By Sarah Willie-LeBreton
As the controversy over her racial identity became a distraction for the organization, Rachel Dolezal has resigned from her job as president of the Spokane, Wash., chapter of the NAACP. She teaches college courses in Africana studies, she fights for civil rights, and she identifies as black. So what’s the story here, and how did we learn about her?
This case is as much about the psychology of families of origin as it is about race, racism, and passing. Dolezal is also the biological daughter of white parents, who adopted black children after Rachel and her biological brother were born. She couldn’t have asked her parents any louder for their attention.
And instead of working with a family therapist, her parents — who may themselves have felt hurt by her identity choices — attempted to embarrass her publicly, insisting that her decision to live as a black woman is both ridiculous and fraudulent. Embarrassment has turned to humiliation as continuing revelations cast suspicion on the originality of Dolezal’s artwork, and she has forfeited her job. What appears to remain genuine, however, is her desire to belong.
The revelation by the senior Dolezals is particularly well-timed to maximize anger and resentment from African Americans, who this year more than others, have been reminded with excruciating cruelty how vulnerable we still are to the capriciousness of state-sponsored violence. In the stunning revelations that kindergartners in sandboxes, teenagers at pool parties, shoppers at Walmart, kids with arms raised in submission or walking home “armed” with candy, and fathers selling single cigarettes on the street, are all considered fair game if they have dark brown skin, this attenuated moment of despair has led to a collective insistence that black lives matter. It is also a moment to demand that our differences should never be grounds for mistreatment, much less murder.
Those differences are not nearly as dangerous as the ideology that justifies such violent and cruel responses to our existence. True, a sizable fraction of African Americans have been admitted into the middle and upper classes as a direct result of the sacrifices and struggles of the civil rights movement. But others have been left to struggle over fewer jobs that pay a living wage, while navigating the backlash to the gains of the 1960s in a retrenchment of white supremacist ideology that is as dramatic as it is difficult to undermine.
But make no mistake, while the increasingly bureaucratic and underfunded government institutions that could be a way out of poverty, illness, and ignorance affect Americans of every color, the lives of African Americans and Latinos have been disproportionately narrowed. The work of the civil rights movement is far from over.
While biology reveals that race is a fiction, sociology reveals how powerful the implications are of that fiction on people’s lives. Let’s be clear: There’s no science in race, even as it plays itself out on bodies marked by color and ancestry. This is neither to deny inherited traits and genetic predispositions of people with the same sets of recent ancestors, nor the science of measurement clarifying that groups of people are both treated differently and respond differently to their environments. But race is a concept invented to justify treating some people as things and others as owners of things. As an immoral invention, its continuing effects are toxic.
In contrast, ethnicity is about the beliefs and traditions, and the habits and customs, that spring up around us. If ever there were a time for African Americans, as an ethnic group, to reveal one of the hardest won insights of oppression — that it is right and good to offer hospitality to those who are exiled — this is one of those times. We know what it’s like to hide, and to be hidden, to ignore our own needs and to be ignored. We know what it’s like to be excluded, degraded, less valued, how welcome it is to be taken in and how good it feels to extend that hand.
The ideology of white supremacy continues to play itself out in everyday degradations, whether it’s a white news anchor casually using the n-word among co-workers or in what have become nearly weekly fatalities of family and friends. But our mourning must not make us stingy. In the best traditions of our cultural practice, it should make us angry and creative, strategic and compassionate, insistent on justice and generous.
We’re a family under stress, a family with a troubled history and a vulnerable present, but any family that includes everyone has a bright future.
Pull up a chair, Rachel. We know you’ve got some skeletons in the closet. Who doesn’t? But at our table, everyone is welcome.
Sarah Willie-LeBreton is the author of “Acting Black: College, Identity, and the Performance of Race,” a professor of sociology and black studies at Swarthmore College, and chair of the college’s Department of Sociology and Anthropology. firstname.lastname@example.org