When I first saw Rachel Dolezal in my hometown of Spokane, Washington, I wondered, “Who on Earth is this White chick?”
I had returned to Spokane — where the Black population consistently hovered around 2 percent — for a short stint after living in California, D.C. and Namibia for several years. I was shopping, and she caught my eye. After Africa, I was reeling with the culture shock of Spokane’s sheer whiteness. But upon seeing a White woman with blonde braided “extensions,” my brain took a moment to make sense of it all.
A hairdresser, I thought. She must be a hairdresser and likes experimenting with style.
I tried to give her the benefit of the doubt. Because what White woman in her right mind would rock blonde twists past her butt unless returning from Jamaica or recently discovering how to lengthen her hair with extensions? I attributed the sighting to the madness of Spokane where whiteness — even whiteness with a weave — goes unchecked.
Then last week, a friend sent me an article about a White woman president of the Spokane NAACP who’s been faking Blackness for nearly 10 years.
Only in Spokane, he texts.
I’d been gone so long, self-exiled as one of the few forgotten Black daughters of Spokane, that I had no idea the woman I saw was portraying herself as an Actual Black Woman complete with faux Black father, harassment claims, and critique of hair privilege.
And fiery anger engulfed me.
Yes, Rachel Dolezal can only exist in a town that loathes, ignores and renders Black women invisible.
Her passing could not happen without being given a pass, welcomed as a substitute in a town that has no love for the real thing. She can masquerade as Black in a place where Black women are underrepresented and underappreciated, where Actual Black Women feel isolated, unseen, and alone.
For those outside this Pacific Northwest town of 200,000, it may seem a strange story. To me, this confirms what I felt and always knew —that the people of Spokane, Black, White or otherwise, would rather embrace a “Black-acting” White woman than one or many of the hard-working Black women who were the foundation of our small community.
I know because, in Spokane, my kinky-ish hair and caramel skin were rejected. Your hair is poofy, the little White girls would say. You’re so muscular, the little White boys would say, scared. You’re not really black, some adults would say as if congratulating me.
What would the little Black boys say? Nothing. I was not the epitome of beauty. That was the little White girls. And then the teenage White girls. And then the I’ve always wanted to be with a Black man White women. They loved to say I’ve always wanted mixed babies … they’re the cutest.
Black men got hard for some White chicks. No love for the natural hair-having, thick-bodied, athletic and academic-achieving, White-privilege-knapsack-unpacking, White-people-telling Black girl. No love letters or secret whispers or nervous you wanna be my girl. No acknowledgment on the street. No having my back when White people said I wasn’t Black. Unlike how they are going to the mattresses for this White woman’s Black identity.
Raised on the north side, away from the Black enclave to the east, the only adult versions of myself that I saw were those I sought out or my White mother made a point to have in my life. There was the lady who braided my hair, the mothers of the Black girls on my brother’s basketball team, the women who worked with my mom and shared their sweetness with little Black girls like me who tried desperately to see a future in their eyes and Spokane. Those Black women kept the 2 percent together, but I never saw them get love from anyone.
I rarely saw a Black man loving a Black woman in Spokane. The only couple I knew where a Black man was loving a Black woman were my godparents, and they lived on the other side of the state. When I told my mother nobody would love me here, she cried and apologized for raising me in such a place. In a town like this, are we surprised that a White woman was embraced as Black?
My own family was void of love for Black women. My Black father married my White mother. When they got divorced, he found another White woman. In my father’s world, Black women didn’t exist except to do hair or be his mother. My brothers never brought home Black girls. Maybe as friends, but rarely. It was the White and Asian girls that got their love. My family would tell me I was beautiful, but I was positive they were just being nice. They would tell me all the boys were intimidated and the girls were jealous. It was clear that Black girls were not for loving, but I knew that this straight little Black girl would have to try. So, I left and never turned back.
Now, far removed from that painful experience, I can only imagine how this situation devolved. I am not surprised that in a city where I rarely saw Black men valuing Black women, this charade was allowed to continue. For it to end, someone would have had to call out her passing as an insult to Black women. She could not have passed without the approval of Black men and women lending their credibility and relinquishing their birthright to Blackness — an act I can only imagine is out of survival in a place where being invisible is safer than rocking the boat. But, Black people of Spokane, we do not have to surrender our Blackness to achieve equality or gain power. We must do it while holding firm to who we are and what we deserve.
A town that loves and respects Black women would not settle for an imposter. Its people would not be content to see their women mocked and worn as a costume, would not stand idly by as a White woman attained civil-rights positions while purporting to be “going natural” for her birthday. A Black community that loves Black women would not silently accept a White woman following the trends of Black womanhood, studying her subjects and performing Black womanhood by accessorizing herself with cultural or aesthetic cues. Though she may understand some history, she failed to understand her role in perpetuating white privilege and supremacy, the very structures she claimed to be dismantling. Dolezal and those like her benefit from the invisibility of Black women. She appropriated what it means to be a Black woman and rendered invisible the very women who sustain the 2 percent.
You see, Rachel Dolezal is not just playing Black. She’s playing Black Woman in Spokane without actually knowing the trauma of being a Black Girl in Spokane. If we don’t see Rachel Dolezal as an affront to Black women, we are steadily sliding down a slippery slope where sewing in, putting on, and bronzing up are enough to claim the heritage and experience of those who are dying or in exile — pushed out of communities we built.
Alicia Walters is the founder and coordinator of Echoing Ida, a program of Forward Together that amplifies the thought leadership of Black women. She is an expert on the intersections of race, gender, class, and criminalization. She resides in Oakland, California with her husband.