Many of us watched, in utter astonishment, at the unfolding story of Rachel Dolezal and her misrepresentation of her race. For those who may not have heard of Rachel Dolezal, she was, until her recent resignation, the president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in Spokane, Washington. Dolezal was forced to resign after allegations emerged that she was not an African American, as she had purported to be, but in fact, is a white woman.
Whilst there is a whole debate to be had around her right to be able to self-define her race, I can see an argument for being able to self-define your race, but I do not see a justification for lying about your race in order to gain a position in an organization such as the NAACP where authenticity is essential to its success. However, that is a discussion for another time.
More importantly, what Dolezal’s behaviour has highlighted is the underlying and seldom discussed issue of white guilt and racism. We may frequently see white men and women standing in solidarity with movements such as Black Lives Matter, and rightly so, but what we rarely see, is an honest discussion and acceptance of the white person’s historical and existing role in black oppression.
George Yancy calls for white people to undergo a process of un-suturing. It is described as follows:
“Un-suturing is a deeply embodied phenomenon that enables whites to come to terms with the realization that their embodied existence and embodied identities are always already inextricably linked to a larger white racist social integument or skin which envelops who they are and what they are. Their white embodied lives have already claimed them. There is no white self that stands above the fray, atomic, hands clean.” (White Self-Criticality beyond Anti-Racism, p. xvii).
Yancy argues that we white people have become experts at suturing ourselves; at covering wounds that we do not want left open. We have developed many techniques in which to morally shelter ourselves from our role in racism. The most simplistic of these techniques is to purport that racism is a historic issue which does not exist in the present. However, even a perfunctory glance at the news would show this to be false.
Other techniques include accusing the victims of racism of exaggerating. Another is to justify it under some other means, as we have seen done time and time again with the racist police shootings in America. Yet another technique is to deflect people’s experiences of racism by comparing it to their own experiences of injustice. The list is, unfortunately, endless.
It is an uncomfortable truth that as white, we are ‘socially embedded within white racist structures that constitute who (we) are and that render (us) complicit with the operations of racial injustice.’ Additionally, the actions of white supremacists further muddy the reputation of all white people. In the wake of Charleston – a crime I have found too difficult to yet come to terms with – we see all the more, the vital importance of properly addressing white racism, white hatred and white violence. Whilst I have nothing in common with the terrorist shooter, other than my skin colour, because of his actions, when I walked into an all black church the Sunday after the incident, there was a palpable tension.
The simplistic nature of racism is what makes it so destructive. You are either black or white; either oppressed or oppressor. There is no option to step outside of the structure of racism. I may be white and hate racism with every inch of my body but that does not stop me from being related to white racism, much in the same way a black person cannot say, ‘I may be black, but I choose not to be a victim of racism.’ It is beyond our control. It is a trap in which we are all caught and it is clear that white people’s liberation from this trap is tied up with black people’s liberation.
Rachel Dolezal may have chosen to be black because, like myself, she loves so much about black culture, black history and black people. But, as Alicia Walters writes:
‘Rachel Dolezal …may be connected to black communities and feel an affinity with the styles and cultural innovations of black people. But the black identity cannot be put on like a pair of shoes. Our external differences from the white majority might be how others categorize us as black, but it’s the thread of our diverse lived experiences that make us black women.’ Read Full Article
I often feel a profound embarrassment and self-loathing at being white because of everything it embodies. There is much about my heritage and my skin colour that I am proud of, but there is much that I am ashamed of and I cannot divorce that from who I am. Rachel Dolezal may have transformed her race as a way to appease her white guilt. Rather than un-surture, I believe she has chosen to place herself in the black body as the ultimate avoidance.
In an incredibly moving article, responding to last week’s shooting in Charleston, Rebecca Traister reminded us that:
We are not post-civil rights. We are not post race. We are not better than we were. We do not inhabit a world in which stray instances of violence might recall a distant and shameful history. This shame is a flood that has never abated. – The New Republic
If we really want to liberate ourselves from the binding ties of racism, there are many sacrifices we as whites will have to make. It will involve some very deep, personal and collective soul-searching and monumental change on a macro level – and not as Dolezal did, simply a change of hair and darkening of skin colour.
Rebecca Joy Novell is a Qualified Social Worker working with gangs in central London. She graduated from The University of Sheffield in 2012 with a Masters in Social Work. Rebecca has been involved with Youth Justice since 2008 in a variety of voluntary and paid roles and is currently undertaking a Professional Doctorate in Criminal Justice. She was elected to the Professional Assembly for The College of Social Work, is part of the Criminal Justice Reference Group for the British Association of Social Workers and regularly blogs for The Guardian’s Social Care Network. She is also the author of Starting Social Work: Reflections of a Newly Qualified Social Worker. Her blog can be found at www.charitynovelll.wordpress.com.