Who Decides the Culture?

Savannah Thorpe, IUP

When the Rachel Dolezal scandal broke, my initial reaction wasn’t the horror and disgust of some or the raucous laughter at the absurdity of it all others expressed. I breathed out deeply and knew that my standing as a black woman was now at risk once again and worse than ever. I can only describe the emotion as a combination of fatigue and disappointment.

Since this is old news now, allow me to recap: Rachel Dolezal claimed for much of her professional life that she was a biracial woman whose dad is black. For years, she has held a position of power in her local chapter of the NAACP and been an instrumental member of multiple racial lawsuits against the local police department, marches, and other movements for the betterment of black folks in her city. Furthermore, she had received scholarships given only to black students and taught in a university’s African American Studies department. However, a few weeks ago, her estranged white parents came forth and expressed that Rachel had been disguising herself as a black woman for years. They presented her birth certificate, which indicated that she was indeed born to two white parents, as well as many childhood pictures taken prior to the tanning beds, weaves, and NAACP involvement. Since her parents have divulged this information, Dolezal has tried to defend her blackness, saying that while the white man may have been her father, a black man was her “dad,” and that she truly identifies with black culture and the cause in her heart. This utter debacle spurred conversations about the idea that someone can be “transracial” (since this occurred in the wake of Caitlyn Jenner’s debut), as well as a hailstorm of tweets tagged #AskRachel about black pop culture or history.

Friends started sending me various versions of the story for my commentary on the whole ordeal. In an attempt to remind my white friends that I do not speak on behalf of the black community, I often responded in something short and humorous and encouraged them to explore the writing of others closer to the situation. One friend, though, commented to me, “You know, you actually kind of look like her.” I knew this to be true but dreaded acknowledging it.

My status as a “real” black person is called into question a lot, even by me. I’m biracial (my dad is black and my mom is white) and really really light-skinned to the point where I’ve been mistaken for Hispanic and sometimes even a tanning-salon-happy white girl. I have lived in Lancaster, PA, for nearly 11 years, in an all-white neighborhood in the middle of Amish country. I attended a prestigious girls’ boarding school for five years before attending college on a full academic scholarship.  “Proving” my blackness hasn’t been as easy as pulling out a family picture and demonstrating that I do, in fact, have a black parent.

Many have argued that gender, sexuality, and race are nothing but social constructs spawned from a leftover evolutionary adaptation humans developed that demands that everything be categorized. Studies of DNA have indicated that “race” plays very little into the traits or physical appearances of a person, so while having black parents aesthetically contributes to one’s blackness, I don’t think that’s the whole story. Blackness is accompanied by a lush history of tribulation and triumph, of injustice and mistreatment, of unity and love. Neither is the whole story; light-skinned black people have been able to “pass” as white, and clearly, some white people feel that their love of black culture, history, and people “allows” them to identify as black. Both parts of the equation, I think, are essential to a person’s blackness. 

And at least for me, a large part of my blackness has been the acknowledgement of my privilege as a light-skinned, rather affluent, highly educated woman.  Many black people have not been afforded the advantages I have, and as a result, experience a much more difficult life, fraught with overt racism, intangible opportunities, and general disdain for the likes of me. The number of run-ins I’ve had with racism or racial bias is rather small; my brothers, who are much darker than I am, have borne the brunt of dealing with racism as a result of their various girlfriends’ families’ prejudices.

I have a feeling that, had Rachel Dolezal been forthright with her racial identity, the black community would have welcomed an ally with such conviction and passion into a movement towards justice with arms wide open. Her honesty would have demonstrated that, although she wants to improve the state of black folks in America, she understands that she had lived a life of privilege that sheltered her from the harsh reality of racial injustice. However, by first lying then standing by her assertion that she is, indeed, “really black,” she fails to acknowledge her own place of privilege, and I believe that was her Achilles heel.

In truth, besides the fact that my biological father is black, I was afraid that little separated me from Rachel Dolezal. We shared similar complexions and probably had a fairly equal working knowledge of black literature and the plight of black folks in the US today. However, as I reflected more on what makes me “really” black and what makes her an imposter, I believe that, in part, the transparency I demonstrate in my privilege and my candor in admitting to what I don’t know or haven’t experienced underwrites what makes me a “real” black woman.