Spokane’s black community embraces white allies, so what’s behind Rachel Dolezal’s perplexing deception?

Self-identifying as black is anyone’s right, but the lies are what do the most damage. Colin Mulvany/The Spokesman Review via AP/file 2015

In the latest chapter of the peculiar story of Rachel Dolezal, Dolezal officially resigned from her leadership position with the Spokane, Washington NAACP yesterday via Facebook.

While Dolezal’s remained committed to the cause of social and political justice in her note, she spoke nothing of her decision to take on a black identity. It’s unlikely that we’ll ever know the depths of her reasoning.

But when it comes to the story of Rachel Dolezal, a little context goes a long way in understanding why black Spokane residents may have supported Dolezal’s leadership prior to this scandal. With white allies needed more than ever, it also makes one question Dolezal’s actual motives – and whether or not she was truly committed to social and political justice.

Being black in the Pacific Northwest

Like Rachel Dolezal, I lived in Spokane. And while Dolezal taught African American history at Eastern Washington University, I taught the same subject at Spokane’s Gonzaga University, where I was also the advisor to the Black Student Union.

Had I stayed, it may have only been a matter time before Rachel and I met. Perhaps we’d have even become friends (we’re both Howard University alums). And we both probably would have talked about how being black in the Pacific Northwest is a unique experience; in Spokane – where the African American population hovers around 2% – being black is largely a struggle for significance.

When I advised the Black Student Union (BSU), our membership was about 30% to 40% non-African American. We had Latino members and Filipino members. And if white students wanted to join, they were welcomed, no questions asked.

Because diversity at Gonzaga and in the Pacific Northwest is dismal, solidarity was paramount; no one ever seemed to question the presence of other marginalized groups or white allies because they viewed them as students with the same goals.

White guilt, or something more pathological?

Therefore, Dolezal’s deception elicits many questions, namely: why?

Could it be white guilt? Perhaps Dolezal is a modern-day John Brown, the white radical abolitionist. Frederick Douglass once described Brown as “a white gentleman” who “is in sympathy a black man, and as deeply interested in our cause, as though his own soul had been pierced with the iron of slavery.”

So maybe Dolezal sympathized with the African American experience to such an extent that she decided to engage in a form of racial suicide, forfeiting her privilege entirely. She made herself marginalized even in the face of threats from the Ku Klux Klan, as she’s claimed.

These purported hate crime cases (which have been suspended by the Spokane Police Department) lead to another explanation for her actions: pathological behavior, perhaps born out of mental illness.

After all, her experiences – put together – seem just too extreme for one person to have faced over the course of one life. Most African Americans discuss their encounters with racism in the form of micro-aggressions – the subtle, daily forms of racism that reinforce white supremacy in work, school or social activities.

Did the KKK really burglarize each of her homes and frequently send her hate mail? Did she grow up in a teepee and bow-hunt for her food, as she’s claimed?

These stories sound like lazy caricatures of racism and race. And to have gone to such lengths to concoct and spread such myths (if they’re found to be untrue) – well, that sounds like grounds for some intensive counseling.

Worse, because of Dolezal’s actions, more and more biracial and multiracial Americans could be confronted with micro-aggressions, like questions about the authenticity and legitimacy of their blackness: “Are you black?” or the even more sinister, “What are you?”

White allies needed more than ever before

Let’s be clear: Dolezal passing for African American is completely different from when African Americans have passed as white. “Passing” – as some African Americans have done throughout history – largely stemmed from a place of oppression.

Passing to join the military, obtain a bank loan or gain acceptance into a particular school was part of navigating a racist, segregated society. Skin bleaching – and the self-hatred that accompanies it – are painful consequences of a discriminatory world that has deemed blackness a bad thing. Though hilarious on TV, Dave Chappelle’s Clayton Bigsby – a blind and black white supremacist – could never exist in the real world.

Which leads to the third rationale for Dolezal’s actions: power couched in white privilege.

By some logic, Dolezal’s rejection of her whiteness is an extreme form of white privilege. No black woman could ever navigate whiteness so successfully that she could become, say, president of the Daughters of the Confederacy. Yet Dolezal was able to seamlessly enter a world where she was given the benefit of the doubt – likely because she was positioning herself as a minority. And she didn’t simply use deception to join a traditionally black group; she used deception to lead one.

Moreover, her actions clearly undermine the significant value of white allies. Yes, the NAACP didn’t even have its first black national president until 1975. But in what could be a warped form of maternalism, Dolezal deemed herself the authority on what was best for the black community and other marginalized groups.

When black people throw their hands up in frustration, it’s not because they can’t lead. It’s because their so-called allies refuse to follow. Dolezal could have been just as powerful – perhaps even more powerful – if she had been a white ally.

What might it mean to see a white person marching with a sign that read Black Lives Matter? The image of progress can’t be a minister preaching to the choir.

Images of blacks and whites working together for social justice can send powerful messages. Mike Segar/Reuters

Dolezal didn’t just assume African American cultural accouterments; she occupied spaces and positions where we expect to see a black face. Dolezal’s deceptions goes along the lines of what Toni Morrison once said during a talk at Howard University: “White people steal what’s yours, and then they sell it back to you.”

Except Dolezal isn’t selling albums like Iggy Azalea, the singer who’s also drawing some criticism for assuming a black identity.

Instead, Dolezal’s peddling a bill of goods, a knock-off version of what she thinks is blackness. And because she is doing so in a place like Spokane, where blackness and allies are hard to come by, we buy it.

But while we need allies, we don’t need avatars.

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