Ijeoma Oluo’s interview with Rachel Dolezal is worth reading in its entirety, but I was particularly moved by Oluo’s closing argument:
For a white woman who had grown up with only a few magazines of stylized images of blackness to imagine herself into a real-life black identity without any lived black experience, to turn herself into a black history professor without a history degree, to place herself at the forefront of local black society that she had adopted less than a decade earlier, all while seeming to claim to do it better and more authentically than any black person who would dare challenge her—well, it’s the ultimate “you can be anything” success story of white America. Another branch of manifest destiny. No wonder America couldn’t get enough of the Dolezal story.
Perhaps it really was that simple. I couldn’t escape Rachel Dolezal because I can’t escape white supremacy. And it is white supremacy that told an unhappy and outcast white woman that black identity was hers for the taking. It is white supremacy that told her that any black people who questioned her were obviously uneducated and unmotivated to rise to her level of wokeness. It is white supremacy that then elevated this display of privilege into the dominating conversation on black female identity in America. It is white supremacy that decided that it was worth a book deal, national news coverage, and yes—even this interview.
And with that, the anger that I had toward her began to melt away. Dolezal is simply a white woman who cannot help but center herself in all that she does—including her fight for racial justice. And if racial justice doesn’t center her, she will redefine race itself in order to make that happen. It is a bit extreme, but it is in no way new for white people to take what they want from other cultures in the name of love and respect, while distorting or discarding the remainder of that culture for their comfort. What else is National Geographic but a long history of this practice. Maybe now that I’ve seen the unoriginality of it all, even with my sister’s name that she has claimed as her own, she will haunt me no more and simply blend into the rest of white supremacy that I battle every day.
Thus, Oluo concludes that Dolezal is not a monster, but just another symptom of a society in which white cultural imperialism is a way of life.
I think often of our /Filmcast review of Get Out, which we recorded with Slate writer Aisha Harris. In the review, Harris discusses how the film weaponizes white womanhood in particular as presenting a threat to black people [SPOILERS for Get Out below]:
If we had to rank them, in the way this movie plays out, white womanhood is the top threat for black people. Just think about the fact that Allison Williams character Rose is the last of the family members to die. Throughout the movie there’s little sprinkles of dialogue and moments that set up Allison Williams’ character as exactly what you think someone like her would think about herself.
“I’m a white woman so everyone must want me.” The fact that she’s luring all these black men, googling NCAA players. The fact that she teases his friend Rod, played by Lil Rel, about how he wants to fuck her, and is just very open about it…the idea that white womanhood is the pinnacle, the definition of beauty, the definition of everything that’s pure, and the way it plays with that, I think is just very ingenius.
I hadn’t viewed the film this way but Harris’s observation rang true to me, and I was reminded of it while reading Oluo’s interview.
See also: Our recent Gen Pop episode with Tiq Milan, who discusses why the concept of being transgender is qualitatively different than being transracial.