Rachel Dolezal and Racism Redux
In response to my article on Rachel Dolezal and Racism, I received two important items in response. One by Cecil Foster is reprinted below and repeated as an attachment. The other goes to the heart of the issue of deception, the letter from the Executive Producer of KXLY News explaining their role in the affair. The letter of explanation can be found at:
Rather than clearing up the matter, the open letter indicates that the local media station approached the matter within two frames, that of somatic Blackness that I described, which is a matter of philosophical analysis and not just given facts, and suspicion that Rachel was dissembling about allegations of racial harassment. With regard to the first issue, the news outlet noted that, “we and other journalists heard rumblings that Dolezal was not being truthful about her race.” In other words, to be truthful is to publicly display that you are not genetically Black when your whole point and belief is that Blackness is NOT about race, but rather that race as a biological construct is a prime source of the problem. The issue for the news outlet was that the anonymous callers had no proof that Rachel was not biologically Black when a simple check of her records at Howard University would have established that she considered herself to be a genetically and biologically white woman when she had been a student and had not yet come to see that this way of categorizing the issue was part of the problem.
On the second matter of whether Rachel was lying or telling the truth to police about racial harassment complaints, the letter points to evidence that does not substantiate their suspicions, but that there was no proof of Rachel lying. So why is this part of the account except to provide additional ammunition on the main story line, that Rachel Dolezal was a dissembler.
On the first issue, the Executive Producer of News at the station wrote, “Humphrey [Jeff Humphrey, a senior reporter at the station] heard from a trusted source that there was more to Dolezal’s story. Specifically, that Dolezal had been lying about her race and misleading her employers, the city of Spokane, her students and the community.” In other words, the story focus became whether Rachel Dolezal was being open and honest about her race, even if she questioned the very framework of the question. It is clear that this News Media either did not wish to or was incapable of raising that issue about its own query.
That is when, so to speak, the “shit hit the fan.” “Humphrey reached out to her parents in Montana – on a phone number found through a simple search – and, they confirmed what the source had said: Dolezal is a white woman, born to white parents, with childhood photos and the birth certificate to prove it.” This simply confirmed that, contrary to the difficulty they claimed about ascertaining Rachel’s genetic roots, the answer could easily be found. What they did not do was ask why that was an important question and, even further, what was behind asking such a question. Then they might have confirmed that Rachel Dolezal believed that genetics was irrelevant to being Black and they could have written a much more interesting though more difficult to grasp story on that subject. The story that Rachel was simply a liar is far easier to convey. In my view and in my categories, if we are to reject the “one drop rule” and the premise of racism altogether, then depicting Rachel as a white woman is the source of the misrepresentation.
Now wait a minute, you might insist, are you saying she is not White? Yes. I am saying three things: 1) that she is certainly not White culturally; 2) she rejects being White as an aspiration; 3) the very premise of someone being genetically White is itself a fraud. It is the failure of the media outlet to question its own framework and premises that is far more important than whether Rachel Dolezal was trying either to disguise or to avoid the question of whether her parents were white.
Just read the triumphalist tone of the Executive Producer’s account of what took place. “As the world has now seen, Jeff confronted Dolezal and she stumbled, saying she didn’t ‘understand the question’ about whether or not she was black. She walked off the interview and we knew we had the next piece of our story.” How does one handle an interviewer who, stricken with mindblindness, refuses even to consider that his frame for asking his question may be misguided. Rachel was not and is not a philosopher, though she is very articulate. But she does stumble when trying to cut through the racial framing of one reporter after another. I am surprised, given how frustrating it must be for her, that she does not blow up and tell them how dogmatic and misguided they are. Instead, she retains her cool.
The Executive Producer then concluded, “At that point, it was shocking and confirmed our source’s information (and her parents’ information), but we needed to put it in context, prove why it mattered.” Did they ever establish why it was shocking, except to anyone steeply rooted in obsolete somatic racial stereotyping? No. Did the news station ever establish why it mattered, except to insist repeatedly that not openly owning up to one’s supposed genetic roots was deception. But what if you deeply believe that genetics is irrelevant to the issue? What if you get tired and frustrated that the reporters fail to open up to the fact that the way they ask the question is misguided and reinforces racism?
The account then goes on. “By the time we were ready to put Dolezal’s interview out to the world, Spokane Mayor David Condon issued a statement, saying the city was investigating Dolezal’s ethics in relation to the police oversight committee and we had a solid news hook.” Why was the news hook not an inquiry why Mayor Condon was investigating the issue in the first place? Had Rachel committed a crime? Was she even guilty of moral turpitude? She refused to engage in a discussion in terms of her identity based on racial stereotyping. I find that perfectly understandable, though it would not be a tactic I would personally choose.
“Our story – his interview – blew up. At once, this once-respected teacher, leader and advocate became a national punchline.” The fact that this Executive Producer was never able to conceive of a frame that rose above racial stereotyping is the real story. The fact that this was another case of using the media to create mass hysteria over something totally irrelevant to bring down someone whom the Executive Producer agrees was a respected teacher, leader and advocate, is the real story.
The mindblindness of KXLY News and most of the media coverage in the United States, including very highly regarded journalists, is the real story.
The account concludes as follows:
“So, why does it matter? Our community was misled. We trusted this voice to speak for those without a voice. We trusted her to teach our students. We stood by her when she said she and her family were targeted and afraid. We rallied alongside Dolezal and her family in front of city hall, with community members carrying signs of support. We’re a trusting community and she broke that trust.” But where did she break that trust? In her performance? In her refusal to accept the categories of racism fostered by the station’s own questions? And the fall out of the media failure is terrible, not only for Rachel, but for the community which will have learned little except to encourage people to be less trusting of what others say and not being able to ask questions about the presumptions behind their own questions. And it is very troubling for the role of journalists. “What did we, as journalists, learn from this? Trust your gut.” In my interpretation, this means that you should surrender to the prejudices you carry with you in your mind and mental framework rather than learning how to analyze and question them. According to the Executive Producer, if you cannot trust your gut, you will never be able “to put news in context for the people you serve.”
That erroneous conviction is the story, and the Executive Producer missed it.
Now for Cecil Foster’s Response to My Essay on Rachel Dolezal
He first note I received was very brief:
“Thanks for sharing this interesting piece. It is (by far) the most illuminating thing I’ve read about this case. It deserves a WIDE readership. Has it been loaded onto any of the customary social media sites (Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn)? I’d like to forward/tweet it if possible.”
Cecil then sent a much longer and even better take on the story than I provided as follows:
I think you are justified in holding fast to your views on Rachel Dolezal. You might not be in the majority—and neither am I even among some black friends and academic contemporaries—but you are reasoned and justified. Of course being in my company might not be much of a consolation.
The two main events of the past week that caught our attention in a big way—Rachel Dolezal and the Mother Emanuel Church massacre/terrorism—are cut from the same cloth. Rachel Dolezal and Dylann Roof make us confront the meaning of an identity like black and blackness and what it means in the modern world.
1) Rachel Dolezal came into the black community, got to know it well, indeed, intimately. She willingly became a daughter of the community through marriage and produced for the community—not mixed race, transracial, postracial, half white, half black—but two black sons. She took on the mannerisms of black culture, spoke the lingo and even put a kink in her hair—and as every man of any colour or ethnicity knows, you don’t mess with a black woman and her hair. She joined the cause of the black community for social justice and took on a leadership role, ultimately heading up a local chapter of NAACP. When she had a choice of identity, she always said I am black. She lived black at a time when even some who were supposedly born black and never had to worry about this ascription were moving away from blackness. She fully embraced blackness. Like a modern woman joining a family through marriage or a profession of love, Dolezal became one with the community, took its name/identity, and out of her own body produced the fruits that would carry on the name and identity—not of her former affiliates—but of her preferred community and family. Her past might have been with others, and over that she had no say, but her future was/is with the black community. She sought to give the black community life from generation to generation and in a world of social justice.
Dylann Roof came into the black community. He was welcomed, as relatives of the slaughtered testified, with opened arms. He entered the inner sanctuary of blackness in America: the black church, choosing one of the most historic in the nation. He sat with those poring over the finer points of the community’s most holy text. They exposed him to their thinking and reasoning. He was taken into the heart of the faith that supposedly is the bedrock of black culture. They invited him to stay and share and to learn—to know and understand liturgical things that even many authentic members of the black community do not know or have forgotten. He was allowed to drink deep from this inner well. He endured it for almost an hour. He was distilled in the faith that was instilled in him. He was being initiated. The experience was so good, for he was treated so well by everyone, that he almost changed his mind from completing his “mission.” My belief is that they would have even offered him an altar-call, or would have invited him to come again for further preparation, so that eventually, when such a call came, he would accept and in the twinkling of an eye be transformed into a full member of the black church and community. They were all so nice to him, he said. But he pulled out his gun and slaughtered nine of them, hoping this would be the beginning of a reign of death on blackness. He did not transform—he remained a somatically white man with mythologically the most deadly of weapons “a black heart—evil.” That is the story of one type of the “other” who comes among the people (the initiated) in any known human, and sometimes, animal form, but who is only Evil. Only the heart makes the Other different from the people. In every black community there are stories about black-hearted men. Check out August Wilson’s play Joe Turner Come and Gone and those who stole the black men of the community. Remember the founders of the first black republic in the Americas. Those Haitians said based on the purity of their heart and their good works that the Poles and Germans among them, though somatically white, were black because they fought for the revolution and freedom from slavery for all. They said all slave owners—and some were black— regardless of somatic colour, were white. Roof wanted death for the black community. He was blackhearted. In this case it is clear who is black and who is white here.
2) Let us shift to an ethno-racial register where we try to make sense of this identity issue based on “hard facts” of genes and nature and biology rather than mythology. Perhaps Dolezal is teaching her parents—and by extension much of white America as historians as early as Van Woodward told them—that they aren’t what they think they are. So Dolezal’s parents outed her: they claimed the ancestry they gave her is a mixture of various eastern European bloods with some Native American added in. We know that for a long time much of Eastern, and even parts of Western Europe, were ethnically and racially black. In an Anglo-Saxon dominant world, which was the early North American formation, all but Anglo-Saxon Protestants were black. Indeed, the Hungarians, Italians and Irish—as well as the wandering Jew of any complexion—only recently escaped into whiteness from being black. If the KKK, Skinheads and the likes of Roof were to have their way, some of them would be kicked right out of whiteness pronto. But the parents say more—that there is a commingling of Caucasian and Native American. So after they were brought into whiteness as Caucasians there was degeneration: the Native American. Which means that somewhere in Dolezal’s past there would have been a “Half-breed,” and by the one-drop rule of Modernity, all “half-breeds” were black and so black that, as the unnatural product of superior and inferior races, the product had to be for evermore of the inferior identity. The family could, genetically, never be white/Caucasian again. Not only are Rachel and her sons black by Modernity’s miscegenation rules, but so are her parents. But that would not surprise us since the southern historians have long told us that technically almost all (southern in particular) whites in the U.S. are really black genetically.
3) This leads to the question of who is “authentically” black. And for some time we have acknowledged that there is no objective proof or that authenticity truths are not self-evident. So we moved to the solution of self-identification. You are who you tell me you are as only you can know yourself genuinely and I take your word for it until proven otherwise. Authenticity is proven analogously. We are all innocent until proven guilty—the guilt coming from our actions to portray the black heart within; or our innocence is proven by our personality of producing actions that could only flow analogous from a pure heart. Dolezal says she is black. What is the evidence against her to prove otherwise: that she “deceptively” acted to further blackness acting as if she were black and that she was so good at it that she darn well fooled everyone for so long. Why analogously her action would make us believe that she is what she said she was!!! Go figure. Roof identified as a white racist intent on destroying black people. He had the opportunity to change and walk away: he chose to be authentic to his whiteness. His actions confirmed the person he self-identified as truly Dylann Roof. No doubt here—he said he was what his actions proved; she said she was what her actions proved.
Modern society treasures, and is organized around, the ideal of freedom, especially freedom of choice. Ultimately, we are who we choose to be. Choice is at the heart of self-determination and particularly progressive freedom. As a modern being I can choose not to die the person I was born. I can change, and change as many times as I want, while searching for the ideal me. A truly free modern man/woman is a self-made. As creatures of a culture of freedom Dolezal and Roof made choices; they made themselves: Dolezal’s to be black and kind hearted; Roof to be white and blackhearted.
Finally, black/blackness are in the end mere identities—empty signifiers. We are constantly emptying out old content and putting in new. Gay no longer simply means happy, and neither does fairy, or slut have negative connotations. The transgendered are who they know they are in their head regardless of how they look, smell, taste or appear to us. Barack Hussein Obama, the child of white and black parents, might never be black enough because he never lived in the projects and did not live the deep social inequalities of that lifestyle; nobly in his ancestry, he never lived on the “real” plantation. But then for those saying Obama is not black enough, neither are West Indians, even though their ancestors were on the plantations, for they have English, French, Spanish and other European mannerisms that make them less than American. Modernity is constantly killing off the old signified and refilling with new to give new meaning, or to argue a perspective. So is the case of black/blackness.
To my reasoning Dolezal is black even if she is not African-American. But then again, someone like me is deemed unquestionably black even though I am not African-American. African-American is a totally different social construction from black and perhaps that is the problem here: that too many people are conflating the two terms and thereby mishearing Dolezal when she says she is black.
Cecil Foster, PhD
Professor and Interim Chair
Department of Transnational Studies
732 Clemens Hall
SUNY at Buffalo
New York 14260
Fax: (716) 645-5976