I’ve spent much of the last few days crying real tears over black Twitter’s brilliant and hilarious responses to Rachel Dolezal’s shenanigans. Seriously, search #AskRachel and #RachelDolezal if you need a pick-me-up.
Then the conversations turned serious.
I saw how much pain she was causing sisters like me who have been demeaned for the very blackness she stole. I read the social media posts of black women living in anguish because the skin they’re in has been deemed less than in the eyes of society at large, and even in some of their own homes and communities. I cringed as I saw seemingly socially conscious and inclusive people post the most emotionally violent false equivalencies about the transgender community.
I even watched Melissa Harris-Perry, who spoke with me in an interview several years ago about “authentic representation of black womanhood,” and the fact that she was “identifiably black," grapple with the absurd concepts of “cis-black and trans-black” as racial identities, largely in response to some white impostor from Spokane, Wash., whose concept of blackness is constructed through the lens of white supremacy. This woman, with her orange skin and rent-an-Afro, her lies and artistic plagiarism, has caused black people around the world to stop and question their own understanding of blackness.
Let me repeat: Most people who are entertaining this farce aren’t questioning Rachel Dolezal’s so-called blackness. Oh, no, her blackness is somehow deemed self-determination. Dolezal’s choice to be black has, instead, forced some black people to work through their own concept of blackness and how it should be defined.
Because the white woman said so.
Someone asked me on Twitter how I felt about the idea that we should “applaud [Rachel] for abandoning unearned racial privilege.” And my response was simple: In a society ravaged by colorism—where the aesthetic in closest proximity to whiteness is privileged over darker skin and kinkier hair—she hasn’t abandoned anything. Maybe she feels more privileged posing as what this racist society deems to be a superior black woman rather than living as a mediocre white one; she’s still benefiting from white supremacy either way. You can’t position yourself as a leader and lover of black people while exploiting our emotionally charged fractures at the same time. That’s not how this works.
Black people—particularly in the United States, where the aftershocks of slavery’s terrorism still ripple through our communities—may very well have a complicated relationship with what blackness is, but we know it’s not a white woman with two white parents putting on bronzer and joining the NAACP, the same organization that gave Donald “Housing Discrimination” Sterling a Lifetime Achievement Award.
And if we don’t know that much, then I don’t have a lot of hope for us.
Wait, am I allowed to say “us”? Is there an us?
According to some people, race is merely a flimsy social construct that “all blends perfectly, let the liquor tell it.” But I have a real problem with people accepting blackness as something so porous that just about anything the cat drags in can slide through.
Transantagonism and misogynoir have been front and center of a very passive-aggressive subnarrative. There have been some legitimate and necessary academic queries, but overall, this dialogue has been rich soil for those who harbor hatred for trans people in general and black women (cis and trans) in particular. Can you imagine for one moment if a white man had pretended for years to be a black man, headed a civil rights organization and reaped opportunities based on that lie? There would be a Million Man March on Spokane organized by Louis Farrakhan, keynoted by Al Sharpton and sponsored by Wal-Mart and Wells Fargo.
Instead, this conversation has become a breeding ground for black men who have a white-woman fetish, white women who love black men and hate black women, cis people who hate trans people, and black people with unresolved personal and race issues of their own.
As what typically happens, white America threw the grenade and black America exploded.
In her 1975 speech on black artistry, Toni Morrison dropped this gem:
It’s important to know who the real enemy is and to know the very serious function of racism, which is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. … And I urge you to be careful for there is a deadly prison. A prison that is erected when one spends one’s life fighting phantoms, concentrating on myths and explaining over and over to the conqueror your language, your lifestyle, your history, your habits. And you don’t have to do it anymore.
Now it appears as if our very understanding of blackness—as black people continue to define, redefine and refine it for ourselves—is subject to white people feeling entitled to slip it on like a coat from Burlington Coat Factory while black people hold the arms up for easier access.
Not today, people. We don’t have to do it anymore.
Where are the conversations about whiteness? What is white? Let’s start there. Let’s dismantle this thing called white and unearth why white skin around the world is a marker of power and wealth. Let’s look at how people of color can have access to this elusive whiteness and the privileges that it bestows. Why does black womanhood have to be the site where everything is tossed on the table, rifled through, dissected and thrown away?
Why does blackness have to be a halfway house for white pathology?
When I first embarked upon my writing career, my Tobagonian uncle Nigel cautioned me: “Chile, ya nevah use a gallonful of words for a spoonful of thought.” So let me make it plain: There is no way in black hell I’m going to allow a white woman to dictate how, when, where, or to what extent, depth, degree, angle or circumference, I think about my blackness. I respect those who want to engage that conversation, and I’m sure the future textbooks will make for some interesting reading, but I’m not the one.
I’ll just be over here being a black woman writing for my black life.