White Skin, Black Masks

0) White Hawk Down; Long Live the White Hawk!

A specter is haunting the United States of America—the specter of the end of white supremacy. All the powers of White America have entered into an unholy alliance to exorcise this specter, Republicans, Democrats, white masters, and slave overseers in all their skin tones. White America has dreaded it since at least 1866. In 1968, formal desegregation turned this fear into a heightened state of uninterrupted panic. White America had finally run out of white allies to recruit to its cause. By the 1980s, it had thoroughly bleached the white niggers of yore, the Irish, Italians, Jews and even Arabs. Feeding on the wave of 1990s Mexican migration, this anxiety became the central mobilization platform looming upon the American political landscape like an old curse. It is Dolezal’s unspoken privilege, however, to have finally broken the spell, and pushed America over the edge of racialist sanity, into the final stages of mass hysteria. Dolezal the George Soros of race, trading in futures of skin currency; Dolezal the twitter whigger; Dolezal the Iggy Azalea of local activism, the Miley Cyrus of precarious academia, the blackface of the white underbelly of America; Dolezal the Hannibal Lecter of slavery, cannibalizing African-American suffering to satisfy her white psychopathologies. But all these are trivial figurines, red herrings in the deluge to come. Opportunistic race trader and crosser and a patient of race dismorphia are some of the decoys that draw attention away from the real threat: Dolezal is a race traitor! But could she be a transrace trailblazer?

1) Thou art born a nigger; thou shalt not become one

Why has this case garnered so much attention? No one really cares that a minor activist in the middle of nowhere has delved into opportunistic posturing, or has been diagnosed with a case of mental illness. Much worse happens in America with much less media coverage. It is precisely because Dolezal brings something more to the stage than blacksploitation that she has made it into overnight stardom. Simple blackface would have been ignored; Dolezal wasn’t because she jumped racial ships. She married a biologically-certified black man, attended a historically black university and joined a politically black activist organization. What she forces America to reckon with is White Hawk Down, the end of white supremacy. Some people might prefer to leave their position of whiteness, their birthright and god-granted privilege. The Dolezal case can only be understood in the universe of the American Race Wars, the white anxiety about the end of whiteness through a Black, Latino, Asian combo-takeover. In that context, the defection of a white member for no understandable reason has created a panic. If whiteness isn’t a biological destiny, it has to be a political program that can demand political allegiance. Dolezal is a traitor and a defector to the white cause. The witch-hunt and the public shaming thus serve one purpose: preventing the edifice of white privilege from melting too fast. Don’t even think of imitating Dolezal; you will be punished and shall suffer for betraying the master race. Thou art born a nigger; thou shalt not become one.

2) Thou shalt not abandon white privilege

The Dolezal quandary appears at this point in all its delirium. Why did she do it is a question that nags America to madness. What is happening to whiteness that defectors have appeared in its midst? As a white American citizen, she had been given one full-time job in life, white privilege, and she couldn’t even stick to it. She wouldn’t hold the fort. Fortress Cream appears in all its jiggly, buttery, liquid frailty. Perhaps, Rachel suggests, not everyone is born wanting to be white. America could have fathomed a Michael Jackson—deranged somehow because who’d want to become such a freak, but understandable in a more fundamental way: who’d want to stay black in America? Dolezal has no excuse: who wouldn’t want to be white? Why trade privilege for hell? Americans, worried about racial hierarchy, can only read it as opportunism or illness. No one is allowed to simply hate being white, to resent their privilege in an unequal society. That would be hypocrisy. And that is the argument waged against any profession of socialism: if you’re an egalitarian, how come you’re so rich? If you’re an egalitarian, how come you’re so white? Dolezal is Bill Gates gifting his wealth to the American Knights of Labor. Her example screams: you can hate your privilege. Power is only skin-deep. Peel it. To this, America responds: stick to your privileges, or perish as a heretic. Thou shalt not abandon white privilege!

3) Thou shalt not covet ebony, for black is the color of a hidden gem.

In America, spurning whiteness can only be another way of mocking African-Americans, cannibalizing a suffering so precious that it cannot be shared by others. Let us hear Tamara Winfrey Harris, in the NYT: “Being able to shift one’s race is a privilege… I will accept Ms. Dolezal as black like me only when society can accept me as white like her.” The problem is: who wants to be white? In the race wars, they are called collaborators; Dolezal is a resistance fighter. I will accept Bill Gates as poor like me only when society can accept me as wealthy like him. No, blackness is no privilege, whether one becomes black early or later on in life. Dolezal didn’t trans, cross, or bend race. But she did shed white privilege. That this has to be perceived as a privilege rather than an act of solidarity is one of the more comical effects of the Race Wars. The one-drop rule—the ideology designed to protect the legal privileges of the white masters and the white-anointed black managers of blackness—has today taken the status of a black sacrament, enforced by the slaves rather than the masters. America has managed to convince its former slaves that their suffering is their main asset, the last bastion of their greatness to be defended at all costs. You are how much you suffered. In the game of Oppression Olympics, blackness is competitive advantage. Recasting blackness as an advantageous quantum of pain entails punishing white trespassers who dare step upon a sacred terrain of humiliation, fear and trauma. Whatever happened to recruit, recruit, recruit? Dolezal proposes an antidote to the American brand of competitive identity politics, the slogan of cooperative identity: if you can identify with the plight, join the fight. Dolezal is black solidarity on black terms. What Dolezal is not is a smug white Harvard alumnus at Teach for America, whitewashing Shakespeare down her poor students’ black throats while complaining about their wasted potential. Hence the heresy. Dolezal is Karen Blixen getting herself a tan, a weave and a Bantu heritage, turning her farm into a cooperative, and fighting against the British occupation of Kenya. The slave choir chants back in unison with their masters: thou shalt not covet our blackness!

4) Thou shalt not seek to change blackness, but merely to reinterpret it in various ways

“Dolezal goes Viral” thought experiment: Most living white adults in the USA convert to blackness. What do the remaining white masters do? They have two options. The first is, they accept the racial conversions, and continue torturing, unemploying, disregarding the newly enlarged “black” population of the US while simultaneously continuing to recruit borderline outsiders into whiteness (yes, there is hope for tiger mothers). In this scenario, they are eventually overtaken by the rapid expansion of blackness, and plunge headfirst into a white oligarchic police state (newsflash) and a revolution (if we’re lucky). American racism reveals its rotten core more than it is currently on display, if possible, and crashes. The second option is for white masters to reject this reverse-passing, and redeploy more “nuanced” conceptions of blackness. The good old sambos, mulattos, quadroons, octoroons and mustefinos are gradually reintroduced, under new guises and guildelines. Post-68 laisser-faire racism, with its unregulated binaries of black and white, is put to sleep, and Plantation America Inc. born again from its smoldering ashes. This time around there is no righteous White North to come to play Prince Anti-Slaving, and the only hope of salvation for American neo-niggers will come from the dark world rising and demanding an African-led, UN-sponsored humanitarian intervention. In either case, it is difficult to maintain that Dolezal has hurt blacks in the US. At worst, she will be a blip on the American infotainment landscape. At best, her case might be a turning point in the Race Wars. Yet the Uncle Toms will not relent: “I have Rachel Dolezal to thank for people questioning my blackness”. White America is not questioning blackness: it is seeking to refine it to make room for Dolezal, and reject her revolutionary path. Thou shalt not seek to change blackness, but merely to reinterpret it in various ways.

5) Thou Shalt Trans Gender but Never Race

Why can “Republican Jenner” (peace be upon Adolph Reed Jr.) become the poster-child of American infotainment, whereas Dolezal is served up on a witch-hunt platter? Many have wondered, many more have preached. They are not the same, screams the middle-class liberal Oppression Olympist! They should be comparable, retorts racist Republicans! The liberal fear and the Republican hope are the same: Dolezal is the new Obama! Didn’t you hear the news? America is post-racial. Why, if a white kid can desire to become black, we’ve definitely moved on…Unfortunately, when it comes to the Race Wars, America is closer to 1866 than to Zimbabwe. No one has moved on, and post- should be a label reserved for the post-office. For conservatives—whose racial anxiety levels are high enough to organize migrant-hunting militias—to be so nonchalant about Dolezal suggests a foxtrot on the official political scene: conservatives can rely on their liberal counterparts in policing the Dolezal effect, for now. If Dolezal’s performance were to go viral, conservatives would be the first ones grabbing their ropes to march South and defend their bleeding whiteness. Despite defecting from the ranks of male-supremacy, Jenner’s threat is contained: no American man can be worried about becoming a minority. The Gender Wars are cold, with each camp holding out the nuclear weapon of reproduction to their advantage, or to their mutual destruction. The race wars, however, rage on with the clatter of stop, search, and maximum security prisons, and the din of the demographic time bomb. Whiteness is headed for extinction in a way that masculinity is not. The potential deluge is compounded by the fact that shedding white privilege, as opposed to male privilege, is cheap and open to most whites, as opposed to a costly, regulated and fairly dangerous set of hormonal and surgical interventions for gender-reassignment. The threat is limited in one case, and potentially infinite in the other. Thou shalt trans gender but never race.

5.5) On the First Day, God Created White; and God Saw that White Was Good. These Last Days, God Might have Changed His Mind…

Those who abandon birth privileges are always eyed with great derision. The Russian aristocrats who were caught joining up with the Bolsheviks were not particularly cherished by their peers. Around 1905—the date of the first failed pangs of the Russian Revolution—their treason would have been a grave mistake; in September 1917—a month before the Bolsheviks seized the seat of power—it would have been an act of incommensurable acumen. The trick here is to figure out: where does Dolezal fall on this spectrum? Are the American Race Wars closer to 1905 or 1917, a failed black coup or an epochal black revolution?


Marc Michael is an assistant professor of sociology at NYU in Abu Dhabi.