In perhaps one of his finest performances, Eddie Murphy went undercover as a white man in 1984. With the aid of NBC’s make-up department, Murphy went around New York City and was able to partake in some exaggerated but not-too-inaccurate white privilege. Entering a newspaper vendor’s shop, he was given periodicals for free. After the only black man onboard exits a bus, the white driver turns on swing music and one of the passengers transforms into a cocktail waitress. At a bank, after an African-American agent quite reasonably refuses ‘Mr. White’ a loan because he has absolutely no resources or credit, a white agent ushers his colleague out the door, tears up the paperwork, and literally forks cash over the desk. After more than three decades, the skit remains undeniably relevant and true because, if anything, our dialogue about race and racism has gotten worse.
So when the story of Prof. Rachel Doležal became a minor internet sensation on June 12, the anniversary of the Medgar Evers murder, I found myself puzzled and impressed by the quandary. Immediately some tried to link Doležal’s plight to that of Caitlyn Jenner and claim this was an instance of ‘trans-racial’ persecution. But despite that obnoxious brain-fart, there are real issues of race, gender, and class that are worth discussing here. But first it is important to begin with the basic facts.
Prof. Doležal teaches part-time at Eastern Washington University, having previously studied at Howard University, and has held a variety of roles in both educating people about race and racism along with art. She also has reached several positions of repute, including President of the Olympia branch of the NAACP and a police commissioner for the Office of the Police Ombudsman in Spokane. She has several adopted black siblings, married a black man, and has a teenaged black son. Beginning with an earlier video interview and culminating with a public statement by her parents, Doležal has found herself unable to answer basic questions about her parentage. “She’s clearly our birth daughter, and we’re clearly Caucasian — that’s just a fact… She is a very talented woman, doing work she believes in. Why can’t she do that as a Caucasian woman, which is what she is?”, her father told the New York Times.
The first place to begin is race. When it comes to plagiarism and appropriation of black culture without credit, white people have a booming industry. Elvis Presley stole his entire show from Chuck Berry, the Rolling Stones took their entire musical arrangement from blues performers (though in their defense, once they made it big they would hire these heroes as opening acts), and humanity has yet to recover from the nightmares of Kenny G and Vanilla Ice. But there is also the much more wicked history of caricatures and stereotypes, be it black face minstrel shows or hyper-violent, over-sexualized black male villains in action pictures like DIRTY HARRY. Even the neoliberal Barrack Obama has remained a constant figure of Other-ing by the white power establishment, as pointed out by Yvette Carnell in her recent interview for CounterPunch Radio. As host Eric Draitser said in that discussion, there is something that is ‘quintessentially American’ about racial prejudice. In our culture, pigmentation has been utilized by capitalism as a tool of wage gradation. Oftentimes, people look back to the boom years of the 1950s and the benefits granted World War II vets by the GI Bill, forgetting that black vets were granted none of those benefits and, as a result, were left out of this prosperity, creating yet another form of generational systemic racism. Since before the Revolutionary War, our society has been fostered by a stratification of privilege based on race, and the Founders knew it, that was why Thomas Jefferson, himself a slave owner, once wrote to a constituent:
[T]his momentous question, like a fire bell in the night, awakened and filled me with terror. I considered it at once as the knell of the Union. [I]t is hushed indeed for the moment. [B]ut this is a reprieve only, not a final sentence. [A] geographical line, coinciding with a marked principle, moral and political, once conc[ei]ved and held up to the angry passions of men, will never be obliterated; and every new irritation will mark it deeper and deeper. I can say with conscious truth that there is not a man on earth who would sacrifice more than I would, to relieve us from this heavy reproach, in any practicable way. [T]he cession of that kind of property, for so it is misnamed, is a bagatelle which would not cost me in a second thought, if, in that way, a general emancipation and expatriation could be effected: and, gradually, and with due sacrifices, I think it might be. [B]ut, as it is, we have the wolf by the ear, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go. [J]ustice is in one scale, and self-preservation in the other.
Next is gender, which is linked to race. There is the history of the one-drop rule, which dictated second-class citizenship for African Americans if they had one small percentage of black ancestry, totally based around a long history of demonizing black male sexuality and the notion that black men are rabid sexual beasts. And there is also the idea that inter-ethnic coupling somehow sullies the white woman who marries a black man. It is very hard for me as a white man to accurately portray in writing a real understanding of how violence against women of color truly works, but it is all around us. When Ronald Reagan talked about ‘welfare queens’, he meant black women. When we hear Michelle Obama called the President’s ‘baby mama’, it is made manifest. Every time a Congressional delegate stands up and bashes a so-called ‘food stamp culture’, they mean single mothers of color. In the utterly disgusting public shaming of Anita Hill for whistle-blowing on the sexual harassment of her former boss, now-Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, the organized white resistance, spurred by the writings of David Brock, labelled her ‘a little slutty and a little nutty’, tapping into the wellspring of bigotry against black femininity. I once heard a saying which I can find no attribution for, yet it rings true: This nation was built on the backs of single women of color.
Finally, the all-important issue is class, which is very much defined by the previous two. Prof. Doležal was able to portray herself for a very long time as a light-skinned, highly educated woman of color. Tone preference, where those with lighter pigmentation in the black community are given privilege over those of darker tone, is a real phenomenon. What’s more, as a woman, there was a real effort to hold this individual up as an example of what can be achieved, putting her in the pantheon next to Michelle Obama. And this is not simply an issue of playing make-believe, this is a case of actual fraud because Prof. Doležal habitually marked her ethnicity as African American on various official forms. How many boards and committees, under these false pretenses, chose Prof. Doležal for a position under the auspices of affirmative action hiring policies? There is a long and well-developed critique of the black bourgeoisie in American society, a group of professionals who have been able to make certain gains in the dominant white supremacist society by sacrificing at the altar of progress the majority of their fellows who remain in poverty. Harry Haywood, the black Communist who became a major figure within the Party during the Third Period and later went to fight in the Spanish Civil War said this in 1933:
The enslavement of the Negro masses in the United States is an important prop of American imperialism. American imperialism is fundamentally interested in the preservation of the slave remnants in Southern agriculture and the national oppression of the Negro people as a condition for the extraction of super profits. It is the force that stands behind the…white ruling classes …in their direct and violent plunder of the Negro masses… Therefore, the liberation struggles of the Negro masses are directed against the very foundation of the capitalist-imperialist social structure in the United States… The Negro masses, once the allies of the Northern bourgeoisie (during the Civil War and Reconstruction), have now become the allies of the proletariat. In their struggle for national liberation these masses constitute an important part of the army of the revolutionary proletariat… In this connection it is important to keep in mind the dictum of Karl Marx to the English working class on the Irish question: “A people which oppresses another people cannot itself be free.”
As this small tempest in a tea pot unfurled into the following week, things became more and more interesting. First, on Monday, June 15, it was revealed that Doležal had resigned her post at the NAACP, offering the following:
I have waited in deference while others expressed their feelings, beliefs, confusions and even conclusions – absent the full story. I am consistently committed to empowering marginalized voices and believe that many individuals have been heard in the last hours and days that would not otherwise have had a platform to weigh in on this important discussion… Please know I will never stop fighting for human rights and will do everything in my power to help and assist, whether it means stepping up or stepping down, because this is not about me. It’s about justice. This is not me quitting; this is a continuum. It’s about moving the cause of human rights and the Black Liberation Movement along the continuum from Resistance to Chattel Slavery to Abolition to Defiance of Jim Crow to the building of Black Wall Street to the Civil Rights and Black Power Movement to the #BlackLivesMatter movement and into a future of self-determination and empowerment.
Almost simultaneously, it was reported that Doležal, then using the name Rachel Moore, had sued Howard University in 2004, claiming the historic black college had discriminated against her based on race, pregnancy, family responsibilities, gender, and out of retaliation because she was white. Any remaining doubts I had about her intentions were made clear by this legal brief. The most honest description of this issue was made by blogger Rafi D’Angelo:
I don’t know Rachel but this is what it feels like to me: she’s a liberal white woman who is actually down for the cause… But she’s weak. She’s a weak white woman who got tired of being shushed… It’s not always easy to be a white ally, and a large part of that is the repeated assertion that white people don’t and can’t get it. A lot of (most) white people truly do not, and that’s where the sentiment comes from, but for the white people who do TRULY get it, they understand that sentiment. They also realize most white people don’t get it and they’re not offended at being scooted over to the viewing section, because the overall conversation taking place is more important than sidelining it to focus on how they feel about not being heard on a topic that does not concern them directly. They’re not interested in taking over the conversation anyway – they just want to offer another voice. Rachel seems like the kind of person who couldn’t stand being pushed out of the conversation so she created her own way in… She’s using Blackness as an easy way to promote her own (largely well-intentioned) agenda. Those of us who are upset with her aren’t mad because she’s white… We’re upset because she put on a caricature of the people she supposedly supports because it was easier to do that than to be a much-needed white voice in support of our community. It was too hard for her to be white and have white people shun her because of her affinity for Blackness, so she pretended to be Black instead. Because of how race operates and because we all still follow the one-drop rule, the Black community accepted her with open arms since she appeared to have some Black ancestry somewhere. White people do not accept you as a fellow white person for appearing to have white ancestry. We HAVE to be Black, all day everyday and it makes us stronger people because of it. The fact that she couldn’t handle being a white ally, couldn’t handle being white with an association to Blackness, and used persecution of Blackness as an attention-seeking “look how oppressed I am” mechanism by exaggerating and trivializing very real threats against our people is disgusting.
The fact D’Angelo offered this gem on June 12, prior to news breaking about the Howard lawsuit, makes the irony all the more powerful.
Martin Luther King Jr., a man who has been throughly mis-represented by the popular media, once said to a majority-black audience:
Somebody told a lie one day. They couched it in language. They made everything Black ugly and evil. Look in your dictionaries and see the synonyms of the word Black. It’s always something degrading and low and sinister. Look at the word White, it’s always something pure, high and clean.
What was going through this individual’s head when she decided to essentially pull a modern rendition of Mammy is anyone’s guess, I would say opportunism. But regardless of how her mind works, what she did was degrading and low and sinister.
Andrew Stewart is a documentary film maker and independent journalist who lives outside Providence. His film, AARON BRIGGS AND THE HMS GASPEE, about the historical role of Brown University in the slave trade, is available for purchase on Amazon Instant Video or on DVD.