This essay appears at American Thinker
There are at least six distinct lessons to be learned from the Rachel Dolezal scandal.
The internet was on fire on Friday, June 12, 2015. News broke that 37-year-old Rachel Dolezal is not black. She had presented herself as black, and that presentation played a role in her positions as president of the NAACP in Spokane, Washington, chair of Spokane's Office of Police Ombudsman Commission, professor in the Africana Studies Program at Eastern Washington University, former education director of the Human Rights Education Institute, and licensed diversity trainer and consultant for human rights education and inclusivity in regional schools. Dolezal's skin is café-au-lait-colored; this shade is perhaps the product of self-tanning or other ruses. She claimed to be the daughter of dark-skinned black man, and the mother of two dark-skinned black boys. Dolezal is neither. Rachel Dolezal's parents went public with photos. In fact she is naturally peaches-and-cream complexioned, blonde-haired, and green-eyed. The two boys she tried to pass off as her sons are her adopted brothers. She was born in Montana, and not in a teepee, as she claimed. She did not have to use bows and arrows to hunt her own food. She had never been in South Africa, though she claimed she was raised there. Her parents did not discipline her with "baboon whips" similar to those used during slavery days. They did not, as she claimed, punish her for being dark-skinned.
In November, 2013, after seeing "Twelve Years a Slave," Dolezal posted an internet message saying, "When Patsy makes the dolls with the braided arms…it brought back memories of when I was a little girl and made the same [corn] husk dolls in the garden, only I braided their hair instead of the arms." On November 9, 2013, Dolezal posted a list of instructions for African Americans going to see "Twelve Years a Slave." "It will take a hold on you…avoid making plans for frivolous social obligations afterward…not the best film to take a white partner on a first date to…sit in the top, back row" to avoid hostility from white audience members. Dolezal tells viewers to be prepared for white people "snickering at awkward moments" and to "get pissed off at them."
"Twelve Years a Slave" was not the only prompt to Dolezal's racial memories. After Eric Garner died, she stated, awkwardly, "The strangling of Eric Garner's case reminds us of our cultural memory of the strangling through the nooses."
Dolezal had claimed herself to be the victim of numerous hate crimes. These claims stretched back at least to 2008. She said she found a noose hanging outside her home, that someone had left a "vulgar and threatening" phone message alleging that she favored dark-skinned students, that a swastika had been applied to a building where she worked, and that she received a twenty-page hate letter. Police found no evidence to support Dolezal's claims. When Dolezal was finally asked if she had placed the threatening letter in the mailbox herself, she replied, "As a mother of two black sons, I would never terrorize my children and I don't know any mother, personally who would trump up or fabricate anything that severe that would affect her kids." In March, 2015, after one allegation of a hate crime, Dolezal linked arms with African Americans and a white priest, and marched through Spokane singing "We Shall Overcome."
Rachel Dolezal is not one, isolated eccentric. She is symptomatic of much larger problems. We can learn at least six lessons from the Dolezal case.
1.) There is such a thing as black privilege. Dolezal got hired at competitive jobs and received competitive funds. Her claim to be black helped her in this. She didn't make a fortune, but she made a living. It is an open secret that claims of African American identity help job seekers and funding applicants in higher education, the non-profit sector, and some areas of government. African American college applicants receive a bonus of hundreds of points on their SAT scores. Asian Americans are penalized on their SAT scores.
It may be true that African Americans on the street or in department stores are more often suspected of crimes when they are, in fact, innocent. But this is also true – in many academic, government, and non-profit settings, those in power lower their standards for truth when they believe their interlocutor is black. Dolezal's repeated fabricated stories of hate crimes evidence this. That mail was found in her mailbox that had not been handled by the postal service was a giveaway that she was inventing stories. Dolezal was extended a measure of trust, concern, and respect that a white person would not have received under similar circumstances.
Normal and rational limits on compassion are relaxed by those extending black privilege. Dolezal is on record as three times insisting that she suffered in the present because of slavery: when she went to see "Twelve Years a Slave," when her parents beat her, and when Eric Garner died. If a white person were to say, "I feel so sad because of the death of troops in Afghanistan because my great grandfather died in World War II," a polite person might scratch his or her head; a less polite person might demand, "Please explain how your ancestor's death affects you today." No one said that to Dolezal. That social allowance is evidence of how her narrative is privileged by others. Dolezal's suffering matters more, needs to be treated with more compassion and more seriousness, than others' suffering.
Dolezal acquired a more important, less tangible benefit from black identity. I am a teacher. Young people often say to me, "I wish I had a background like black people do … I wish I could feel proud of my country … I wish I felt that I was part of some bigger thing."
My students sound to me as if they are starving for history, meaning, and pride. They also often say to me that they feel overwhelming depression and cynicism as a result of what they are learning in school. They learn that people they had thought of as heroes were actually very bad men. Thomas Jefferson was a slave-owner, they learn. They may not learn that he wrote the Declaration of Independence, and that that is one of the most noteworthy documents in the entire history of the world. My students do not know that the ideals of the Founding Fathers, as outlined in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, made the enormous and heroic sacrifice of the Civil War, and the liberation of the slaves, inevitable. My students often simply do not know that their country and their ancestors, actual or national, did some good things.
My students do know about Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King. They know that many African Americans have done heroic things. They know that one must take the Civil Rights struggle seriously.
My students do know that racism is bad. The word "racist," in fact, has become a universal term of condemnation. If something is bad, it is racist. If something is racist, it is bad. When I assign a low grade to a student, I am sometimes accused of "racism" – by Caucasian students. One Ukrainian student accused me of racism against Ukrainians. I am Polish-Slovak; we are closely related ethnicities.
It is significant that Rachel Dolezal is an artist. Viewing Dolezal's online gallery, one quickly gathers a few facts: Dolezal is a talented artist, but her talent is comparable to the talent displayed by many others. She hasn't yet developed the substance or style that might cause her to break through. Dolezal draws heavily on African Americans and Africa. One work depicts twigs placed in a tree in order to mimic the patterns of Ghanaian kente cloth. Had she not entitled the work "Kente," the viewer would see merely twigs in a tree. Victimization is a theme for Dolezal. One work, "Pariah," depicts a sad-looking African American on a subway, with a black panther gazing in the window. Perhaps one is meant to understand that racists see African Americans as wild animals, and, thus, pariahs, or outcasts. A sculpture depicts an African man in Hell. It is safe to conclude that viewers who value the suffering that African Americans have endured imbue Dolezal's art with a power and significance it would not have had she chosen white subjects for the exact same images. A white man in Hell might not garner the same response from these viewers.
2.) There is no privilege for white trash. I am fascinated by the Rachel Dolezal story because she is Czechoslovak, as am I. My mother was born in Czechoslovakia. I never learned about my Polish or Slovak ancestors in school. What I did learn, through popular culture, was that many regard all Eastern Europeans as dumb – thus the dumb Polak joke. When researching my book "Bieganski: the Brute Polak Stereotype," I asked people this question: "You need brain surgery. You have a choice between Dr. Smith and Dr. Kowalski. Which doctor do you choose?" Peoples' eyes would open wide and their mouths would gape open. They suddenly realized that they didn't want anyone named "Kowalski" taking a scalpel to their gray matter. They suddenly realized that they are prejudiced.
My poor, white students lack the cachet that rich whites securely possess. Their parents work crappy jobs. They are browbeaten by the concept of "white privilege." They attend classes part-time, sporadically, hoping against hope that that will get them a job as a nurse, rather than as a nurse's aide, the work they do now. They feel hollow and they feel ashamed. Numbers confirm their disenfranchisement. According to Thomas J. Espenshade's "No Longer Separate, Not Yet Equal: Race and Class in Elite College Admission and Campus Life," poor whites are underrepresented on elite college campuses. In the wider culture, poor whites are anything-goes targets. Terms like "white trash," "trailer trash," "redneck" and "hillbilly" are entirely acceptable terms of abuse. In my own state, contemptuous professionals sometimes refer to residents of Sussex County, a mostly white and rural county, as "Scussex," a combination of "scum" and "Sussex." The idea is that only white trash live there.
I wonder if Dolezal has ever heard of "The Good Soldier Svejk," a brilliant Czech novel, or Janosik, a heroic Slovak outlaw, or the Czech and Slovak freedom fighters who assassinated Holocaust architect Reinhard Heydrich in 1942. I wonder if Dolezal has ever heard of Lidice, the Czech village the Nazis wiped off the face of the earth in retaliation. I wonder if Dolezal has ever heard of the Prague Spring or read Willa Cather's "My Antoinia." In short, I don't know if Dolezal has any idea that members of her own ethnic group have accomplished so very much that she had no need to appropriate another ethnicity to feel the struggle, to remember the pain, to experience transcendent pride.
I cannot help but reflect on the challenges that Dolezal would face as an artist had she created works of comparable level of technical skill that depicted her Czechoslovak ancestry. Would a sad Czech child sitting on a tram have drawn the same approval as the image of a sad black child on a subway? The black child, the viewer assumes, has inherited a mighty history of struggle and heroism. Would a viewer look at a sad Czech child and relate his sadness to Lidice, to Red Army rapes, or to the Battle of White Mountain? The audience would assume that the Czech child is just another recipient of white privilege. Some are allowed to be wounded by their ancestors' suffering. Others are not.
3.) Power conceptions of black identity are more ritualized, dogmatic performance than they are objective fact.
Dolezal is obviously not of African descent. That so many accepted her absurd claim to have a dark-skinned father and two dark-skinned sons informs you what those who accepted these claims are willing to certify as black identity. They were not looking for real ancestry in Africa. They were looking for a dogma, a ritualized performance, a narrative so beyond question it has become religious scripture. What is a black person? A black person is someone who receives death threats from white supremacists. A black person is someone who makes art based on kente cloth. A black person is someone who wears cornrows or dreadlocks. A black person is someone who marches down the street, arms locked with others, singing "We Shall Overcome." A black person is someone who claims actual memories of slavery, which, of course, ended one hundred fifty years ago. A black person is someone who has built her entire professional life around the concepts of black difference and black victimhood, and around pervasive, threatening white people – people so threatening one cannot go to the movies without taking precautions against them. If one does all these things, one is black.
4.) The official concept of what a black person is has become a prison that redefines many black people as something other than black people.
Shelby Steele, Thomas Sowell, Mia Love, Deneen Borelli, Allen West, Larry Elder, internet stars like Michelle A. Conry, a.k.a. "Honestly Speaking," Kisa Jackson, Battlecat Pullum, and, indeed, Booker T. Washington himself were and are all black. These prominent authors, soldiers, and youtube stars do not exist in the "Africana Studies" world once inhabited by Rachel Dolezal. Students taking an "Afrocentric" college course will not read one word of Shelby Steele. That's because the-above listed, authentically black people talk about personal responsibility.
It is more important for a "black" person to adhere strictly to dogma as to what constitutes blackness – as did white Rachel Dolezal – than it is for that person actually to have African ancestry and to be a descendent of slaves.
5.) Real black people are not helped, and are probably harmed, by the attitudes and systems of rewards that helped Dolezal.
I live in Paterson, NJ. Every day I walk past housing projects that are, as far as I can tell, inhabited only by African Americans. There is garbage in the streets and few jobs. Many of my young, male neighbors spend their leisure time congregating on street corners, smoking marijuana, and talking with friends. Their worlds are limited.
Fifty years ago, welfare and other programs promised to change all that. Since that time, numbers have gone against the underclass. There are more children born out of wedlock. There are more African Americans out of jobs. What went wrong?
Counterintuitively, many argue that the welfare mindset hurt, not helped, African Americans.
Rachel Dolezal was able to capitalize on the race grievance industry. Most of the black underclass never does capitalize on that same system of rewards. Unlike Rachel Dolezal, they do not get scholarships, they do not make art about black people suffering, and they do not get elected to non-profit and government positions.
6.) Rachel Dolezal is not alone.
Supporters of the NAACP will no doubt insist that Rachel Dolezal was a freak occurrence, a one-off. In fact there are thousands of Rachel Dolezals out there. When hiring committees satisfy themselves that skin color alone guarantees diversity, they hire for skin color. They hire for the photograph that appears on the university homepage. They may as well be hiring spray-on tans. I have met so many professors and others whose connection to the American black underclass was only as deep as the color of the epidermis. When you hire for skin color, you don't hire for life experience, or compassion, or innovation, or work ethic.
Years ago, I had an African American student who was being chased by gang members. He feared for his life. The office of my congressman, Bill Pascrell, was very helpful, and immediately so. Pascrell is white. I went to a black man in a visible and powerful position. He was middle class, and born in England. He declined to meet with my student. I have had many such experiences, where the sensitivity and concern that a person is supposed to show because he or she is the "right" race or gender or orientation is utterly absent, and the person of the "wrong" race is the one who comes through. Numbers show that affirmative action helps middle class and foreign-born and first-generation black immigrant family members get into college more than it helps the American-born black underclass. I suspect the same is true for hiring. What does a middle class English man have in common with a poor kid from Newark? If it's only skin color, the compassion and dedication won't be there.
After the brouhaha over Rachel Dolezal dies down, the issues implicated in her hiring and pubic disgrace will continue. Linking arms and singing "We Shall Overcome" is a feel-good photo-op. What is needed are jobs and solid families. The color of the person who can change that for the American black underclass is immaterial.
Danusha Goska is the author of Save Send Delete