rachel. We got our intellectual Black panties in a bunch because a woman who is down for the cause turned out to be white. Yes, Rachel told a lie about her physical appearance and heritage. But if race isn't a social construct, and is defined in terms of exclusion and oppression, then is it fair to immediately write her off as not having some element of Black Identity? I don't venture to say that Rachel is Black. But Rachel Dolezal does have a Black Identity. In purely political terms, Rachel Dolezal's identity is rooted in Black politics. She has embraced and identified with and championed the politics of Blackness for years. (Remember, South Asians and Irish self identified as and were considered Black politically.) She is also a white woman, a member of an historically marginalized population.

According to the first iteration of the Haitian Constitution (from which I pull heavily when navigating the political landscape of Blackness. More on that in another post, but you should do some research on the Haitian political landscape pre and post war for independence), Rachel Dolezal could have a Black Identity.

Ultimately, we can't claim that race is a social construct, and then get pissed off when someone decides to socially construct themselves as a Black woman. We can't have our cake and eat it too. If race is a social construct, then Rachel Dolezal can have a Black identity. Also, because race is rooted in the history of white (read "white male") supremacy, all marginalized and oppressed people who identify with the politics can have Black identity.

And one more thing. While I think the "transracial" argument is nonsensical, I do see one parallel. People with rigid understandings of gender want to exclude our trans sisters and brothers from the conversation, telling them that they are confused or crazy or that their identities have to be solely male or female. They don't allow room for nuance or individual political or social expression. They don't allow room for international historical interpretations of gender (two spirit, etc). They want to define and legislate something that is far more complex than they can imagine.

Why would progressive intellectual African Americans want to follow in their footsteps? I'm not saying you have to agree with me. But I am saying that you should evaluate the global and historic definitions of Blackness and race before vilifying Rachel Dolezal. "Blackness" could have way more allies if we were more inclusive.

Just sayin.

***

1: (https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_British#Terminology) Historically, the term [Black British] has most commonly been used to refer to Black people of New Commonwealth origin. For example, Southall Black Sisters was established in 1979 "to meet the needs of black (Asian and Afro-Caribbean) women".[5] ("Asian" in the British context usually refers to people of South Asian ancestry).[6][7] "Black" was used in this inclusive political sense[8] to mean "non-white British" – the main groups in the 1970s were from the British West Indies and the Indian subcontinent, but solidarity againstracism extended the term to the Irish population of Britain as well.[9][10] Several organisations continue to use the term inclusively, such as the Black Arts Alliance,[11][12] who extend their use of the term to Latin America and all refugees,[13] and the National Black Police Association.[14] This is unlike the official UK Census, which has separate "Asian British", "Black British" and "Other ethnic group" self-designation entries.[15] Due to the Indian diaspora and in particular Idi Amin's expulsion of Asians from Ugandain 1972, many British Asians are also from families that have spent several generations in the British West Indies or Southeast Africa.[16]

2: (http://www2.webster.edu/~corbetre/haiti/history/earlyhaiti/1805-const.htm) THE 1805 CONSTITUTION OF HAITI

3: (https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Constitution_of_Haiti) Constitution of Ayti (1805). First constitution of Haiti proper. Created a non-hereditary empire under Dessalines. This constitution provided for freedom of religion, banned most whites from citizenship or owning land in Haiti, and declared all citizens "black" in an effort to end racism based on lightness of skin.

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