A Feminist Perspective of Rachel Dolezal // Elizabeth Louis
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The recent events surrounding race relations in the United States has prompted discussions around dinner tables, classrooms, in neighborhoods, social media, and other settings. One unique incident that has also fueled this discussion is surrounded around whether someone can be transracial which means “across or crossing racial boundaries.” I first learned this term when it was used during the Rachel Dolezal fiasco. Ms. Dolezal was the former president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Spokane chapter. Her identity came into light when it was revealed that Ms. Dolezal is a White American who has been identifying as an African American woman under false pretenses. She went to extreme lengths to “pass” as an African American woman by tanning her skin to try to achieve a certain complexion she perceived would represent being a Black woman. She changed her hairstyles to portray “African American” hairstyles such as braids. She also hired a Black man to pretend to be her African American father. Her intentional actions created a façade of the person she was trying to become. She used her privilege as a White woman to try to become another identity that she used for personal and professional benefits at the expense of being dishonest to the same minority communities she was serving. Even after the truth came out about her identity and information about how she sued Howard University, a historically Black college/university for discrimination when she identified as a White women, she still adamantly to this day expresses that she is African American. While I can appreciate Ms. Dolezal’s commitment to the African American community, it is disappointing and appalling that she that misinformed a community that has already experienced a history of mistrust from systems and people with political agendas. I do not believe that transracial is the right term for Ms. Dolezal and I am not sure that I even agree with the term transracial because as a Black woman I cannot say that as of today, I will now be transracial and identify as a White woman. Nope, nah, nada! It won’t work for various reasons! Some of these reasons are due to my phenotype and I do not have the same privileges as Ms. Dolezal to alter my skin complexion, to decide when I want to be part of the minority or majority community, I cannot change my kinky hair, and I cannot hire someone to represent as my White father. There are many racial groups who do not have this privilege to choose to be transracial.
I am still puzzled by how a White woman would go to extreme lengths to change her outer appearance, to engage in stereotypical African American mannerisms, attempt to acquire cultural traits that are part of community, while keeping her true identity hidden. How would a feminist perspective conceptualize Ms. Dolezal’s actions and her psychological state? I do believe as a feminist that it is unacceptable to disempower the population that you are serving by using your privileges to benefit yourself. I do believe that Ms. Dolezal put the populations she served in psychological risks because of the way she used the African American community to fulfill her own agendas and alleviate her insecurities about her identity. Also, it is important to recognize how complex racial and ethnic identities are and one cannot just turn them on or off because Ms. Dolezal jeopardized invalidating the lived experiences of African American women and other communities that she served by masking her true identities. I think instead of Ms. Dolezal writing a book about how to navigate between different races, I think educating White Americans or others who may want to use transracial and hide their identities, to critically think about the consequences of their actions and the impact on others. Whether you are a supporter or not a supporter of Ms. Dolezal, at the root of this matter, dishonesty, lack of transparency, manipulating a vulnerable group that you serve are unethical and invalidating. I hope that we can all reflect on areas in our lives that we may try to be transracial or cross certain boundaries that are not part of our identities to feed our own ego and insecurities, and instead be comfortable with our own identities within our own skin, hair, mind, body, and spirit.
Written by Elizabeth Louis