The Dolezal Files Part II: Blaming Black Women in Academia

Call:  A recent PhD publishes an op-ed in the LA Times about why academics should “blame themselves” for Rachel Dolezal’s fraud.  The author leaks his disdain for black women, claiming that, “The notion of black people generally and black women specifically as inherently more authentic, more wise, or more connected to nature are alive and well in many academic and activist contexts.”

Response:  F. DeBoer’s belief that RD “clearly believed” that there were rewards for being a black woman in academic spaces may be legitimate.  Indeed, the perception of affirmative action and reverse racism was part of a cocktail of RD’s schemes.  Unfortunately, DeBoer, who seems to be staking his own territory as a voice of practicality/objectivity among starry-eyed leftist academic altruists, reads RD’s fraud from a place of skepticism about the role of activism and social justice appeals in humanities graduate training.

Perhaps, he simply can’t comprehend why PoC-authored texts and civil rights movements would be featured so prominently as a source of debate in humanities and social sciences fields when the “real work” of teaching writing and doing empirical research gets left behind. It is also possible that he is experiencing major tensions regarding the mystical world of graduate school where rigid professionalism and a shaky job market seem eerily connected to conventions of political correctness that censures failure by censoring budding graduate students’ ability to sincerely learn about what they don’t understand.

When I was in graduate school, I struggled to find meaning and purpose.  It wasn’t until I was well into my dissertation writing that I started to more fully comprehend the strategy of using activism and cultural sensitivity as persuasive appeals to gain ethos in uncertain terrain. It helped me understand why many people claimed progressivism in seminars and research articles, but had virtually no contact with black people/women in their ‘personal life.’ If RD learned anything about the life of a black female adjunct professor, it was that access to the black community would probably lie outside of academic spaces.

Similar to other graduate students of any color, sexuality, gender, or social class, I deeply felt the conflicting purposes and function of research.  Is it a public service, business, or recruitment/organizing apparatus?  How does the humanities “do” research and development, especially in relatively new, interdisciplinary professions like Rhetoric and Composition Studies?  In this hyper-sensitive climate, I am sure that folks who wanna get down to the ‘real’ business learning about “teaching effectiveness” and administering core college courses, race, sexuality, class, and gender discussions seemed distracting.

Throughout my entire higher-ed, I observed lots and lots of disgruntled white men who did not hesitate to disclose their sense of marginalization to me during personal and professional gatherings like happy hours, comps and diss celebration dinners, conference receptions, bar crawls, and invitation-only parties.  They did not consider their expressions hostile or invasive.  They were just ‘chatting.’ They did not have such conversations with others.  Just me.  And I was always the *only one!*

You see, DeBoer sticks to safe acknowledgments of racism (with no mention of sexism) and the business of discrediting black women’s accomplishments and abilities, as usual.  Instead of delving deeper into the connection between RD’s performance and the ways in which many white charlatans have benefited from a tradition of some academic’s romanticization of indigenous and diasporic cultures, DeBoer says its white Academia’s fault for the audacious belief in black women’s agency and intelligence.  In one fell swoop, DeBoer claims that YOU, white academics, are being duped by black women’s presence in YOUR space. He says YOU are fools for rewarding black women’s intelligence, for essentializing it, and allowing US in YOUR space.  DeBoer fails to mention that WE, black women, who have worked tirelessly for centuries for the one or few seats in predominantly white R1 institution’s graduate classroom spaces are so few in number as to not be part of the logics of his vindication of leftist flakes.  Yet, I am one of his colleagues, and thus, I am technically to blame for allegedly creating RD, her attention seeking behavior, and her unconvincing black female on-the-academic-grind drag performance.

Of course, few articles have been written about RD that bother to try to make sense of the immense harm she has done to black women.  Who cares about that when we probably faked our way through grad school anyway?

DeBoer’s article provides a vivid example of why we have always had to be more wise, more in tune with nature, and more kick ass than the ‘typical’ academic. Our experiences may provide a feast for white cultural appropriation.  Let us not be confused about WHO is rewarded when we talk about black women.  Hearing about Black women’s struggles from non-black women in academic texts/discussions is hardly the same as listening to a black woman connect her experiences to her research praxis.  If we study language, culture, and communication, WE BLACK WOMEN may seem more “authentic” because black feminist scholarship values experience and testimony as episteme.  Consequently, we don’t have the privilege of writing opinions about, ultimately, having no opinion about RD.  Fighting against your sheer existence as a crime and asserting dignity alongside professional recognition is simultaneously exhausting and alienating. The ‘notion’ that black women would be rewarded for trying to contribute to scholarship and transform its relationship to communities and lived experience is only upsetting to someone who takes issue with their presence in THEIR space.

If you are buying DeBoer’s specious claims about some vague, amorphous academia creating RD because of its misguided belief in black women’s magical power, think about it again.  DeBoer’s op-ed lacks context and a critical evaluation of black women’s status in higher education.  If we are rewarded so handsomely for bamboozling in Academia, do we make up the majority of academic space as faculty and administrators (relative to our actual U.S. population)?  Do we publish the most? Are we canonized as much as white authors of any gender? Do we hold the most tenured and tenure-track positions?  Are we paid as much as our white colleagues (regardless of gender)?  If these questions give you pause, it is because we continue to be woefully underrepresented in advanced positions in academia, law, medicine, science, and elsewhere.

I won’t contribute to the literature that attempts to rationalize RD’s behavior.  You can #askrachel about that.  I only care about four simple facts:

1.  A white woman claimed to be black.

2.  A white woman “passed” as black through the adoption of what she believed were essential markers of blackness, which included the articulation of lived experiences “as a black woman.”

3.  The act is categorically fraud and deception.

4.  How will RD’s behavior reveal and perpetuate indifference to and invisibility of the diverse range of black women’s experiences rooted in a common locust of control and fear?

If RD thought being a black woman would give her some cred in academic and civil rights groups, it is because those of us that make it in those worlds are intensely courageous, adaptable, and tenacious–precisely because so few of US do.


The Dolezal Argument Files Part 1: Why People Need to Stop Bifurcating the Law and Culture

Call:  One of my friends pointed me towards this article about Dolezal, in which Mystal echoes Terri McMillan’s inquiry about whether she would be “read” as black by the police.

Response:  One way that choice is taken away from those who have been raised in black cultures is legal determinism.  Mystal presents a valid critique of Rachel Dolezal’s deception.  Regardless of how many people seek to absolve her of any consequence for dabbling into grey areas of racial performance, Mystal astutely notes that her ability to be perceived as white by those who enforce the law undermines her claim to ‘blackness.’  Unfortunately, the article seems to obliterate human agents as part of the entire system that operationalizes race and surveillance.

Human beings choose to follow and enforce laws.  Legal perspectives are inextricably tied to the cultural perspectives, which are processed through lived experience.  Regardless of the power they exercise, law enforcement officials go through the same kinds of socialization processes as everyone else. Their upbringing, education, lovers, friends, professional training, and experience on the job influence interpersonal skills.  In other words, the way a person learns to categorize “people,” and “criminals,” and “suspects” will reflect and affect their capacity for understanding that criminals ARE people and that suspects are PEOPLE.  Whether a person makes decision based on new information, and processes threats as a compendium of diverse, nuanced variables, depends on the degree to which they have had to actually evaluate whether the way they perceive “others” and diversity and threats is justified or legitimate.
I understand that in a police state, “The perceptions of other people don’t really matter. Other people can be annoying or hurtful, but other people are a little bit like the Devil: you have to invite them in before they can do real harm. Cops, on the other hand, they can kick down your door. They can invade your personal space. They can pull you out of your own damn car and shoot you to death with legal impunity” (Mystal). It is a valid point about the power of the law. However, the law is law only as long as The People abide by it, or the Judiciary acknowledges precedents for it, but the people affect the daily rituals that involve our decision to regard or disregard “the law.”  The law is full of contradictions because however slow, it will change depending on the culture of law enforcement and judicial systems. This was certainly the case with Earl Warren’s court, whose landmark decisions about Brown v. Board and three cases that placed significant pressure on the enforcement of due process (Mapp v. Ohio, Gideon v. Wainwright, and Miranda v. Arizona) did not suddenly change public opinion about the “criminal nature” of ‘negroes,’ multilingualism, or the poor.  Then, as now, each category of persons is considered a social “problem” because some people continue to argue about whether they deserve to live or die on the grounds of their very existence.  However, the precedents established by the Warren court continue to symbolically affect how we talk about civil liberties, democracy, and race despite the fact that civil liberties have been steadily decreasing for individuals (because…terrorism.  And drugs.) and increasing for corporations
Race exists because once upon a time, the law said it did.  And still does.  Long after a law is overturned, laws continue to have a symbolic affect on culture and its interpretation of reality.  As many have noted during this Dolezal scandal (she lied and deceived for personal gain, it’s a scandal), the discrepancy between one drop rules and the fact of multiracial lineage enabled the law to be used when it benefited someone to use it.  In the case of racial laws, which construct a category that doesn’t actually exist, American culture consisted of twisted surveillance game.  Being recognized or dismissed by the powerful was as simple as a contamination argument.  Similar to the “red scare,” in which accusation of communist, anarchist, and socialist affiliation was enough to land a person in prison, one drop rules offered a wide scope for constructing images of certain persons as criminal and/or employee.  Gradients of dark and light skin served as a surveillance apparatus alongside facial features, speech patterns, and clothing, but ultimately bondage was based entirely on a wealthy person of European descent’s declarations of heritage and purity.  Of course, control over “perceptions of purity,” permitted certain kinds of people to be lawmakers and certain kinds of people to be law breakers.
I agree with the Mystal’s main argument, but I wish he wouldn’t so rigidly separate people from “the law” because it makes the law appear removed from the human agents choosing to interpret and make rules this way and that. I definitely appreciate that the article reminds us about the intense contemporary racial conflict that affects how Dolezal is “read,” but I am more interested in connecting the Dolezal conversation to a 2000 (+) years global narrative about the cultural theft and a prevailing rewards system that functions to eradicate any perception of Africa as a site of duty not exploitation, of black people as artists and creators, of black people as beneficial individuals with dark skin, or as part of a group. We will declare the source of knowledge and they will say, “But why does color matter anyway?” to preserve the old world and control the operational codes that define Self and Relation and World.  To end the censorship of black culture–as real, nuanced, valuable, and human–we need to ask fundamental questions about property and ownership.  No, race doesn’t “belong” to anyone, but experiences of being raced and experiences with race definitely do.  However, we’ve got to be able to talk about race in ways that don’t diminish the reflexive relationship between cultures and the laws that organize them.

Why Rachel Dolezal is the Raciest Fraud I’ve Ever Seen

Call:  After 9 years, Spokane NAACP president and Howard graduate, Rachel Dolezal’s family “outs” her for being a white woman.  AJC presents a narrative of distributed and centralized media coverage of the story.

Response: Rachel Dolezal’s claim to black-ness is deceptive because she used “blackness” to establish credibility in social spaces that would have been much harder to navigate if she had to experience the discomfort of actually being a minority.  

My issue with Dolezal is not that she is a white person, nor am I upset that she sought to study and presumably understand black culture.  My problem with her actions, based on the limited information that I have read about her, is that her acquisition of accolades, diplomas, and leadership positions were secured through an assertion of false competence. Moreover, she has made claims about experiencing hate crimes that need to be re-examined in light of her denial of her past and ability to justify her claims about being black.  This woman may have a histrionic personality, the race based equivalent of Munchausen’s, or borderline personality.  However, she had an agenda.  She *chose* not to do the most ethical thing, which would have been to acquire the same credentials while at least marginally acknowledging that she was “white” for a significant part of her life.  

Before I delve too deep into the significance of Dolezal’s rhetorical performance, I have many unanswered questions.  I wonder what made the family decide to out her. I am also intrigued by the way this event makes “Black Twitter” recognizable and evaluated by twitter and non-twitter users alike.  The “black community” is hardly unified about Dolezal.  I’m especially curious about some of the black people defending this lady.  Really? I mean, the fact that she chose to do blackface demonstrates a cavalier attitude towards getting caught, which is a risk endemic of whiteness. How sincere were her inclusion efforts when she knew that the exposure of fraudulent behavior could systematically reduce their impact? Was her inability to be “white” while advocating for black part of a superiority complex that led her to put considerable effort into scheming her way through grad school and believing black people were dumb enough to not see that they were being shimshammed?

From a black feminist perspective, she is dangerous because she fabricated an experience that we do not have the privilege of choosing. Dolezal entered sacred spaces of knowledge exchange by claiming experiences that did not belong to her.  One observable characteristic of blackness is the way “others” respond to our racialized experiences through denial and dismissal.  It wouldn’t have taken graduate study to realize that we are so sensitive to having our experiences denied that her claim to blackness would have been acknowledged even if it were doubted. Consequently, she was able to penetrate black (female) space. Unfortunately, Dolezal’s whiteness and benevolence blind some black people.  There are still many of us who are so regretful of their skin color that they will accept any expression of pity from a white person, regardless of its implications.

Do we need allies so badly that we should abandon all standards of self-respect? Sure, many black folks want to be white so bad that they have some kind of sympathy for this woman, and even loyalty–perhaps some are intrigued that she would choose to live as black to more acutely “feel our pain.” However, people need to stop trying to rationalize this woman’s behavior.  Insomuch as dhe did not fully disclose her past, she acted as a corrupt anthropologist, taking advantage of the fact that we tend to be very sensitive about the past (e.g. Black women’s belief in testimony offers access to a greater understanding of epistemology).  Black women build trust networks based on various, intersecting narratives about our relationship to reality as multiple identities. Through this culture and ideology, inhabiting an attention economy, she will probably peversely benefit through the concoction of another tale about race, gender, and psychology.

Unfortunately, any conversation about cultural theft is being diverted into baseless comparisons to Transgender identities.  This needs to stop.  No, she is not like Caitlyn Jenner.  However, I acknowledge that Caitlyn’s transformation certainly raises similar questions about social class and essentialism.  No, transracial identity doesn’t exist unless you are referring to mixed race adoption contexts. Race is, categorically, a legal, political, and cultural concept. Race does not actually exist whereas gender does have a relationship to biological sex (but functions in similar ways as race because it is mediated by cultural and linguistic social systems-more on that later).

Dolezal, unlike so many of us sistas, will be able to tell a story.  She will be believed by some, offered sympathy by many, and ultimately profit. As identity politics continues to grapple with the problem of language, recognition, history, and technology, we should all be curious about the range of ways that could more accurately convey the “real” us.  However, we need to be cautious about whether our chosen depiction of Self is harmful, exploitative, or evocative and intriguing.  Dolezal engaged in a psychic cultural vampirism that is as American as apple pie, lynching, and red checkered picnic tablecloths.  The plastic tacky ones.

=====An additional note about the ‘reality’ of race and gender=====

One of my friends from graduate school disagreed with my claims about race and gender, claiming that both concepts don’t naturally exist.  When I attempted to differentiate them earlier, I tried to clarify that both terms are communicated:  they are arbitrary and recognizable solely through symbolic means. Indeed, race and gender don’t exist outside of language and culture. My experience of our misperception of those categories exists. I know the melanin does not equate to the litany of dehumanizing characteristics that refer to the meaning of my skin color. However, I know that my estrogen levels affect my ability to be physically stronger than someone with certain testosterone levels. These do affect my sensory experience and physical dexterity. To the extent that this is true in my personal experience, it is also true that I wonder more about physical capacity than mental deficiency.  I will explore this topic more in my next post.