#Ask Rachel: What does it really mean to “act” Black?

052813-celebs-in-blackface-Judy-Garland

The day Rachel Dolezal, the president of the Spokane chapter of the NAACP, decided to play loose with her own race, the day she complained about a “hate crime” that would later expose her as a liar, the day she took the minstrel show off the backstages of history, the day she reasoned that being Black was just another privilege of being White, the day she checked the Black box and stained her skin to matched the dark dye she spilled on the truth, on the day she declared that she was Black (not African American–she hates that term), Rachel Dolezal murdered any attempt that she might make to find solidarity with and in the Black community. She–no better than vigilantes or wayward cops, than hooded mobs and the overseer culture that produced them-lynched another Black body.

The type of lynching Rachel Dolezal performed deals less with physical violence than with the cosmetic apparatus of erasure. It is the same motive force operative in gentrification and other physical acts of removal, where folks of privilege invade and otherwise overtake spaces not belonging to them. In Dolezal’s case, the stolen space is the Black body–a body that is sun-bit though not hers, that bears scars of struggle from which history has thus far protected Dolezal.

Acting Black is not the same as being Black. Instead, it is a way of skimming the surface of Blackness, merely performing flesh without having to reconcile the bruises that lie beneath it. Indeed, it is a type of erasure, and what follows from this act of erasing can only be viewed as twisted and sick.

We have seen this kind of erasure play out over and again in history. In the heartbreaking case of First Nations’ people, not only were lands stolen, bodies also fell subject to this cruel carnival of theft. Hollywood, for example, has given us a history of White actors playing indigenous, and beyond the movie screen exists a dark and regrettable tradition of Whites claiming First Nations status.

Beneath these examples is a sordid tale of people who subjugate, occupy, and otherwise delete other people from history and then reinvent themselves in their place. The final injury of erasure, of fatal cultural appropriation, is viler than the first.

Some would find my characterization of Dolezal’s Black pose as extreme or harsh, considering instead Dolezal as a kind of cultural opportunists, someone benefitting from being Black. In this light, the story of Mindy Kaling’s brother, Vijay Chokal-Ingam, comes to mind. Ingam, who is the son of Indian immigrants, posed Black to take advantage of affirmative action policies to gain admittance into medical school.

In so doing, Chokal-Ingam sought to dramatized a silent narrative in American mainstream consciousness, that of “Black privilege.” Black privilege is the belief that Black Americans gain social advantages through policies such as affirmative action. Individuals like Chokal-Ingam, whose deep belief in Black privilege led him to pose as a Black medical school applicant named Jo-Jo, maintain that being Black can play a significant and positive role in the social advancement of otherwise unexceptional non-Blacks who might pass as Black.

However, there is an irretrievable flaw in the logic of “Black privilege.” Programs such as affirmative action, in fact, benefit non-Blacks as much as, if not more (especially in the case of White women), than they do Blacks. Another problem with the logic of Black privilege is the lofty, but statistically unsubstantiated, idea that Blacks are privileged. Nothing can be farther from the truth.

Black mortality rates around the globe are among the world’s highest. Unemployment, mass incarceration, poverty, employment and educational discrimination, racial profiling, and so on (in what feels like a never-ending list of constraints) suggest that, more likely than not, Blacks sit on the side opposite privilege. That is, in many (if not in most) indicators associated with social success, Blacks occupy the bottom. And among indicators associated with social failure, Blacks tend to sit atop. This isn’t what privilege looks like.

Programs such as affirmative actions are crumbs swept off the main table, given to the historically disfranchised, like pig intestines once were tossed to slaves to grovel over. So what Dolezal has done–in posturing herself as a Black woman to gain influence and perhaps even a job–can be compared to a privileged person who, though having access to the main table and the hearty course it affords, squats over and steals the crumbs (and even the chit’lins) from the less fortunate.

Let me put this in perspective: Dolezal’s story is little different than the story of Alicia Esteve Head, a Spanish woman operating under the alias Tania Head. Head claimed to be a survivor of the World Trade Center September 11 attacks and joined the support group World Trade Center Survivors’ Network. She later became a spokesperson and president of the group and was regularly mentioned in media reports of the attacks.

In 2007, the world learned that Head’s story was fabricated. She was not in the towers at the time of the September 11 attacks but had traveled to the U.S. for the first time in 2003. Once discovered, Head disappeared, only to resurface in 2010 at the White Plains, NY memorial. This time, she posed as Ester DiNardo, a supposed victim’s mother. Survivors and family members of those who perished in the September 11 attacks who knew Head personally speak of the incredible pain and sense of betrayal they felt when they learned Head was in imposter.

While the comparison might seem a reach to some, the sentiments of survivors and family members of those who perished in the September 11 attacks help to put the Dolezal scandal in perspective. Black Americans are, themselves, survivors of historic and continuing trauma. Therefore, the incredible pain and sense of betrayal stemming from Dolezal’s decision to act Black cannot be understated.

Even still, many people remain baffled over the immediate and deeply personal responses to Dolezal’s betrayal of both her race and mine. They wonder, what’s the big deal? If Dolezal wants to pose as Black, then let her. They reason that we live in a post-racial world where the so-called exaggeration of race as a static reality lends itself less to new and fluid imaginings than to the old, stale realities of race. There are some who even take this logic to the extreme, suggesting that Dolezal has perhaps set us on a course for new racializations–where we are not only post-racial but magically transracial, whatever that means.

Dolezal, and perhaps her defenders, will never fully get that being Black means having to carry the full weight of a history that daily scars you, pins you in hard-to-beat corners, and presses against your unyielding back the immensity of inequity. She’ll never understand that being Black means having to bandage and manage a thousand little cuts endured each day for simply being Black. She’ll never understand how being Black means convincing yourself (and too often the rest of the world) that you are good enough (i.e., Black lives matter) because you live in a world that constantly tells and actively teaches you the opposite.

Unlike acting Black, being Black means endurance. It means enduring the tragedies of loss–of sisters and brothers, uncles and aunts, mothers and fathers and friends, who are sometimes literally and often prematurely snatched from your life. It means enduring the long journey to freedom, which you have heard about and, thus, still believe, though this place is mystical, set on the other side of some ecclesiastical horizon that you cannot always see.

It means being forced to live small in a big but stolen land, rich from the wealth of your people’s sweat and blood–their free but involuntary labor. It means being restricted to laws you never had a chance to make–laws that where, in fact, never made for you or to benefit you but to protect others from you while elevating them above you. It means dealing with the feelings of being trapped, the unsettling helplessness that sits violently in the soul after being violated, ripped off, and robbed.

Dolezal must know she isn’t Black. According to her adopted brother, “She puts dark makeup on her face and says she Black. . . . It’s basically blackface.” Hence, seeing Dolezal in blackface, knowing the painful history behind her familiar act, is like witnessing again the theft of Black culture. It’s like being forced to believe the story I was told as a child that the people who erected the pyramids at Giza were White. It’s like being forced to believe that Black musical art forms such as jazz and rock roll (and perhaps soon even hip hop) were invented and pioneered by Whites.

It’s what Black musicians prior to the 1970s must have felt when they wrote songs for Black artists only to hear them performed by others, or when they released albums only to see White faces glossing their album covers. It’s what Kendrick Lamar must have felt when Macklemore and Ryan Lewis won the 2014 Grammy for Best Rap Album. It’s what Azealia Banks must have felt when she appeared on NYC’s Hot 97 and blasted Iggy Azalea for cultural appropriation (did she really “do dat”). It’s what so many of us feel when we know that some things just aren’t right, yet they happen anyway–and usually without consequence.

What feels most reprehensible about Dolezal’s act is that she has been close up; she’s been in my kitchen, so to speak. She’s had a proximity to Black struggles that most Whites will never have. This proximity must have given her some deep sense of our struggles. She attended Howard University (an HBCU) and presides over the Spokane, WA chapter of the NAACP. She teaches The Black Woman’s Struggle, African and African American Art History, African History, and African American Culture, and Intro to Africana Studies as a part-time instructor at Eastern Washington University. She must have become intimately familiar with the history of violations against Black bodies. She must have understood the damage that Whites posing as Black does to our people. She must have witnessed first hand the relentless pain of our people in its rawest and realest forms. She must have known.

Her actions–as deliberate as they may or may not have been–feel even more egregious in this light. Her being close to Black people, to the Black community, must have shown her that her actions were not okay but potentially harmful. In knowing us, one must ask, did she plan to hurt us? And if she did, how sad and how utterly sadistic was her acting Black.

Having spent considerable time in the Black community, she would also have known how forgiving we are. While being Black entails a kind of suffering, it also involves a permission to rise (i.e., a gift–or curse–to forgive). While it may take a few days or a few weeks or even a few years, we will forgive her.

So let’s pull back our stones so that she might go away . . . and act Black no more.
____________________________
David E. Kirkland is an associate professor of English and urban education at New York University. He is also the incoming Executive Director of NYU Metropolitan Center for Research on Equity and the Transformation of Schools. Dr. Kirkland can be reached by email at: davidekirkland@gmail.com.

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2 thoughts on “#Ask Rachel: What does it really mean to “act” Black?

  1. Pingback: #Ask Rachel: What does it really mean to “act” Black? | A Will to Love

  2. how does it go?…”imitatation is the sincerest form of flattery”. when some talk in full sentences & enuciate words, they are labeled as uppity. we have too many labels in life, not enuff luv. here & there….i am.

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