For John, Tanya and Ronke who first paid me to write.
I made sure I was home, front and centre to witness first hand and in real time Rachel Dolezal’s interview with Emily Maitlis on BBC Two’s Newsnight. Astounded, I watched mouth agape as Dolezal spoke about her horrific, violent childhood and unapologetically continued to claim she was, despite the naysayers and indisputable facts, a black woman. Dolezal lamented her inability to gain employment since the revelation she was a white woman darkening her skin and wearing curly hair lost her job as the president of Spokane, Washington’s NAACP chapter. After the interview, Maitlis was joined in the studio by Guilane Kinouani to discuss Dolezal’s claims “race is a lie. How can you lie about a lie?” Kinouani spoke with truth and power clearly articulating “I remain sceptical in her inability to recognise her privilege as a white woman being able to occupy or inhabit the lived experience of a black woman.”
In 2015 Twitter dragged Rachel Dolezal to infinity and beyond equally confused and entertained by her story. African American celebrities like Keri Hilson jumped in front of the firing squad to defend Dolezal claiming “she's doing more than most of us do for ourselves” in reference to her work for the advancement of African Americans. Hilson’s ill-informed tweet then and Dolezal’s BBC Two interview tonight both work to do one thing; centre this white woman’s imagined blackness in front of and before the experience and work of black women. Echoing Guilane Kinouani’s astute point Dolezal’s feelings and desperation to be a black woman do not undo the fact that she is a white woman wearing black face and financially profiting from her construct of blackness in the form of her lucrative book deal- when there are black women who would not be afforded the same time and attention she has been. Whether it is her intention or not she benefits from the mechanism of white supremacy and her ability to commodify her imagined black experience.
I agree wholeheartedly with Dolezal’s assertion from her book “In Full Colour: Finding My Place In A Black and White World” that race is social and political construct but will not abide by her assertion this means she should then be allowed to, without scrutiny, become a black woman. The problem is, as Claire Hynes for the Guardian points to, black women cannot as easily put on a wig and lighten their skin, in the way she has darkened her skin and worn afro hairstyles, to become white women- this is where her privilege lies. Despite her name change if Rachel Dolezal decided tomorrow being black was no longer as appealing to her, she could simply straighten her hair and lay off the deep dark foundation. Furthermore the fact the name on her memoir is still Rachel Dolezal and not her new legal name, Nkechi Diallo, speaks directly to the fact that she fully understands the power her whiteness holds for the sales of her book.
I found it particularly galling the one thing Nkechi Diallo pointed to as the reason she believes she’s black was the unending violence she endured as a child, as if trauma alone is the root and signifier of blackness and the black experience. During their interview Emily Maitlis grilled Guilane Kinouani encouraging her to “empathise” with Diallo’s situation because Dolezal “didn’t have a life of privilege, she was abused and punished and brought up in a very authoritarian household and ostracised by a white community from wanting to be black and a black community for pretending to be black.” Childhood abuse is tragedy regardless of the race of the child, however it must be said again and again until you fully understand, the only reason we know so much about Rachel Dolezal is because she is white. Were she a black woman pretending to be white we this amount of media attention would not be heaped upon her. No calls for sympathy would be made on her behalf. Maitlis’ ludicrous conclusion “there are many people you could aim more anger at than a white woman who as you say had quite a traumatic childhood and found herself perhaps on the wrong side of a confused argument- does she really deserve to be treated in quite such vilified terms?” works to erase the validity of black women’s righteous, justified anger at this white woman making a mockery of our lived experience while also asking us to pity her when the same understanding is not extended to our lives and stories. While Newsnight centre the imagined blackness of an attention seeking white woman, right now there are an alarmingly large number of young black girls missing in Washington, DC and 276 of the Chibok girls abducted by Boko Haram haven’t been rescued. I don’t care about her activism and wont applaud her for doing work she chose to do. The continued parading of her, asking black women to affirm her experience is an insult when we still fight for the sympathy and visibility so freely granted to Rachel Dolezal.
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