Rachel Dolezal is, after this week, a symbol to many African Americans of the separation of blackness from black people; to me, she is an example of how American society simultaneously devalues the individuality of black women and us as a community to the point that the performance of black womanhood is preferred over the people. If blackness can simply be worn or performed, then every white woman with a weave and a cause, every white girl with a snap and a little attitude, can supplant the lived experiences of what it is to become a black woman: the journey of discrimination, the camaraderie of sisterhood, discovering the deep sense of responsibility and weight of the world, and ultimately finding the inner strength and acceptance that can only be built through struggle.
Rachel Dolezal may have perfected her performance of black womanhood, and she may be connected to black communities and feel an affinity with the styles and cultural innovations of black people. But the black identity cannot be put on like a pair of shoes. Our external differences from the white majority might be how others categorize us as black, but it’s the thread of our diverse lived experiences that make us black women.
Dolezal’s specious claims to black ancestry and faux black identity could not have been sustained and she would not have been able to pass if black womanhood were seen and understood as more than skin – or weave – deep. Wearing black womanhood was apparently even enough for Dolezal’s “fellow” black leaders in Spokane, Washington, who turned a blind eye to what the wider world now recognizes as her all-but laughable claims of racial identity, whether out of fear of rocking the boat or plain Northwestern niceness. Her charade could have only been maintained in a town (and within a society) with simplistic, stereotypical conceptions of blackness – that blackness is a shade on the range on olive to dark chocolate, a set of idioms delivered in a cadence from which American English derives its slang, and any number of bodily characteristics or mannerisms familiar across the globe, among others. And yet, while black Americans have long embraced a diverse array of lineages as kin, simply looking the part and faking the rest doesn’t cut it.
Whenever I tell people I grew up in Spokane – a city in which only 2% of the population was black – I usually neutralize their confusion with a joke about how I was one of about seven black people, and five of us made it out. You see, black people aren’t supposed to live in small towns in the Pacific Northwest; blackness has been defined as an “urban” identity. But while the majority of black people in the United States still live in the southern states, and concentrations of black folks outside the south tend to be around metropolitan areas, neither fact accounts for the constant migration of black people toward economic opportunities, including to places like Spokane. Their migration to Spokane in particular may just have been the inspiration for the establishment of the original headquarters of the Aryan Nations 37 miles [60km] away.
I was born in the middle of Spokane’s first (and only) black mayor’s tenure: a celebrated leader who black people worked hard to elect, and example of “acceptable” black leadership, Mayor Jim Chase once told the local paper that he “never knew much discrimination in Spokane.” While that was perhaps true for him, it was not my family’s experience, nor the experience of the black people who lived through segregation through the 1970s in Spokane. Though segregation was no longer enshrined in law in the 1980s when I was growing up, black folks still lived almost exclusively on the east side of town and in the historical neighborhoods built for railroad laborers. My Midwestern white mother and black Puerto Rican father had moved to Spokane for college and defied the unspoken segregation by starting their family in a working class north side neighborhood away from the black enclave, but hoping for the best. My father left the picture shortly after I was born and my mother navigated the discrimination we faced in school and throughout town – I became familiar with the meaning of “nigger” quite early in life.
As one of just two black girls in my elementary school, my kinky-ish hair, brown skin, and athletic build were uncommon and, before natural hair was considered cute, little white girls would shame me about about the size of my “poofy hair”. Throughout elementary school, in the confines of my bedroom, I put champagne-colored slips over my head to mimic the straight blonde hair I thought I needed to fit in, and gently swayed it back and forth and dreamt of belonging – but I knew black girls could never be white. When I was 10, my father, to the surprise and disgust of my mother, took me to the JC Penney salon in Seattle (300 miles [482km] away) to chemically straighten my hair and get my eyebrows and upper lip waxed. The first black man in my life, and he taught me that being a black woman meant trying to conform to white standards of beauty.
But when I was 14, I gave up the relaxers and transitioned into rocking my natural kinky-ish afro. It instilled a new kind of confidence in me: I could not hang my head and wear this beautiful crown. My mother had not raised me to be an invisible, go-along-to-get-along gal, and, though I still harbored jealousy of my white peers with their incessant hair flipping, I decided to stand out instead of try and fail to fit in. I wore bright, creative clothing; I embraced my love of dance, of song, of sports, of speaking truthfully about race with little care for whether people attributed any of it to my blackness or to me. To be able to get to a place where I could be myself, I felt powerful: I wanted to do and be everything and, as I learned more about the history of the Atlantic slave trade, African diaspora, and white privilege, I wanted to tell these white people about themselves.
Realizing that I was hyper-visible and yet never truly seen, I started a club called Helping Overcome Prejudice Everywhere (Hope) with my brother. Each semester, my Spanish teacher would let me take over her class to lead my classmates through workshops on white privilege; it eventually became an established leadership course.
On the surface, I was successful, but I also longed for the recognition of fellow black people, including my few black male peers for whom I was seemingly nonexistent: all of them, including my brothers, were busy chasing the hair-flippers. We may have been teammates in track or they might’ve been my brother’s friends, but the boys who I thought would be my best chance at external validation as an attractive woman left me wanting.
In Spokane in general, I rarely saw black men coupled with black women; more than a few men in our small black community had white wives and girlfriends, while the black women always seemed to be single. Naive, I imagined that, on the tightly-knit east side, there were churches full of black women who were coupled with and loved by black men. But on the streets of Spokane, in the public spaces at festivals, in restaurants, and wherever else I looked, black and white men alike were always more interested in white women than women who looked like me; what I took from those years were that black women were far from desirable partners.
To be a black young woman in Spokane was, for me, to be rejected, isolated and left to find my own way. Becoming the black woman I am today was not about learning a performance, it was not about certain clothing or my hair texture; it came from first being a black girl, from the trauma of rejection and isolation and its transformation into a kind of self-taught solitary pride, from learning to preserve my own sense of true self.
Dolezal managed to put on an identity – that of a black woman – in a way that renders invisible the experiences that actually forged for us our identities as black women. She presented to the world the trappings of black womanhood without the burden of having to have lived them for most of her life. She represented us and gained status in both black and white communities as one of us, even though she could have worn her whiteness and talked to white people about their racism – something sorely needed in a town like Spokane.
Had she really understood the history of black women in America, Dolezal would have recognized that she is perpetuating a fetish for black women’s bodies that devalues actual black women while celebrating our parts when attached to the right (white) form. But she was not alone in this act of playing black and benefiting from it. Since black womanhood is apparently all in the look, our society would rather have white, former Disney pop stars twerk, talentless celebrities with enlarged backsides and their equally talentless siblings with swollen lips than celebrate the black woman’s form with the person who carries it. Black women learn that we are not desirable, that we are invisible, and yet we are imitated by the world’s Dolezals and in our popular culture. Little black girls like me could never have passed for white – and would’ve been ridiculed if we tried – but anyone with the right accessories can now seemingly claim to be black women when it suits them.
Spokane was, for once, perhaps just ahead of the curve: we might be moments away from declaring that simply wearing Black Woman is enough to be a black woman ... or even preferable to it.