White privilege seems to find a way to protect itself, at any cost.
Now that former NAACP leader Rachel Dolezal continues facing scrutiny for lying about her racial identity, many have rushed to defend her actions. Whether it comes from a place of feeling sorry for Dolezal or simply a lack of understanding of how race in America functions is anyone’s guess.
Regardless of intent, however, these defenses excuse away how Dolezal’s white privilege allowed her to appropriate black womanhood for so long and presume that she shouldn’t be held accountable for her behavior.
Instead of dodging Dolezal’s whiteness as a factor in this situation, her white privilege needs to be directly confronted—especially as many white people try to make sense of their own racial identity in the midst of Dolezal’s confusion and lies. But the dialogue often falls into one of these potential traps.
1) There’s no such thing as race, there’s just the human race
"There's only one race – THE HUMAN RACE. Except when I want someone to blame for crime rates and stuff. Then there are different races."
— Anne Thériault (@anne_theriault) June 16, 2015
It’s true that race is a social construct, but it’s a construct that’s long informed how black people and other non-black people of color have been treated in American social settings and institutions. The effects of slavery, segregation, and the many racialized policies and social norms they inspired are still an everyday reality for black people—a reality that cannot be ignored, and one Dolezal grew up never having to experience.
Yet Rachel Dolezal told NBC’s Matt Lauer that her adopted son said, “Mom, racially, you’re human. Culturally, you’re black,” and that’s how she understands herself. That may be nice in theory, but it’s not how the real world operates.
2) She could be suffering from a mental illness and deserves our compassion
Please stop dragging mental illness into Rachel Dolezal debate. Those of us with real mental illnesses deserve better than that comparison.
— ☪️Josh Shahryar✡️ (@JShahryar) June 12, 2015
She might be a bit of a compulsive liar, but that’s not a documented mental health condition as much as it is a poor testament to Dolezal’s character. Comparing her case to a mental illness fuels the stigma faced by people who experience a mental health condition or disability, furthering the stereotype that they’re inherently untrustworthy and should be feared rather than understood.
That’s not to say one can’t feel sorry for Dolezal’s visible struggle with racial identity, but it’s important to remember that much of her story so far has been based on falsehoods.
3) She can be a white woman and still be culturally black
Race and culture are often interrelated, but they’re two distinguishable concepts. There’s no one, singular experience for being a person of any racial background, although there may be some common experiences for people within a given racial group. For instance, quite a few black women might share experiences of using hair perm to chemically straighten their hair, if they so choose. But on the flip side, Thanksgiving dinner won’t look the same at every black household.
In Dolezal’s case, she’s not saying she has a strong appreciation for black culture or feels that she participates mostly in black cultural spaces and practices. In an interview with the Today Show’s Matt Lauer, she said, “I identify as black.” That’s a horse of a different—and very problematic—color.
4) She’s helped the black community, so stop giving her a hard time
"She's doing good for our commun.." She could wash the spray tan off right now and go back to being a white woman in America. You can't.
— Johnetta Elzie (@Nettaaaaaaaa) June 16, 2015
Dolezal has been teaching African-American studies, volunteering time for civil rights causes and forming curriculums on human rights inclusion issues for years—that’s true. In an op-ed for Time, former basketball player Kareem Abdul-Jabbar came out to defend her on that basis, arguing that the “black community is better off because of her efforts.”
You can’t deny that Dolezal has proven herself a fierce and unrelenting champion for African-Americans politically and culturally. … [S]he has been fighting the fight for several years and seemingly doing a first-rate job. Not only has she led her local chapter of the NAACP, she teaches classes related to African-American culture at Eastern Washington University and is chairwoman of a police oversight committee monitoring fairness in police activities.
But that doesn’t excuse away her appropriation of blackness, of black womanhood, and her lying to people (especially black folks) about her racial background. There’s a reason that Eastern Washington University has recently taken down her bio from their site: No matter how great the work she did was, every organization she was a part of was harmed because of her dishonesty.