Light-skinned, mixed-race people of color, like myself, should work to amplify the efforts of those most affected by racism.
WHEN the bizarre news broke that Spokane NAACP president, Rachel Dolezal, allegedly lied about her racial identity, some commenters asked an important question, “Why now?” Dolezal suggests a family legal dispute prompted the allegations. But, the question “why now?” can and should be asked in a broader context.
I ask “why now?” not because I think the answers prove or disprove the allegations against Dolezal. Let me be clear: I believe that Dolezal’s refusal to explain herself is damaging to the Spokane racial-justice community. However, I want to emphasize that the revelation of this supposed secret, right now, tells us something important about this moment.
In Spokane, Dolezal has been instrumental in revitalizing the membership and activism of the NAACP. Dolezal, along with other activists in this community, got the Spokane NAACP engaged in the #blacklivesmatter movement and pushed to change the terms of the debate about criminal justice, economic security and voting rights. As an ombudsperson with the Spokane Police Department, Dolezal has been a part of much-needed police reforms here in Spokane.
Dolezal has, of course, incurred the ire of many locals who accuse her of “race-baiting.” They consider racism to be over and believe we live in a “post-race” society. Dolezal and fellow activists have pushed back against those who seek to root conversations about race in rhetoric of “personal responsibility” rather than acknowledge structures and policies that perpetuate racial inequality. Though most who take issue with Dolezal’s message have mainstream politics, there is also a long history of neo-Nazism in this region, which forms part of the political context here.
When this story broke, I wondered if challenging Dolezal’s racial identity was an attempt to discredit her work in Spokane. Why, in the same week as a black teenage girl was assaulted by a police officer in Texas, was Dolezal’s work against that kind of brutality being challenged by a North Idaho newspaper? Why would news media pick up a story that is essentially hearsay without much additional investigation into alternative explanations? (A name on a birth certificate cannot establish biological paternity. And, many of us know biracial people with documented African ancestry who are as blonde as Dolezal.) As we learn more, it seems some people had suspicions about Dolezal’s heritage. Why would her alleged deception be revealed now?
Technology has allowed communities of color to document police violence. This has helped many appreciate its scale. My students are entering my classes more convinced that racism is alive and well in America than they were just a few years ago. But, many Americans firmly believe that we are in a “post-race” society. Among those who are eager to maintain the racial status quo, Dolezal’s alleged fraud discredits the #blacklivesmatter movement. For racial-justice activists, she represents yet another appropriation of blackness.
As the story gains international attention, it is important to remember the scandal’s implications for local politics. The most damaging effect of Dolezal’s alleged racial fraud here in Spokane is that it will forever be tied to her insistence that racism exists in this community. Regardless of Dolezal’s alleged deception, it is true that racial discrimination and hate crimes occur in Spokane. Last fall, a synagogue was vandalized with a swastika. Later, North Spokane was leafleted with anti-Muslim propaganda. Violent bias-motivated crimes against Native Americans have also been reported in recent years.
Another troubling effect of this scandal emerges from the fact that Dolezal has not only represented herself as black, but also as mixed. Her alleged misrepresentation has potential to drive a wedge of distrust between “mono-racial” and mixed activists. I have seen several humorous memes suggesting mixed people’s identities should be questioned. Without a doubt, light-skinned mixed-race people of color, like myself, should always be aware of our privilege and be sure that we are working to amplify the efforts of those most affected by racism. Solidarity is required for movements to ensure the safety of all members of our communities. Dolezal’s alleged actions threaten to fracture that already fragile solidarity.
The viral nature of Dolezal’s story tells us that we are in a moment when: 1) The #blacklivesmatter movement has enough momentum that those who seek to maintain the status quo are looking for bizarre stories like this to discredited it; and 2) the movement is vulnerable to fracture. That the story emerged in this place, at this time, demonstrates the precarious status of the #blacklivesmatter movement in a small city that is just 2 percent black.
So, what now? In the face of news like this, we must remember that the opposite of exclusion is inclusion, as risky as that might be. And, we must insist on a nuanced discussion of racial identity while also recognizing its boundaries are not infinitely flexible.