Sympathy for the (White) Devil: Can We At Least Try to Understand Rachel Dolezal?
We live in times of intense racial confusion, tension, and uncertainty. The curious existence of Rachel Dolezal reflects that confusion, tension, and uncertainty in an unusually pure form. But rather than use Dolezal’s emergence as a figure of national and even international controversy as a teachable moment to explore some of the pain and complexities of the current racial moment, we instead chose to cast unstinting judgment on Dolezal and her ideas from a place of unearned moral superiority and certainty.
I’m not saying that Dolezal is right, on any level. She’s not. She’s wrong. But to pretend that we as a nation and a culture aren’t also wrong in so many ways is a poisonous lie that has done minorities and the majority alike a terrible disservice and made racial progress considerably more difficult.
We are quick to judge and condemn, and slow to try to understand and empathize, and I’m not just saying that because I’ve spent so much time writing about Insane Clown Posse and its fans. So instead of asking what would lead Dolezal to behave the way she did, and does, even in the face of overwhelming public condemnation, or trying to understand her motivations we instead seized upon a rare moment of cultural certainty and unity as seemingly everyone on the left and right condemned Dolezal.
In that respect, Dolezal ended up accidentally performing a valuable service both by giving people someone to judge and condemn and look down on (the internet thrives on stern censure and manufactured outrage), something they have habitually always enjoyed, but also by providing a limit on Caucasian fetishization of black culture. Dolezal seemingly indelibly established that while it’s perfect fine for white people to express their love and appreciation and identification with black culture, claiming to be black is undeniably a step too far.
Dolezal gave the left and the right a lot to be enraged about. For progressives, Dolezal defiantly still professing to be Black even though there’s nothing in her genetic makeup to support that claim is the ultimate act of crass cultural appropriation. Dolezal wasn’t just appropriating black hairstyles; she was appropriating blackness in its entirety, and when called out on her appropriation, she doubled down on her claim of blackness.
Dolezal doubly ruined her standing with progressives by professing to be “transracial”, a self-styled designation that understandably and rightfully pissed off the trans community and played into sneering, mocking conservative’s conception of the trans community as mentally ill and delusional. Dolezal’s insistence that she is a black women similarly plays into the conservative narrative that racism now is primarily a matter of racist black people antagonizing guiltless white people. So the notion that a white woman would claim to be black even after her parents outed her as caucasian plays into the conservative idea that minority status long ago stopped being a negative and became so desirable and filled with benefits that of course a white woman who want to pretend that she's black, so that she can collect the infinite rewards that they imagine comes with being black in American society.
So Dolezal managed to piss off just about everyone. And if she had responded to the hurricane of media and controversy with an extravagant display of contrition and remorse there’s a chance that her story wold have played out very differently. But Dolezal did not apologize. She did not back down.
Obviously there’s something alarming and disconcerting about Dolezal’s inability to understand why her actions and ideas and words are offensive to so many people. Her inability to come to terms with the consequences of her actions borders on pathological, but so is our nation’s toxic history of racism and sexism. Perhaps that’s what we should be focusing on instead of scapegoating Dolezal, but it’s a lot easier to condemn one woman than to be honest about who we really are and how we live.
Any honest conversation about race in the United States needs to begin with an acknowledgment that we live in a deeply racist society, and that racism manifests itself in countless ways, both personal and institutional. Nothing shuts down, or distorts honest conversation or dialogue quite like someone professing to be the least racist person alive. When someone claims to be the least racist person alive, as noted racist Donald Trump has, it’s their way of accidentally asserting that they’re very racist, but also very invested in not being seen as such. Dolezal’s inability to come to terms with her own racism is tragic. Our inability to come to terms with our racism is infinitely sadder and has much further ranging consequences .
Cultural appropriation continues to be a tricky subject for a lot of people, who still cannot grasp how it can possibly be racist to be so enthusiastic about a culture or race that you want to emulate their customs and ways. Isn’t imitation the sincerest form of flattery? A lot of white people identify and connect with African-American culture. I know that when I was a hip hop- obsessed teenager, I spent a lot of my free time living inside the anger of the black rappers I adored and admired. I think a lot of people do. I can’t imagine how many caucasians channel their inner Jay-Z or Beyonce whenever they hit the treadmill. Obviously there’s a world of difference between being a Beyonce super-fan and being a white woman who tells the world she's black, but a lot of white people understandably feel self-conscious about their investment in black culture, and Dolezal allows those same white people the chance to say, “I might be in obsessed with black culture, but at least I don’t take it to those unforgivable extremes.”
I may feel differently about Dolezal after I read her memoir, which my wife tells me is #quitepoor, andwhich I’m planning to do for the Nathan Rabin’s Happy Place Literature Society, but I doubt that it will change my strong belief that maybe we should spend less time casting an angry finger of judgment at a woman who is as much a victim as she is a villain, and spend more time examining our profoundly fucked-up ideas about race.