I know I’m two days too late, and in internet time that’s the equivalent of being two years too late, but I had to put my thoughts in writing. I’m not sure if I add anything new to this conversation since so many people have written about this by now, but I’m doing it anyway!
By now everyone has heard of Rachel Dolezal, the white woman and NAACP Spokane, Washington Chapter President who spent years lying about being Black. What started out as a juicy piece of gossip quickly erupted into a national conversation about race and identity. And as soon as I read the story, I knew people would try to drag Caitlyn Jenner and other transgendered people into her foolishness. Unfortunately, I wasn’t wrong. But I’ll get to that in a bit.
What is a Black Person?
#AskRachel on Twitter was probably one of the funniest and most interesting reactions to come out of this controversy. The premise of the hashtag being that if Rachel was “really” Black, she would know the answers to questions like:
This beat is __________________ A. automatic b. Supersonic c. hypnotic d. funky fresh e. All of the above #AskRachel
— J.〽️cQueen (@__Jeremooo) June 14, 2015
— King Charles (@TyriqCharles) June 14, 2015
What’s interesting about these #AskRachel questions though, is that most of them involve music and media; lyrics from rap and R&B songs that played regularly on radio stations throughout the world, TV shows and movies with Black characters that were broadcast on national stations and were in syndication for years. In other words, stuff white (and Latino and Asian) people also grew up with and wouldn’t hesitate to answer enthusiastically and correctly. But that doesn’t make them Black, does it.
So then there were the #AskRachel questions about family life. And church life. And food.
What is your mother not? A. a teacher B. your cousin C. one of ya lil friends D. none of the above #AskRachel😂
— lolo (@swagmoneylo) June 15, 2015
These are trickier. These were about the intimate spaces of Black people, ones that (most) white people wouldn’t have access to. But a lot of Black people don’t have access to these spaces either. Because they are about a very specific Black experience. A Black AMERICAN experience with Southern roots. As a 1st generation American raised by Tanzanian parents with immigrant friends from Asia and Latin America, I still can’t answer the potato salad question (yellow or white? huh?) My mother never talked about “McDonald’s money” and I had no idea what a “kitchen” was (the kinky hair at the nape of our necks) until I took an African-American studies class in college. But that doesn’t mean I’m not Black, does it.
So it’s clear that there is no ONE Black culture, and having access to elements of Black culture doesn’t make you Black…so then…what is Blackness?
The Skin I’m In
Nobody questions my Blackness because I have brown skin, kinky locs, a wide nose and full lips. But we know Blackness is not just about skin color or facial features. There are Black identified folks who are lighter than Rachel Dolezal. Black folks with blonde hair and blue eyes. Black folks with white parents. Black folks with white kids. So what makes us Black?
When I visited Tanzania as a kid, the children there would call me and my siblings “Mzungu” or “white person”. Although our biological grandparents were right there speaking Kihaya and Swahili with them, we were still white people. We spoke, walked, dressed, acted in a way that they only associated with white people and therefore, we were white folk too. The argument “We are all Black” wouldn’t even make sense to many Africans because their concept of racial and cultural identity is not Pan-African but tied to their very specific regional customs and languages. Many dark-skinned Africans living in sub-Saharan Africa would not be able to answer any of the #AskRachel questions. But aren’t they Black?
Systems of Power Define Us
Colonial Anglo-Saxon European people in power, aka “white” people, were the ones who first defined us. They were the ones who decided one drop of African blood = Negro or Black. We did not know that we were all supposed to be connected until those European people in power decided to enslave and colonize those of us who lived on the African continent.
But then we took back their definition of us to fight their oppression. We actively look for connections and celebrate them instead of allowing ourselves to be destroyed by them. “They” told us we were Black to justify oppressing us, and we reclaim that identity to empower us. “Yes, we are Black. And Black is beautiful”.
Black is Political
When I say I’m Black, I’m connecting myself to millions of other African descended people around the globe. I’m saying, although we may have differences, I choose to recognize our similarities. It’s a statement of solidarity.
Honor the Ancestors
I think this is probably the most important part. We are who we are because of our ancestors. Or better yet, we were born because our ancestors survived and reproduced. Our ancestors who became Black, not because they wanted to but because they were forced to, were colonized and enslaved into it. They suffered heavily because of it. They lost their cultures and histories because of it. And when we say we are Black we are calling on that history and remembering them and honoring them. We are recognizing their struggle and saying, “Despite it all, We Are Still Here”.
So that’s why it doesn’t make sense for a white woman to claim Blackness, no matter how passionately she may be about advancing the lives of Black folk. She is not here despite it all, she is here because of it all.
And she is a liar. As my husband pointed out, the biggest issue with Rachel Dolezal is the deceit. In fact, it completely contradicts Black identity. A light-skinned, “white presenting” person who could pass as white but identifies as Black is admitting something about their history. They are choosing to accept the past, choosing to accept those ancestors and family members who struggled and survived. A white person claiming to be Black is denying that history of racism and oppression. They are saying Blackness is not about our heritage and history but about a performance. Even if their performance looks and feels authentic and/or respectful, it is still a mockery of Blackness because it denies the past. The past that made us Black in the first place.
Why Transgender People are Not like Rachel Dolezal
Since transgender people were dragged into the conversation, it made me think about the ways gender and race are similar and different as social constructs. I will admit that it is a complicated conversation, but the easiest way for me to understand it is this: Every culture and society in human history has had males and females, men and women. How we choose to present our maleness and femaleness has varied throughout human history and look different depending on the society, but the possibility for those two roles has always been there. (And actually more than two roles since intersex people–those born with ambiguous genitalia or sex organs, have always existed).
When my mother was pregnant with me my parents had a boy name and a girl name in preparation. They knew I could be one or the other. However, being anything other than Black (Tanzanian, Haya) was not an option because that’s what they were and my grandparents were, etc. And given my readily identifiable Black features, that’s also how the world would see me.
But we are all made up of male (our father) and female (our mother) parts. We are all exposed to male and female identities. And while the easiest (laziest) way to identify someone as male and female is through their genitalia and physical appearance, we know that being male or female involves much more than that. In fact, many societies throughout history have understood this and created spaces for transgender people. Some more information about that Here and Here.
Simply put, race, as we understand it today, is a fairly new concept that relies on specific historical events and context, but sex and gender have been around forever.
So…are you still reading? Is anyone there? LOL. There’s so much more to say about this subject, but i’ll leave it there. I also want to add that I find Rachel Dolezal’s story more sad and silly than offensive. But I’m glad that her story has gotten me to think more about how and why we define ourselves the way we do.