What White People Can (and Must) Learn from the Rachel Dolezal Saga

The Curious Case of Nkechi Diallo

How in the world did the Rachel Dolezal thing even start? How do you make sense of it? Nobody understood it at first. Most of us still don’t, to be honest. She came, quite literally, out of nowhere. It was a story that was so farfetched, so unbelievable, that it took long enough to get to grips with the fact that no, this isn’t a joke, this is real, this is actually happening.

If you aren’t familiar with Rachel Dolezal (where the hell have you been?), here’s the long and short; in the summer of 2015, Rachel Dolezal, a thirty-something white woman from Spokane Washington, became an international news story when it emerged that she’d been living for most of her adult life as a black woman. Not only this, she had been a prominent figure in her local NAACP chapter and an educator at the Eastern Washington University in courses such as “African History”, “African American Culture” and “The Black Woman’s Struggle.

Dolezal’s ultimate defence was that she did not identify as white; that she genuinely believes that, inside, she is a black woman. I’m not going to go into much more detail about the rest of her backstory – it’s been well-covered and the information’s out there, and the whole thing leaves me so bewildered it’s exhausting.


The reason I bring her up today is because she’s reappeared in the news twice over these past few weeks. Firstly, it was revealed that she is on the brink of homelessness because she now struggles to find gainful employment. A few days later, news broke that she had changed her name, a few months ago, to Nkechi Amare Diallo. Nkechi is an Igbo name that translates to ‘Gift of God’; Amare is an Ethiopian name that means ‘handsome/good-looking’ (no comment); and Diallo is a Fulani word that roughly translates to ‘Bold’ – this one, I suppose, is at least somewhat accurate, because if there’s one thing that can be said of Rachel Dolezal it’s that she’s bold as all hell.

I’m not going to wade too deep into the Rachel Dolezal debate itself today. That particular critique has been done so much more effectively than I ever could by people in a much better position to do so than myself; Jessie Daniels unpicks the whole debacle pretty effectively in this piece over at Racism Review; Gal-Dem have a good piece from last year addressing her refusal to quietly step out of the spotlight; and Trudy’s piece over on Gradient Lair speaks to the even deeper violence (and that is what it is) that’s at play in situations such as this.

Instead, I’m going to talk about Dolezal as exemplifying numerous problems that white people cause as allies to black causes. As the old saying goes, the road to Hell is paved with good intentions, and it’s Dolezal’s seemingly-unwavering belief that she is not the enemy that makes her actions all the more sinister. When her story first broke on Twitter, a common cry was “White people, come and get your girl.” With that sentiment in mind, here’s some things white people should be considering next time we want to show our support for any of the numerous black political movements happening right now.t

Your Personal Struggles ≠ The Struggle

Dolezal claims to have had a difficult upbringing. She has stated that her parents abused her physically and psychologically, and has been estranged from them for many years. At one point she even claimed legal guardianship of her adoptive-brother Izaiah – with her parents’ consent. Her parents heavily contest all of the claims against them, and even seem genuinely lost at some of the charges levelled against them. Whatever the truth is, it’s probably fair to say that their family is far from a picture-perfect fairy tale, and a considerable amount of animosity is bubbling beneath the surface, for whatever reason.

A common defence employed by Dolezal when it has been pointed out that she, with German, Czech and Swedish heritage, is quite literally the whitest white that could possibly white, is that she “identifies” as black. But what does this statement actually mean? Ostensibly it appears her belief is that, because she has encountered certain difficulties “fitting in” in life, she identifies with black people’s struggles to be accepted in society.

This logic isn’t just horseshit, however; it’s dangerous. It’s the ‘Oh, you have a hard time find a job? I can relate. I went to an interview at Starbucks once and they never called back’ mentality blown up to envelop black people’s entire lives. Not only that, while it’s right and vital to recognise the black experience as one that involves hardship, it’s patronising and reductive to boil it down to just that. An ally who views black people purely as vessels of suffering and hardship is just as bad as someone who actively inflicts those experiences on them. The Black Lives Matter movement isn’t about making white people aware that black people are being killed just to make us to feel bad; it’s about saying black people have lives; stop taking those lives. Stop killing them. And if you’re unable to understand black people outside of narratives of oppression and suffering, ask yourself how you’re going to aid in ending the reality of those narratives?

As we learn about the deeper elements of the black experience across the world, there will probably be times when we reflect upon it in context of our own experiences and feel empathy. That’s probably okay. If you can remember a particular moment and how it made you feel, and that helps you to place yourself in the shoes of a black person or person of colour for one second and reflect on what it might feel like to experience that for every minute of every day, good.

But if you aren’t then able to re-contextualise that, to realise that you aren’t in that person’s shoes, that you still don’t get it and will never be completely able to, then you are of no use. Our attempts to understand and be engaged with the black experience is not the same as trying to identify with it. If you’re doing the latter, equating your comparatively minor experiences of hardship and alienation with an entire system of oppression and exclusion, you are only going to do damage.

Know your Place

In the protests that followed the murder of Trayvon Martin at the hands of George Zimmerman, black people took to the streets wearing hoodies to symbolise the idea that any one of them could have been Trayvon; any one of them could have been the victim on that day. Some white allies saw this and joined in, wearing their own hoodies, but in doing so completely erased the racial dynamics at play; the hoodie was symbolic of the laundry list of everyday actions that have put black people at risk of death at the hands of police, from selling loose cigarettes to placing hands in pockets, to not placing hands in pockets. The hoodie was not the point; it was about the black body that becomes weaponised by the white gaze when placed inside something as banal as a hoodie, and when white participated in that act they effectively erased that statement on the weaponisation of black bodies.

White people are not the person in the hoodie in this dynamic; we’re the guy holding the gun. Solidarity is important, but we need to do so in way that doesn’t erase the very schisms that black people are trying to highlight. It’s for this reason that I’ve felt personally uncomfortable when white people have joined in with ‘Hands Up, Don’t Shoot’ chants during marches or protests, or lay down during ‘Die In’ protests. By aligning ourselves with these actions so simplistically, we actually risk erasing the very significant difference between the black & white experience that black people are trying to highlight.

White people being engaged, involved and taking part in these fights is important. We have a role that we can perform in discussions, at protests, in politics, media and so on that we can use to further the cause. A discussion that arose in the wake of the Women’s March in January was that if that number of white people had turned out during the Ferguson protests and stood with those protestors, the police would not have behaved the same way they did. Police in the US – and the UK – attack black bodies with impunity because they know there is an entire structure in place that will defend them.

It’s easy to look at footage from Ferguson, as a white person, and feel shock or amazement at what you’re seeing, but when you remember those protests were triggered by law and order’s complete and utter disregard for black life, how shocking is it really? Individual police officers respond to individual black bodies with violence; the collective police community will respond to the collective black community with violence. If white people want to be at the front of the fight, then they should get, quite literally, to the front of the fight. If there had been a line of white people between the police and the black protestors in scenarios such as Ferguson, it would have played out differently.

If you want to be an active player in these protests, do them in the role that fits your position; as the person with privilege. Use your voice to call out injustice on without erasing black voices. Place your body, one which is valued and protected by white supremacist mechanisms such as law enforcement, between black people and those who intend to do them harm. Challenge people within your own community. Give your money to black and minority political causes. Contribute to funds for meeting spaces, transportation, legal fees, food, medical supplies and so on. Get your friend’s lawyer parents on board.

If we take Dolezal’s eager participation in her local black political and protest movements as sincere and well-meant, then this is a white woman who placed herself at the very front of a number of dialogues and discussions when it wasn’t her place to do so. If your desire to speak as a white person happens at the expense of a black person’s voice, then how can you claim to be supportive? Being part doesn’t have to mean being at the centre, which leads to the next.

De-centre your whiteness and de-centre yourself.

A recurring element of Dolezal’s behaviour has been her inability (or unwillingness) to prioritise the movements she claims to support over her own ego. After all, over the past two years the issues with her behaviour have been called out, highlighted and explained repeatedly, at length, but she has continued to fight for her own personal right to “identify as black”. It takes a particular sort of mental gymnastics to claim you are committed to a certain group’s cause, to be told by that same group that your actions are detrimental to that same cause, and to then ignore them and continue on that same path because you believe you know better.

But it’s bigger than that. Not only have Rachel Dolezal’s actions been detrimental towards the black movement; she’s added fuel to the fire of groups and agencies that actively seek to invalidate and silence them. Within the black community, her actions have been met with frustration, anger and scorn, quite rightly, but mainstream media outlets (not to mention far-right platforms such as Breitbart and Daily Stormer) have used her as a sideshow; a tool with which to mock and ridicule those who are fighting these genuine battles over race.

Not only that, her tenuous, botched reasoning that she, a white woman, should be allowed to identify as black, has been co-opted and twisted by those same groups to invalidate the transgender movement through false equivalences and spurious logic (the Gradient Lair article mentioned above unpacks this dynamic very powerfully).

Her refusal to think of broader issues and movements before her own ego is causing massive, lasting damage to people beyond her immediate sphere, and her continued hijacking of those causes, not to mention the media platforms that give her continued coverage, does nothing to help. Think of all the newspapers and media outlets that have published articles and features on Dolezal, and think of how many have tied her to black political movements and academic thought. Now ask yourself how many of those same outlets have given platform to black academics and figureheads in those same movements.

A newspaper like the Daily Mail is never going to give column inches to someone like Cornell West, Feminista Jones or Sydette Harry, but they’ll churn out feature after feature about Rachel Dolezal and let their comment sections, not to mention Facebook and Twitter, boil over with bigotry and hateful discussions. And be clear; though a proportion of people might be ridiculing Dolezal on the absurdity of her actions alone (though I doubt it), plenty of them will use her as a vessel to channel their hatred of black and brown people (and trans people, for that matter) safe in the knowledge that Dolezal’s self-obfuscated identity provides them a shield of ambiguity.

Sometimes stuff will come back on you. Deal with it.

There’s a reason phrases like ‘white guilt’ and ‘race traitor’ exist. The former is a phrase often used by white people, many of them ostensibly “progressive”, who think that putting your own feelings aside in consideration of others is the result of misplaced guilt; that white people would only seek to support black and minority causes because they feel bad. The latter is a more extreme manifestation of that same sentiment; that those people are committing an act of betrayal against the white race and should be treated with scorn. Be clear on this – those two sentiments are one and the same. Both are simply examples of White Supremacy confronting what it perceives as a threat to its own dominance. One might cloak itself in moderate language and intellectualism, but it’s rooted in the same fear of its place in the hierarchy being challenged.

Whether it’s a friend of yours getting frustrated and telling you to “stop bringing race into everything” or an actual racist threatening you with violence for challenging their views, it’s important to recognise these moments as exposing the mechanisms of whiteness, and though your friend might be expressing themselves in a more polite and congenial manner, they are part of the same problem.

If you are committed to the cause of challenging whiteness and dismantling white supremacy, you will probably lose friends. You will probably be made uncomfortable by work colleagues. You will probably find it difficult to enjoy certain films, music, TV shows, books, comedy, and so on. You might even walk into your favourite bar, or restaurant, or trendy East London hotel/creative hub, and become palpably aware of certain mechanisms at play. But when you experience those flashes of discomfort or uncertainty that you can indulge in these things anymore, remember that you are experiencing a split-second flash of something that black, brown, LGBTQ and other minorities experience every day of their lives. Confronting these kinds of things, particularly cutting off people who you previously had no problem with, is hard, but even when shit seems to be coming down on you, it’s not about you. Return to point one; that you are struggling with certain things does not mean you are part of the struggle. You are not a victim. Not even close.

Why is Rachel Dolezal coming back in the news right now? Because she’s having a hard time finding work. People won’t hire her. As I said earlier in this piece, she has a strange way, for whatever reason, of taking hardship and difficulty in her life and transposing it into this narrative of her struggle as one and the same as the black experience. There is no doubt in my mind that Rachel Dolezal truly believes that she, as a white woman who has chosen to identify as black, is struggling to find work because she is black. I do not think it has crossed her mind at all that the reality of the situation, the truth of it, is that nobody will hire her because she is absolutely toxic.

It’s possible that Rachel Dolezal has experienced at least some discrimination because of her involvement in black political movements, but don’t get it twisted; the backlash that she has received over the past two years is because she is a white woman who has done foolish and damaging things. For her to have steadfastly ignored all of the criticism that she has received from the same community she claims to support, and continue to claim that she is a victim of oppression or discrimination, is blinding.

It’s this which makes me view her decision to change her name to Nkechi Diallo as particularly caustic. In a continuation of her desire to interweave her personal hardships with a narrative that is not hers, I can’t help but feel like this name change is an attempt to further disown her transgressions. As Zoe Samudzi has noted, she’ll now likely claim that people aren’t hiring her not because she’s an employment dumpster fire, but because her name is “too black”.

Rachel Dolezal living on food stamps because she is unemployable does not unite her with the many black families in America who are living on food stamps because they are un-or-underemployed as a result of structural racism. Being denied employment because you would be poison does not make you one and the same with the person who was denied because of the colour of their skin. Rachel Dolezal is a story of someone who wishes to blame all of her hardship on a broader societal construct, even when genuine victims of those societal constructs are telling her otherwise. Rachel Dolezal is an ally for as long and as far as it massages and comforts her own ego. It’s precisely this behaviour that all white people should be wary of when we participate in these movements.

The other day I was reading about James Zwerg, a white man who became involved in the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s after seeing how his black roommate at Beloit College was treated. He got involved because he saw that wrong was being done, and he knew he had to do something. During his participation in nonviolent protests, Zwerg was repeatedly assaulted and beaten. In one instance he was beaten unconscious with a monkey wrench. Later on, he became involved in the Freedom Rides which included initiatives such as those depicted in the film The Butler wherein activists challenged the south’s segregation laws by sitting at White-Only lunch counters. On one occasion, the group Zwerg was travelling with was ambushed at a bus station and beaten severely. He was denied immediate medical attention because the white ambulances, allegedly, were not available. His attack received widespread media coverage – because he’s a white guy for fighting for black rights (see: white guilt/race traitor mentality) – and when asked about his ordeal he said this:

‘There was nothing particularly heroic in what I did. If you want to talk about heroism, consider the black man who probably saved my life. This man in coveralls, just off of work, happened to walk by as my beating was going on and said ‘Stop beating that kid. If you want to beat someone, beat me.’ And they did. He was still unconscious when I left the hospital. I don’t know if he lived or died.’

It’s important for white people to be involved in these fights. It’s important for us to be engaged and listening, and taking part in the activism to deconstruct white supremacy in all its forms. But consider James Zwerg’s understanding that even when the newspapers are asking about him and pointing the cameras at his bruises, the discussion should be about all the people the newspapers aren’t talking about. These were news stories about a white man being beaten for protesting (and surviving) during a time when black people were being lynched for merely existing. James Zwerg’s own experience of violence at the hands of white supremacy concludes with a black body whose fate was unknown, and he made clear to remind us that he is not the victim. And he did not do what he did, or go through that violence, for some sort of gratification or reward. He did it because it was the right thing to do.

Rachel Dolezal should be viewed as a warning of the dangers of allyship when it is not called to question and held to account. No matter how passionate white people might be about the issues we read about, we must always remember that this is not about us. No amount of proximity to black people, even spouses and children, will magically grant us an understanding of what it means to be black. Again, the road to Hell is paved with good intentions. Showing up without truly making an effort to understand what you are engaging with makes us just as bad as the people who don’t show up at all – a lot of the time it makes us even worse, because nobody’s reporting on the white people not fighting White Supremacy; they are the norm. In the eyes of the media and hegemonic institutions, misguided white allies and their derailing actions become tools to invalidate the entire movement.

Don’t protest because you want to look good or progressive. Don’t challenge White Supremacy because you have experienced difficulty and believe you identify with the black struggle. Don’t march because you have a Munchausen-esque desire to be attacked, vilified or ostracised. Don’t interpret any of the exclusion or backlash you may experience as proof that you have passed the test and become part of the black struggle. Do not show up to a protest expecting someone to stamp a Melanin Loyalty Card, and understand that it is possible to be present without placing yourself at the centre of the activities. Don’t fight on the side of black people because you believe it will eventually relieve or excuse you of your whiteness.

Do it because it is the right thing to do.
And when somebody tells you you’re doing it wrong, listen.

Thanks to: Gradient Lair, Sydette Harry, Feminista Jones, Zoe Samudzi, Bwalya Newton

This entry was posted in Checking In and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.