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Moment of Truth: April 22 2017


White is Black, Up is Down

Welcome to the Moment of Truth: the thirst that is the drink.

What could be better than a white guy discussing black female identity? Well, if the white guy is THIS white guy, there's nothing better. It's gonna be the most entertaining act of hubris you've ever been treated to. Tell all your black female friends!

Look, I don't know anything about what it's like to be a black woman, except what my black woman friends tell me, and unless they're lying, they're always having a wonderful time! Who would you rather be, Serena Williams, who won a tennis championship while pregnant, or Paul Prudhomme, who is dead from being really fat? Who would you rather be: Beyonce, or that Nazi who got sucker-punched on camera while explaining the significance of Pepe the Frog? I think we can all understand why Rachel Dolezal, the crazy white woman who fooled the Spokane NAACP into thinking she was black for years, chose to identify as a black woman rather than as Dom DeLouise or Gilbert Godfried or Bill O'Reilly.

I bring up the strange case of Rachel Dolezal in response to a recent article in the Seattle alternative weekly, The Stranger, by Ijeoma Oluo. Oluo is a feminist journalist who lives in Seattle and has published widely. She's also a black woman. You'd think she'd be the perfect candidate to interrogate Dolezal's pretensions. And she was!

I'm going to try to sum up Oluo's article briefly. Rachel Dolezal is the worst possible white person to claim she gets to decide whether or not she's black. She first became enamored of blackness by looking at pictures in National Geographic, while her brother was taking a break from using them to masturbate.

Dolezal, embarrassingly outed as white on television, has no shame whatsoever. She's in fact very prickly toward those who question her about anything. I guess you never get used to people treating you like a psychotic liar, even after you've been exposed as one in the most public way possible. Dolezal, instead of resigning herself to the fact that her public performance as a black woman is over, has doubled-down, renaming herself Nkechi Amare Diallo. Nkechi happens to be Oluo's sister's first name. Now it's personal. I mean, even more personal.

Oluo approaches Dolezal as if the latter were a childish poseur, very much as I thought of a couple I once read about who claim to be living a life of Victorian simplicity in their contemporary suburban home. Throughout the article, Oluo dissects Dolezal's self- satisfied elisions of difficult questions. Doesn't Dolezal get that most of the world she casually encounters on the street treat her as white, because there is nothing black about her? Isn't she advantaged by her white privilege in a thousand ways every minute of every day she's relatively anonymous in public? Dolezal either doesn't like to entertain questions like these, or else she's sick of them. Regardless, Dolezal's behavior is easy to mock. She comes off as an idiot without an iota of self-awareness. Not only that, she has a chip on her shoulder about being called on the carpet for her idiocy.

When I first heard about Dolezal, and learned she was in a high position in the Spokane, WA NAACP, I thought, Well, so what? If she's prepared to endure the social and economic discrimination most black women do, what's the harm? Isn't this similar to men who identify as women? Isn't it her choice to identify culturally as whatever she pleases?

It turns out such questions are beside the point. Or rather, they're not specific enough. Through the process of picking apart specifics of Dolezal's experience, Oluo reveals a supremely clownish figure who can't even answer the most basic questions her potentially challenging stance raises.

But what if Dolezal weren't such a twit? What if she looked more like a black woman, and also was prepared to discuss difficult issues of racism in a self-implicating manner? Would that make any difference? Probably! It wouldn't necessarily make her any less annoying to black people, least of all to black women, but at least it would be interesting.

That Dolezal's situation is more annoyance than controversy might be the most damning aspect of her performance. A man I know who identifies as a woman has a million thought-provoking things to say about it. Rachel Dolezal has none. It doesn't even seem like she wants anyone to sympathize with her as someone out of the ordinary. She just wants people to accept her as black even though she clearly isn't, and can't even give a persuasive explanation about why she wants to be black. She loves black people, but not enough to care what their opinions are about her strangely colorless performance of blackness.

There doesn't seem to be anything about Dolezal's performance or her justifications for it that isn't racist. It's almost as if the shallowest, most centrist liberal decided to put on blackface and dance around, and then explained to all the people she'd pissed off, "Hey, I'm a good person just expressing myself and sharing in the oppression of a group I admire cuz they're so inspiring. Give me some fried chicken."

Again, what if there were a white woman posing as a black woman, prepared to answer Oluo's tough questions in a thoughtful, satisfying manner? What could Dolezal say that wouldn't add insult to annoyance? "All the people who've ever inspired me are black. A black woman saved my life when I was six. I lived in Nigeria for 20 years, and the Yoruba adopted me as one of their own. I speak six languages indigenous to the African continent. People mistake me for Ethiopian all the time, so I just decided to go with it."

The thing is, such a person would have developed too much respect for black people to ever presume to pretend she was one.

Race is a social construct, yes, but it's a social construct built on physical differentiation. A culture in which white people hold the reins of power decided a long time ago that people with particular attributes, genetic and/or phenotypic, were to be stigmatized in such a way as to justify exploiting them, as though they didn't merit the rights of full human beings, and that stigma persists. Membership in a racially oppressed minority isn't something a member of the oppressing group, whether they identify as an oppressor or not, can simply choose. Blackness isn't a metaphor for femininity or for another nationality. Blackness is its own thing. Those stigmatized by it against their will aren't playing a game.

A man might become a woman, not because he admires women, but because he really feels like a woman. Gender identification is closely linked with sexuality, which is utterly personal. Even were there a man who identified as a woman, whom no one on Earth accepted as a woman, which would be tragic, that person's personal experience would come first. I've seen how men who present unconvincingly as women are treated, and they're not taking an easy route. But when Dolezal presents unconvincingly as black, she just gets mistaken for a white person, with all the privileges accrued to such status. And further, she refuses to acknowledge or address that blithe privilege.

In the end, we need to take such questions of identification, stigma and oppression on a case by case basis. The case of Dolezal has been something black people have given way more consideration than necessary. If you annoy the entire membership of the community you claim to be a part of, but you don't annoy yourself, or even understand the community's annoyance, or even try to understand it, maybe you're not actually a member. The final analysis: Dolezal's not a black woman, she' a jerk. Not that the two are mutually exclusive, but it does seem as though, in this case, they are.

This has been the Moment of Truth. Good day!


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