Light Handed

You ain’t gotta lie to kick it: Rachel Dolezal, white mediocrity and the idealization of blackness

Screen Shot 2015-06-18 at 2.53.04 PMThere was no shortage of comedic gems to stem from the Rachel Dolezal controversy. Quickly following the news that the white activist had disguised herself as African-American for years, black Twitter tackled the moment with a series of cheeky one-liners, hashtags and memes, sparking a hilarious yet honest dialogue about race.  But perhaps the most absurdly amusing part of Dolezal’s story is America’s refusal to recognize the sociopathy inherent in her assumption of a new racial identity. Rather, critics and supporters alike are immersed in a debate around the authenticity of Dolezal’s blackness; and with the public unable to come to a consensus, the term “transracial” has emerged to legitimize her web of lies and the media circus surrounding it. Drawing parallels to transgenderism and bolstered by the fluidity of race as a social construct, transracial advocates argue that if Rachel’s racial identity does not match the norms associated with her assigned race, she should thus be allowed to transition into blackness. In short, despite being born to white parents, Rachel has the right to be black.

“Well I’m definitely am not white. Nothing about being white describes who I am. So what’s a word for it?”
 -Rachel Dolezal in an exclusive interview with NBC News’ Savannah Guthrie

This logic only makes one fallacious assumption: that a black identity can be assumed by merely mimicking the stereotypic physical attributes, language patterns and political interests associated with it. While a great deal of evidence suggests there is no biological reality to our understanding of race, racial identities nevertheless have real and lasting effects on our lived experiences and social outcomes. Blackness, in particular, is inextricably linked to a history of oppression and systemic discrimination; ergo, it is an experience that is in no way uniform, but inevitably influenced by white fear, insecurity and privilege. Blackness is a self-conscious existence that stifles the ability to express the nuance’s of one’s identity within a dominant culture that denies one’s humanity.  Thus, to be black is to inherit not just the historical baggage, but the psychological and emotional trauma that comes along with it. Blackness is all these things and so much more, but what it is NOT  is something that can be performed — no matter how convincing the act.

We do not live in a transracial America. The assertion, in itself, runs counter to the logic that serves it. If there is no such thing as “race,” how can one transition between racial categories that are at bottom negligible?

Dolezal’s passing is not a symptom of misplaced identity nor, as she suggests, being switched at birth. Rather, her behavior falls in line with a trend of modern-day blackface where adopting a black aesthetic becomes an instant remedy for white mediocrity. By assuming stereotypically “black” cultural codes, norms and physical characteristics, whites who are generally uninteresting, untalented, and  “unattractive,” can suddenly be more entertaining…
miley cyrus twerk animated GIF

more rhythmic…work animated GIF

and more “beautiful”…kylie jenner animated GIF

While blackface performers have historically worn their bigotry on their proverbial sleeves, today’s perpetrators justify the practice under the guise of false idolization. Unbeknownst to them, they contribute to a sordid history of cultural appropriation that makes black people the butt of an old racist joke. Just like their predecessors, they exercise imitation as the sincerest form of mockery, ridicule and disrespect.

They say if you tell a lie once, all your truths become questionable. Accordingly, as Rachel Dolezal’s lies unfold, her truths — namely her accolades and activism — have come under intense scrutiny. Yet, despite her questionable ethics, the fact that Dolezal is not biologically black has little bearing of her contributions to the black community. After all, as NBA Hall of Famer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar notes, when considering her commitment to black equity, “does it really matter whether Rachel is black or white?”

In a world where black joy is policed with the same intensity and brute force as a criminal act, I suppose black Americans can use all of the allies they can get. White liberals have long played an important and strategic role in the movement for black civil rights and Dolezal, identity confusion withstanding, is a welcome and valuable asset among them.

Rachel, my dear, you ain’t gotta lie to kick it.

Photo by Vox Efx/CC BY 2.0

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What the fuck is a prime anyway?

Today is my 25th birthday and while I relish in any excuse to eat cake and ice-cream, I have to admit that I’ve been dreading entering my awkward and unstable mid-20s. I recently confided my anxiety to my mom and, true to motherly form, she’s taken up the habit of reminding me that I’m “in the prime of my life” every chance she gets! While I appreciate my mother’s optimism, her reassuring words have done little to actually curb what I’ve christened as my “quarter life crisis.” After all, what the fuck is a prime anyway?

If 25 is traditionally considered the prime of our lives, the heavy media coverage of the great millennial delay (Exhibit A, Exhibit B, Exhibit C…I can probably go on for days) has flushed that idea down the generational toilet.

According to the NY Times, compared to their baby boomer predecessors, today’s 25-year-olds are “twice as likely to still be students, only half as likely to be married and 50 percent more likely to be receiving financial assistance from their parents.”

So, there you have it. If we can’t seem to graduate,  commit ourselves to marriage or pay or our own bills by the age of 25, it makes perfect sense that we reach our “prime” sometime later in life.  In the age of real life toys”R”us kids, 25 couldn’t possibly be the pinnacle of our adult lives. Right?! At the behest of a friend, I searched for the answers to my existential crisis in Meg Jay’s highly recommended “The Defining Decade: Why Your Twenties Matter –And How To Make The Most Of Them.” Big mistake. I got through the introduction of Jay’s ceaseless assertion that we grow up sooner rather than later before my anxiety kicked in and I subsequently kicked “The Defining Decade”  to the curb.  Jay’s insistence that our 20s are a time where the things we do (or don’t do) stay with us forever absolutely terrified me and so, feeling more anxious than ever,  I set out in search of a sign that my lack of enthusiasm about my mid-20s wasn’t a symptom of  some mental defect, but entirely natural. I never quite found what I was looking for (or at least not through my Google search) and now that my 25th birthday has inevitably arrived, I suppose I’ll just have to take it all in stride. The truth is – I really don’t have a choice in the matter so, for now, I’ll assume that my mom was right. My anxiety will pass and everything will pan out…eventually. I am, in fact, in the prime of my life.

Photo by Will Clayton/CC BY 2.0

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A new generation of black leadership is long overdue

My grandfather was a devoted father, a brilliant and underrated black visionary and an adamant racist. I’m not quite sure “racist” is the most politically correct term here — considering racism has more to do with power than personal bias — but, nevertheless, Grandpa Bobby openly and proudly loathed white folk. And, let’s be honest, who could blame him? As a product of the Jim Crow south, one can imagine that his political beliefs were rationally motivated by a fair share of cruel and even violent interactions with white people. While I never adopted his disdain for whites  en masse,  my grandfather and his uncanny ability to insert the words “cracker” and “honkey” in casual conversation left a lasting impression on me. He passed away when I was 5-years-old, but before he did he instilled in me a keen awareness of the concept of race, the perceived differences between the races, and the unfortunate reality that those differences mattered.

So, naturally, as my education matured and my curiosity about black history piqued, I found myself particularly drawn to the separatist ideology of Malcolm X. Much like Grandpa Bobby, Malcolm’s impassioned words of wisdom inspired me to think critically about race, to recognize the duality of being both Black and American, and to reconcile what implications that had in my life. 50 years to the day after Malcolm was shot dead at the Audubon Ballroom, there is no denying that he has and will continue to inspire generations of thinkers to come. But, even more remarkable than Malcolm’s audacity to call America out on it’s flaws, was his incomparable ability to get folks — both black and white — riled up. Through his fiery oratory, Malcolm brought America’s “race problem” to the mainstage, taking the lead in convincing the world to finally address racism, for better or for worse.

When I think of phenomenal black leadership, I think of Malcolm. Unlike many of today’s appointed race leaders, he had no political agendas, no sports or music contracts, and no fear of negative press diluting his message. He was the real thing. He had absolutely nothing to lose except, of course, his life — a sacrifice he was willing to make since, as he put it,

“If you’re not ready to die for it, put the word ‘freedom’ out of your vocabulary.”

50 years ago today, a wife lost her husband, four children lost their father and the world lost one of its most brilliant revolutionary thinkers. It is no secret that since the mass assassinations of some of the most active race leaders of the civil rights era, America has struggled to produce a single and consistent voice to galvanize the masses around race issues. While social media is proving itself s a viable tool for a new generation of activism, there is still much confusion around where or, rather, to whom activists turn once the hashtags stop trending, the media moves on, and the protests dwindle.

A new generation of black leadership is long overdue. That fact became crystal clear last October when a group of young protesters and religious leaders turned their backs on NAACP president Cornell Williams Brooks during one of many mass demonstrations in Ferguson, Mo. following the fatal shooting of unarmed black teenager, Michael Brown by a Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson.

“We got revolutionaries out here [on the streets] starving!”

“We got revolutionaries out here on [the streets] starving!” one protester reportedly shouted at Brooks, which begs the question: What exactly is this metaphorical “we” starving for?

I won’t pretend to have the answers here but I will say that “we” certainly seem starved for justice. “We” seem starved for strategy. “We” seem starved for someone — anyone really — willing to step up and propose an escape from this ideological prison that kills our sons and tells our daughters they’re ugly.  But most of all, “we” seem starved for freedom but “we” must ask ourselves: Are “we” willing to die for it?

Photo by Steve Rotman/CC BY 2.0