Let’s agree that Rachel Dolezal is a learned performer in blackface, an authentic one-woman minstrel show. But let’s also agree that black womanhood cannot be captured in a performance or in body image, skin tone, butt, hips and lips.
Whatever scandal is afoot the real problem is popular culture’s propagation of, and fixation on, the external popular representations of black women. The aggressive, sassy, erotic, weave-wearing and hip-shaking stereotypes of black women make it easy for the Dolezals and Iggy Azaleas to commodify and monetize black womanhood.
Over the years we have taught, lectured and written on a wide range of topics concerning the plight of black folk, but also the movements against inequality — from race, gender, ethnicity and identity to police brutality, civil rights and Pan-Africanism. So we approach this subject from learned places and spaces that are informed by our distinct and shared experiences.
According to her adopted black brother, Dolezal began posing as a black woman in 2012 when she relocated from Montana to Spokane, Washington, where, on Monday, she resigned as president of the NAACP chapter there. And while her facade may result in lawsuits or other legal actions, what is more troubling is that she appears to be an unscrupulous opportunist. Dolezal exploited images of black womanhood with the sole purpose of manipulating equality regimes and culture birthed in racial repression to advance her life while disadvantaging the very women she imitated and purported to represent.
She didn’t play the race card — she lived it!
In doing so she obscured the experiences and consequent identities of black women forged over centuries of struggle. Dolezal was married to a black man, has black siblings whom her parents adopted, graduated from the historically black Howard University, teaches a course on African-American history, and oh yes, used to do her adopted black sister’s hair. These experiences provided her with insights and apparent entitlements that informed her scheme. She may have single-handedly redefined the NAACP Image Award while simultaneously eclipsing Bill Clinton’s title as the “blackest white American.”
Blackness and its products have always been commodified and monetized, from the sale of black bodies to the expropriation of their labor on slave plantations; from the assumption of the ownership of jazz and other music forms to the attachment to wealthy hip-hop artists or entertainers that one sees in some white women.
What’s interesting about the Dolezal scandal is the way that she was able to commodify black womanhood by appropriating and authenticating all its signifiers particularly at the level of hair, and the performance of a black aesthetic. The current desire for buttocks and hip implants, or the silicone lip injections of the Kardashian family are easy to recognize.
And indeed, the aspects of many black women’s physiognomy that are negatively identified are precisely what white women who effect blackness select. Dolezal wears a variety of contemporary black hairstyles from curly hair of different lengths to locs and braids, to high headwraps with locs — Erykah Badu style.
In short, Dolezal concertedly studied blackness and her various experiences with blacks allowed her access into contemporary urban communities, even performing well enough to be elected local NAACP president.
Still, her appropriation illuminates glaring imbalances in race and power not automatically equivalent to its reverse — black women wearing blond wigs or bleaching their skin. In fact, the blonding of black women has become a staple of black women’s self-presentation, as the daily assortment of blond wigs on Wendy Williams demonstrates. But there is also skin lightening and nose reshaping among black women and men in the media. This made it easier for Dolezal, who with a few inexpensive tweaks, transformed into a mulatto of sorts.
Blackness is racial identity and consciousness, grounded in history and politics. The “passing for black” option at play suggests that “passing” will continue to be a popular topic of research for years to come as the ongoing consumption of blackness continues. In this case, Dolezal appropriated the widely accepted presentation of mixed-race black women in the media to her benefit.
While black, Jewish and white Americans founded the NAACP in 1909 in response to the horrific practices of white-supremacist terrorism such as lynching, current regional politics, at times, raises a number of troubling questions around awards and endorsements that need to be addressed. In the wake of the Dolezal scandal, we should all reflect on the greater meaning behind race, power and appropriation at so many levels and for financial and/or personal gain.
Carole Boyce Davies is professor of Africana Studies and English, Cornell University. Jeremy Levitt is distinguished professor of international law, Florida A&M University.