Two writers on Rachel Dolezal: "What is she getting from all this?"

Danielle Henderson and Latoya Peterson
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Where do we even start with Rachel Dolezal? The former (?) leader of the Spokane, WA chapter of the NAACP, came under fire last night for what we can only describe as reverse passing, living as a black woman for more than a decade for reasons that are currently unclear. Fascinated by the story's strange underbelly of racial identity, fear and fantasy, Danielle Henderson and Latoya Peterson attempt to have a coherent conversation about a narrative so nonsensical it would have been rejected from The Onion’s writer’s room.

Danielle Henderson:

Does the NAACP give out cars to its presidents like top sellers at Mary Kay? Is there some kind of annual European vacation involved?  My first thought was, "What is she getting out of this?" I love my heritage, but I cannot understand in this cultural moment why someone would OPT IN to being black.

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I thought there had to be something that she gained materially, but I'm jaded.

Latoya Peterson:

Well, according to all the articles, she's been riding the racial lie out for a while. And I wasn't surprised honestly - there is a peculiar fascination with blackness in some white people that tends to play out like this. We could talk about Peggy Stelzer's fake memoir of appropriated experience, or we could take it all the way back to the white people Malcolm X wrote about that tried to out-black Harlemites at the club.

Danielle Henderson:

What's amazing is how it's seen as somehow honoring blackness instead of being horribly, horribly offensive.

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Iggy Azalea comes to mind here, too—she constantly talks about her love of rap while denigrating the culture that created it.  It's a very strange cultural blind spot.

I was, however, laughing all night about Dolezal, while Iggy Azalea just gives me instant hives. Why was this so funny?

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Latoya Peterson:

I think Dolezal almost feels familiar in a way - like the white girls who used to abuse the brown gel to get fingerwaves or the really slick ponytail. It seems like the action, misguided as it may be, was done out of a weird form of adoration. Or fetishization.

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But Azalea - she uses her whiteness as a weapon. In the Fancy video, she knew she was Cher Horowitz. She steps right into the privileges that being young white and blond provide. Blackness is just a thing to play with.

Danielle Henderson:

And Dolezal, too, in a way — she wasn't just black, she was peak blackness. A professor. President of the NAACP. She only played with blackness in a way that elevated her status.

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We have so few pathways to respectability as black women, and she co-opted all of them.

Latoya Peterson:

What gets me about Dolezal though is that she went from passing to high levels of performance.  Race is such a strange fiction in the US - I actually know a black woman who looks a LOT like Rachel Dolezal (her hair is reddish brown, not blond). But 8 documented hate crimes? That's a strange way to buy credibility. I don't know any person of color that sticks "here are the times I was racially targeted" in their bio. Now I'm curious.

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[Goes to check Cornel West's LinkedIn Page]

Cornel is just talking about his spoken word albums. Let me check Ben Jealous. [Pause.]

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Nothing on Ben Jealous's page either and he used to run the NAACP!

Danielle Henderson:

Hahahaha. It was strange to watch people try to parse out what was happening based on how she looked!

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I think we all learned a long time ago that you can't judge a book by it's cover, but that's what made Dolezal's performance even more bizarre—she could have just been a white member of the NAACP. She could have just been a white professor of African American studies.

Like, those are open doors.

I just moved from the Pacific Northwest in January; I lived there for almost two years. The redlining well into the 1950s  in Washington and Oregon have made people of color a scarcity, so it's not surprising to me that no one batted an eye when this white woman showed up with dreadlocks and told everyone she was black.

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Latoya Peterson:

To me, what's fascinating about all this is how it shows that race, racism, and racial identity are such convoluted topics.

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Rachel Dolezal is ridiculous, right? But it's only because her background didn't match. If she looked the way she did (tanning, blonde dreads and all) and had at least one parent that IDed as black, we wouldn't be having this conversation.

Whereas someone else, like say, our current President, can look black, and have a black parent, and identify as black, and experience the type of discrimination that black men experience in America and still have people both (1) deny his blackness and (2) deny his right to self-identify.

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Danielle Henderson:

YES.

Latoya Peterson:

And I think that's what some of the rage I see is about. It the everything but the burden problem. No one knows why Dolezdal decided she wanted to be black. She just decided one day.

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And that was that.

Danielle Henderson:

I think people are also angry because it will be just that easy for her to hop out of it that identity.

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But choosing a racial identity is not the same as self-identifying in any other way, right? Like, that is still a completely strange thing she did?

Latoya Peterson:

Just wash out the hair product and exfoliate the spray tan and she's back!

Well, yeah it's strange, but the whole concept of race is strange. I think race is so loaded because of our horrific history and the shared kinship it took to get through that. But I mean, I wouldn't know. No one ever thinks I'm anything but black.

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Danielle Henderson:

I'm have a light skin tone and freckles; even though both of my parents are black, I get asked if I'm white constantly. People want me to be white so bad! Race is strange, but it's also strange that I'm harder to figure out for most people than a white woman who is basically C. Thomas Howell in "Soul Man."

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There's something about me that's unacceptable as a light-skinned black woman that she was able to pull off effortlessly.

Latoya Peterson:

I don't think I'd use the phrase “pull off. That makes it seem like she successfully did it. The word, in my mind, is “take.”

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Danielle Henderson:

Yeah? How so?

Latoya Peterson:

She decided she wanted to be black and she TOOK IT.

Danielle Henderson:

Right.

Latoya Peterson:

This is inconceivable the other way around.

Danielle Henderson:

Exactly!

Latoya Peterson:

That's why we had all these passing narratives. The outing had severe social consequences.

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Danielle Henderson:

She also breached something sacred, in a way; a lot of people find comfort and solace in spaces like the NAACP. The NAACP means something—not just historically, but as a sort of permanent safe space for people who need it.

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Latoya Peterson:

“Breach” is a good word. And I think it's important to note here - it isn't as if these spaces aren't shared.

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Danielle Henderson:

Completely. That's why I'm so surprised—the NAACP has such an inclusive policy.

Latoya Peterson:

But it is about a deep, cultural understanding - I assume if a black woman is an a seat of authority, she's already grappled with the mandate to life as you climb, she already knows the half as good/twice as far truism.

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You know what it is? It's a colonizer mindset. What I see, I am entitled to. I think those of us who are black are taught pride in the face of discrimination, and go through at least some process of reckoning to understand who we are in America and how that shapes us.

And the spaces that came out of that, be it the NAACP or Essence, were confronting this culture, these dominant narratives of whiteness, and challenging them.

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To have a person who hasn't walked that kind of path, and understood on a deep level, why the fight has to continue is something that honestly, could imperil these institutions.

Danielle Henderson:

That's it exactly.

Race is so much more than color (even if it is still a strange construct). In this country, race is infused with more of a cultural meaning than color. Then again, with that argument, you get Macklemore

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Latoya Peterson:

I dunno about that. I mean, there's white and then there's white. Remember Asher Roth?  Iggy Azalea's great white hope predecessor? Tons of fawning articles about him being the new face of hip hop - but where's he now?  It wasn't real. It was just an identity to try on and discard.

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But the white people who've made it in hip-hop have either embraced themselves fully (like the Beastie Boys) or come from a context where blackness is not a foreign or scary concept.

But those are the people, in my experience, least likely to appropriate. They know their lane. They know blackness isn't it.

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The people who use blackness (or any other-ness for that matter) as a cape or cloak to put on and take off at will, that to me is frightening. To me, it just means they don't understand it. It's a toy, not an identity.

My mind keeps going back to the hate crimes though. "Eight documented hate crimes" is in her bio.

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Danielle Henderson:

That's so weird to me

Latoya Peterson:

Part of me wants to fact check it, call up the Klan from Northern Idaho and ask them if they targeted Rachel Doledal.

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Did you know there's a 24 hour Klanline?

Danielle Henderson:

It's not unbelievable that they would, but I think that would come more from her position at the NAACP than her supposed heritage.

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Latoya Peterson:

You know, I don't know that would be true. Here's why.

A few years back, Racialicious got overrun by some folks from Stormfront, a white supremacist site.

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What stood out to me the most about the attack was that it was almost completely depersonalized.

They had been monitoring the site for a while. I don't know if they still do, I don't see linkbacks or anything like that anymore. But when they came, they came to express disgust about a pictorial we posted, one that featured a white model (Gisele) being touched, carried, and caressed by a group of black men.

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Like, that was the line. Infringement upon the purity of whiteness.

Danielle Henderson:

Right, that's what I mean — anyone who is the president of the NAACP runs the risk of being targeted for what they stand for rather than who they are. So I wonder if these hate crimes were more about her position than who she is (or was pretending to be). They may not have been personal.

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Latoya Peterson:

But why list that in your bio?

Danielle Henderson:

Right!

Latoya Peterson:

I feel like it's another performative aspect. Kind of like the way white people who say they were the victim of racially motivated hate crimes over perform. I'm thinking of that white girl who carved a B into her face.

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Danielle Henderson:

I think just to bolster some credibility she clearly doesn't have? "Hate crimes" is a meaningful phrase, a known entity. It just becomes a language of it's own, a way to give a nod to some point of solidarity.

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Latoya Peterson:

But here's the thing. Danielle, have you ever proactively wanted to tell a story about being targeted for a hate crime?

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Danielle Henderson:

Absolutely not.

Latoya Peterson:

I just Googled Ben Jealous and the Klan, a few other combinations. Nothing is popping up. I'm not saying that definitively means nothing ever happened - but I think when you actually deal with racism on the regular, you don't need to perform it.

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Which, I think gets into a mental health aspect of this - I mean our conversation is focusing on her professional blackface routine, but isn't there a precedent of people who try to get attention by doing extreme things?

I looked up "hate crime hoax" and a young white woman popped up, this one with an LGBT focus.








So this isn't unheard of. And I think what's most damaging is that people who actually experience these kinds of things are less likely to speak out, because what we experience is subtle, pervasive, and societal.

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Danielle Henderson:

Yes. It's not a badge of honor when it happens to you for real.

Latoya Peterson:

And honestly, we don't expect our stories to be well received. Because everyone has them.

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I was always taught, people are racist - and? What, you're going to let that person control your life?

Danielle Henderson:

Where do you think this is headed, with Rachel?

Latoya Peterson:

Pssh. The same way it always goes. She's gonna get a book deal. It wouldn't be called white privilege if people actually had to face consequences.

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Danielle Henderson is a lapsed academic, heavy metal karaoke machine, and culture editor at Fusion. She enjoys thinking about how race, gender, and sexuality shape our cultural narratives, but not in a boring way.

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