The problem is when some people, who are not black, claim final authority, deciding what counts as black experience or black political opinion.
The story of former Spokane NAACP leader Rachel Dolezal has seemingly allowed America to shift attention from black lives that still matter to the seemingly delusional qualities of anti-racism and our contemporary notions of identity. This has been enough to keep me silent — save for my snarky comments on Facebook. But because it has happened in the state where I live and teach, and Dolezal’s behavior has become such a public spectacle, it is now time to respond.
Beyond Dolezal’s still unknown personal motivation, the intimacies she forged and betrayed, and the institutions she may have duped and advanced, I can’t help seeing her as posterchild for a type that has long needed calling out: the “racist anti-racist.”
I know, it’s yet another shifty moniker like post-racial, transracial, multiracial or post-black. But hear me out — this particular type is fast-growing. More than any minority, it is this group that has changed the public conversation about racism from one of focused institutional change to largely moral posturing. Due to this social type, much talk about racism manifests in digital name-calling and ideological policing (just take a look at Dolezal’s Twitter history). The racist anti-racist has discovered the great power in accusing other whites of racism and taking refuge in a black social world where his or her privilege, however masked, keeps him or her front and center.
The racist anti-racist is, essentially, someone who exploits his or her white privilege in order to criticize it. For example, he or she silences blacks in order to speak for them or to acknowledge their oppression. (I’ve had more than a few conversations in Seattle and at University of Washington with whites so angry about racism that they had no time to hear the opinions or experiences of actual minorities. Admittedly, they are often too few people of color around. It is that paucity of actual diversity that provides this social type a rich evolutionary environment).
It is not for me to question the sincerity of racist anti racists, and I very often celebrate their arguments. But much of this kind of performance makes clear that the crises of race are primarily their struggle and we must be witness to their pain even if it is felt on our behalf. I’m tempted to call it passive-aggressive behavior, but to do so would trod too closely to stereotypes of the Pacific Northwest itself.
The racist anti-racist might even be highly schooled on race and racism, a great fan of hip-hop or African-American literature. All of this is usually consumed not for their full complexities but largely for their trauma, which is deeply romanticized. Some racist anti-racists go so far as to earn degrees in African-American literature or culture, or may spend weekends teaching in prisons or sitting on diversity committees.
These aspects of racist anti-racists are all laudable and necessary. But the problem comes when they then claim final authority, deciding what counts as black experiences black political opinion, minority needs and forms of restitution. It isn’t at all uncommon for this social type to make final decisions as to whom is to be hired or accepted into institutions based on the right ratio of their pigment to their politics.
The most difficult thing I’ve had to face at the university and in this city has been in convincing folks that the problem of race in this part of the country has as much to do with racist anti-racism as with racism itself. Though both require attention, the former is more maddening because it is counterintuitive and so hard to identify.
Despite defining itself against the latter, racist anti-racism can be equally blind to the material realities or needs of the actual people it purports to represent. In my book, that makes it equally culpable.