In a matter of days, many of us went from conjecturing over Rachel Dolezal’s racial performance, to grieving over the nine African Americans murdered at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC. This was unequivocally an act of terrorism deeply steeped in racism, which is, of course, its own type of American terrorism with long and dreadful roots. The Emanuel AME Church in Charleston has a deep legacy of Black struggle and freedom. It is a sacred Black space. On Wednesday night that space was violated by a white man (I will not say young, because the luxury of that adjective is not afforded to all of us equally) who sat in Bible study with church members and then got up and partook in his American inheritance of white supremacy by killing Black people he deemed as a threat to his whiteness, our whiteness. It is at the conjuncture of white supremacy and the need, desire, and sheer will to take over Black spaces that the terror attack on Emanuel AME and the story of Rachel Dolezal coalesce. And this is precisely why we must talk about both events as parts of a continuum, while mourning the dead first.
I hesitated to even respond to all of this because I didn’t want to take up more space that should be devoted to more pressing issues. In addition to the terror attack in Charleston, recent weeks have reminded us that the treatment of Black women (the majority of the victims in Charleston) and girls at the hands of the police (#sayhername) (Dejerrica Becton) demands our attention. And the threatened deportation of Haitians and Dominicans of Haitian descent from the Dominican Republic shows us that it is not only in the U.S. that people of African descent are under siege.
Nevertheless, in the face of those people like South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley who claim that we will never be able to fully understand what motivated Dylann Storm Roof we, as white people, need to say yes we do. We need to scream yes we do. We need our actions to reflect that we do know exactly why he did what he did. We need to act on white supremacy and whiteness and how they are killing Black people. We need to understand how all of us who passively take our privileges (we take these, we do not just accept them) are helping to uphold a system in which Dolezal and Roof can threaten both Black culture and lives under the rubric of whiteness. With the continuous growth of the #BlackLivesMatter movement the issue of allyship and how to do it right has arisen time and time again. Mostly this is because some White people just don’t seem capable of controlling themselves…or listening. This is another important moment in that discussion.
Nine people died in a church because they were Black. Their lives were made vulnerable because they were Black. That is injustice.
Rachel Dolezal is a White woman who laid false claim to that Blackness. She is not some transracial White savior who came to love and save Black people, and then save the world from racial categorization. Rachel Dolezal is not transracial because, even while pretending to be Black, it does not appear that she has acted for Black liberation at a mind, heart, or soul level.
I would like to make it clear that I am a White woman in Black Studies who tries to consider and tackle what that means in each of the spaces and roles I inhabit daily. Sometimes that isn’t easy, but who cares? It’s not, nor will it ever be, about me. Because of centuries of White supremacy and imperialism when I was born as a white woman in the United States I was assigned a set of privileges and also an assumed set of beliefs. Although I do not wish to conflate the actions of Roof and Dolezal, that both attempted to control Blackness on their terms is an expression of this moral economy of White supremacy that most white people inherit. Fortunately, my parents taught me to look beyond what I was told, to believe in what is right and just, and to do whatever I could towards those ends…as myself. That has led me to the study of history in a department of African American Studies. Through my studies and the loving, honest, and open bonds I have with People of Color I have worked not to try to achieve Blackness, but towards understanding and supporting the things I have come to believe in. These are things that may not have been racially assigned to me at birth in a culturally presumptuous world.
In that sense I identify with Blackness; however, I do not claim Blackness here, but mean this in the limited sense that the freedom of people of African descent the world over influences all parts of who I am and drives the work that I do—as a White woman who honors Black cultures and peoples. Honor is different than emulation. These things do not, nor will they ever make me Black, nor even non-White. They just make me anti-racist and pro Black Power on Black terms.
Many other White people, however, are not brought up to see past their willful, and often criminal, “innocence.” (See James Baldwin on that…and on everything else too) The white supremacist state depends on this ‘innocence,’ or denial, of history and facts. It thrives on it. This is why Roof could sit in that church, where he was welcomed by those beautiful and gracious people, and still complete his task despite having had misgivings about killing people who had been so kind to him. For that hour, he perhaps saw a glimpse of the humanity of Black people. He faced the truth. But, ultimately he decided he had to go through with his “mission”- a mission that was as political as it was horrendous. Roof was not simply a mentally ill child, he was a man who had set out to protect the borders of a national whiteness. We needed to teach him the truth of our history and the beauty of Blackness. We should have taught him that the threat he saw inherent in Blackness was not real, but socially constructed. Roof took Black lives, but Rachel Dolezal took something from Black people too, and also depended on her whiteness to do it.
What is most disturbing to me about Dolezal is that she was someone who supposedly believed herself to be so dedicated to Blackness and so “consistently committed to empowering marginalized voices” that she apparently thought it was appropriate to live as a Black woman. And yet, she is obviously still completely wrapped up in the trappings of whiteness. Her performance is her privilege. That at no point did her closeness with actual Black people, her training at Howard, her teaching, nor her work with the NAACP make her think about what she was doing meant to those actual Black people is despicable. It is all the more terrible because it makes it seem like she put on her dedication as superficially as her spray tan (although now she claims that she just doesn’t hide from the sun). Her sins of appropriation and thefts have been widely discussed by those she stole directly from- particularly the space and voice that should have gone to Black women. I don’t need to elaborate on that. Black Twitter has spoken and you should check it out if you haven’t already.
As many people have pointed out, Dolezal could have done everything she did as a White woman (which in some instances is unfortunate; I’m looking at you NAACP). This is where we have to talk about how to be allies in a world where Black space is already constantly under threat. If Dolezal had decided to labor ethically to understand the positionality of her whiteness in the spaces she lived and worked in she would have, hopefully, never gone after a leadership position in the NAACP. Or she would have, at the very least, respectfully declined it in favor of a person of color. She would have worked to create space for Black voices wherever she could, and worked to support and protect those spaces- not stolen them. And, instead of using Black culture in superficially twisted ways, which has really always been the American way, she could have honored that culture as an artist- not as a con-artist. In her resignation statement from the NAACP and her interviews Dolezal makes clear that despite everything, all her chances to hear, she still doesn’t get it. That is unfortunate. But we, as White people, can learn from her deceit.
The one thing Dolezal got right in her statement of resignation is that it’s not about her, and it is about justice and self-determination. Some of us are trying to be out here for that in responsible and ethical ways by working for and with Black people, and to center Black voices. We try to do this through our study, writing, activism, and teaching. We don’t deny the privileges we have as White people, we try to understand them and how to use them for good, not evil. This week proves that we must do more. Nine more African Americans are dead and a white woman who studied at Howard University has taken her idea of Blackness and used it to suit her desires, both of these things happened because of White supremacy. Race as a world historical phenomenon is complex, nuanced, and dynamic (transraciality attempts to encompass some of this dynamism). It is also killing people. White people do not get to determine and define Blackness. We do not get to place value on life according to our own logic. We do not get to inhabit all spaces. That happened already and it led to racial slavery, empire, rampant inequity, racism, the carceral state, and all the things that Dolezal supposedly worked against and that Roof set out to protect. Everything is not for white people. However, under the leadership and guidance of Black people, we must do serious battle within ourselves and our communities to work to dismantle all the systems that daily threaten Black lives and spaces, and have already taken far too many. That work, if nothing else, is for us.
Julia Bernier is a PhD candidate in the W.E.B. DuBois Department of Afro-American Studies at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. She blogs at whitepeoplealwayssmile.blogspot.com.