Rachel Dolezal and the Case for New “White” Identities

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In the midst of social media’s response to Rachel Dolezal a clear theme has emerged: White people, get your folks. But, from what? And, how?

As filmmaker and educator Ali Michael wrote about, Rachel Dolezal is not experiencing something new, or even unique. Dolezal is stuck in the “immersion” phase of racial development. This is actually not an uncommon thing. Lots of European-Americans, when they first become aware of just how pervasive white supremacy is, no longer want to identify as white. I know that feeling. And, it is here that we find the answer to the first question: From what must we get our people?

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There isn’t any Negro problem; there is only a white problem- Richard Wright

We must get our people from whiteness and race-thinking. Whiteness is the cause of white supremacy and racism. The elite (propertied) Anglo’s in Virginia needed something to distract and divide the increasingly rebellious multi-racial laboring class, whiteness was that thing. Whiteness was the consistent that everything else was measured against. Whiteness was codified in law yet also remained fluid in order to serve the needs of the ruling class. As immigrants, especially European ones, continued to invest in the traits and characteristics of whiteness it solidified as a legitimate racial identity, which also solidified the other. This is the point James Baldwin was making when he said: “As long as you think you’re white, there is no hope for you. Because as long as you think you’re white, I’m forced to think I’m Black.”

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The fact is, Whiteness is not real. Historian and Critical Whiteness Studies scholar David Roediger says whiteness is ” not only oppressive and false, it is nothing but oppressive and false.” It is a socio-political alliance with no grounding in reality, nor roots in culture. It is this identification that so many European-Americans are trying to distance themselves from, sometimes in disastrous ways. And let’s be clear, Rachel Dolezal is a disaster. Which brings us to the second question: How do we get our people?

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The first step is to, as Jamie Utt says, accept the tension that comes with being perceived as white –and therefore receiving its benefits– while working for its abolition. Next, we must begin to think and act culturally. Culture is real. It is rooted in place, it consists of shared experiences, and has roots to people — to ancestors. However, culture is not an artifact from the past that we simply reach back and bring to the 21st century. Yes, we need to learn from our ancestors and root cultures, but we also live in different times, in different places, and in community with different people. So, we must accept that culture is fluid and work at building healthy, harmonious relationships with each other and creation.

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There is a lot going on with Rachel Dolezal. Who knows why she may have made up death threats? Who knows why she pretends her brother is her son? Her actions can not be fully explained by the immersion, or any other, theory. I don’t know if having an alternative way to identify would have kept Dolezal from appropriating Blackness; there is some real deep-seeded trauma there combined with what looks like some straight-up insidiousness. Maybe some folks just can’t get right. However, this Rachel Dolezal saga can help us to understand a bit about the dangers of not working to create healthy identities rooted in culture.These identities need to serve as places of healing for Euro-Americans looking to dismantle white supremacy by striking at its base: whiteness. Truthfully, we are the only ones who can do that work. And, Black Twitter is right: we need to get our people.

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One thought on “Rachel Dolezal and the Case for New “White” Identities

  1. I don’t do Twitter, is there really a Black Twitter? That’s funny. And as old as I am I still joke about my brother being my son, because my mom was hospitalized for six months immediately after giving birth, so he thought I was his mom. What do I really know about Rachel? Not one thing. I don’t know if she is not being truthful because I do not live with her. We are who we are, varied human beings floating around on planet earth, too bad we can’t “get along”. Thanks for your post and for allowing my comments.

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