Blackness as a costume: Rachel Dolezal, professional ethics and racism

Imagine that you, as an overwhelmed bereaved parent, seek to the support of a therapist or of another professional to help you come to term with your loss. In time, you start to open up and to speak of your pain in the presence of this person because you have been entrusted with their personal experience of child loss. This disclosure helps you feel more human. More connected.  You eventually come to trust this person so deeply that you share with them the most intimate and shame inducing details of your history and grief, safe in the knowledge that the person hearing you has ‘been there’.

How this professional coped with distress and loss is intermittently discussed and, this gives you a sense of hope. The aloneness that pain can bring becomes more bearable. Then, imagine that long after you have invested in the relationship, you discover that not only has that professional never experienced the loss of a child; they are not even a parent. That the stories shared with you were fantasies and that the photographs you were shown were fake.  Would it make things more tolerable to know that this person was a renowned expert on grief?  Would you feel grateful that this professional had spent much of his/her career working towards a better understanding of the experience of bereaved parents?

I expect not. I expect that some might replay in their mind the conversations shared, or attempt to remember the precise words which were used perhaps looking for traces of self-evident duplicity.  Perhaps too, feelings of shame, anger and loss might resurface, with a vengeance.  For many Black people, Rachel Dolezal’s masquerade provoked a visceral sense of horror.  I can understand it.  Both as a Black woman and as a psychologist.  Yet, the breach of trust and confidence, the sense of betrayal which lay at the centre of many Black women’s experience, its social and historical context seem to have evaded many commentators.  Though Rachel Dolezal is clearly not a mental health professional, as head of the Spokane chapter of the NAACP and professor at Eastern Washington University, until just a few days ago, she did take up positions of high social power and influence.

As a community activist, not only did she occupy a position of trust; she also encouraged personal disclosures of race-related trauma and its deriving psychological distress.  She disclosed the racial indignities she had faced herself too, except much of these were manifestly fabricated.  And, sadly, as Ms Dolezal seems intent on minimising the impact and seriousness of her actions on the community she claims to want to serve and liberate, one might rightly be curious about her willingness and capacity to reflect on her white privilege as, at the very least, race related community work calls for integrity and for the ability to be socially reflexive.

There are reasons why a range of professionals in position of power from teachers, doctors to psychologists attach much importance to professional boundaries.  Boundaries encompass many ethical issues from the delineation of professionals’ role to the limitation of professional expertise as well as, the defensible bounds within which safe, effective and non-malevolent practice may be carried out. As such, boundaries protect the psychological and physical integrity of people who are unwell, in distress or in less powerful positions, socially. They help safeguard against the exploitation of those in need of support. They aim to give people who struggle to be heard, a chance to find their own voice. They help demonstrate the value and respect placed upon the experience, and perspectives of the people to be served.  Crucially, boundaries reduce the possibility that vulnerable and marginalised groups and/or those individuals with histories of violation and abuse may be re-traumatised at the hands of those whose job it is to support them.

Rachel Dolezal seems to have violated all these ethical principles. As she donned fake tan, African braids, dread locks and/or curly weaves and walked with pictures of her ‘fake’ Black dad and son in her bag, she reduced Blackness to a costume, to an act, a game. She reduced our humanity and perpetuated our painful history of cultural appropriation; gaining much status and financial pay offs in the process.  By claiming to having personally experienced anti-black racism, Rachel Dolezal misled the Black community about her expertise and made a mockery of Black women’s lived experience of oppression. She usurped her voice for ours whilst simultaneously claiming to be ‘consistently committed to empowering marginalized voices.’ Further, by putting herself at the forefront of the Black struggle, as a White woman, she disqualified herself as an ally.

For the avoidance of doubt, the work of allies in progressing any form of social justice agenda is hugely valuable and valued.  People of all ethnicities and racial backgrounds are needed to stand up and be counted when it comes to racism and race inequalities, and indeed such people abound.  People who can recognize and renounce some of the unearned privileges society affords them by virtue of the skin they were born in are required.  Though they may be few and far between, such individuals do exist.  However, allies interested in lecturing us on phenomenon and experience their privileged existence has sheltered them from, need not apply. Allies with the ambition to lead our cause on our behalf need to take a (back) seat and seriously reflect upon their personal motivation.  Allies who cannot see that having Black people as followers in their own struggle perpetuates toxic discourses, of Black dependency, inefficacy and inferiority; some of which we have internalised, are simply not allies.

There has been some speculation about Dolezal’s potential psychological  ill health. Much of it unwarranted and unnecessary. Whilst questions have been asked about Dolezal’s welfare and wellbeing, the distress and offence she has inflicted upon so many black women has fallen well under the radar. This may sadly be reflective of the invisibility of Black women. Typically perhaps, our outrage has been ridiculed and some have expected us to be grateful for the work and energy Rachel Dolezal has devoted to ‘the cause’.  Having thus been duly educated by Dolezal on our experience as Black women, we are asked to say ‘thank you’, coached into how to respond to her farce and invited to reconsider our apparently misguided sense of Blackness. One could simply not make this paternalistic and oppressive stuff up.  Forgive us please, if some of us feel as grateful to Rachel Dolezal as we feel towards colonialists.

Thank you for reading.

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This piece was commissioned by the Telegraph on June 18th 2015. A slightly different version of this article is therefore available on their website.

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  1. While the alterations Ms. Dolezal made to her appearance are borderline comical, her use of blackness to accelerate her life’s goals reveal her white privelege. While some may insist that Dolezal relinquished her white privelsge when she decided to go through life as a black women I disagree. First of all, Dolezal’s altered appearance does not match the appearance of a black woman. Her appearance is multiracial at best, but nonetheless she assumes a system of privilege in not being “too black.”
    Though her light eyes, light hair and light skin may have made her an average white woman, it made her an above average black women in a system of racism that praises the presence of white features. So while the news attributes Dolezal’s affiliation with blackness to her black adopted siblings, I disagree. The juxtaposition of Ms. Dolezal to her adopted black siblings enlightened her to the advancements of her assets if she were to switch sides. She gained a heightened sense of self importance while in the presence of blacks, making her continued engagements with blacks an effort to maintain her high of self importance. Thus, Dolezals performance is within the bounds of systematic racism, as she selfishly advances at the disenfranchisement of blacks.
    So all those who discount Ms. Dolezal’s fallacies because you believe she is working to uplift the black race, are sadly mistaken. Ms. Dolezal plays into the many white or lighter skinned individuals who feel they should lead their darker counterparts. While the rule of the NAACP leads many to believe that blacks are at the top, this organization was traditionally operated by whites until the acts of black pioneers such as Dubois and later Medgar Evers fatally endured the challenge of intervening and making black interest the focus of the NAACP. As an NAACP official and professor of African American Studies, Dolezal did what many of her white ancestors have done before her- take it upon themselves to assume positions of leadership over black people determining their best interests and what they should learn about themselves.

    1. You’re making a number of very strong points, many of which have not received much attention. I particularly see immense insight in your proposition re: her joining the Black community but really joining, at the top in terms of hierarchy because of colorism, even with her disguise. Really well noted. I also agree with the point about her individual actions having greater significance socially and systemically. This is part of the reason she hit a raw nerve that many still struggle to name. Thanks for commenting.

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