In case you’ve never seen the highest grossing film of all time, it revolves around a hero who feels so sorry for the aliens whom he’s been assigned to infiltrate and obliterate that he chooses to live his life disguised as one of them, and is eventually discovered as a fraud before re-earning their trust through his persevering intention, gaining acceptance from the tribe before going on to become the most heroic individual in their planetary history… all in 3D. I don’t know if Rachel Dolezal has seen the aptly named Avatar, but a page from the plot she has certainly taken.
In case you’ve been living under a rock (or perhaps paying attention to real news such as the racial cleansing in the Dominican Republic or the mass shooting in Charleston last night), Rachel Dolezal became the premier media darling about a week ago when her parents outed the Spokane Chapter NAACP president and Eastern Washington University instructor of African Studies for pretending to be Black when she is in fact, not. There are a lot more details that muddy this up… but when you wade past the molestation scandal, sex-tape scandal, lawsuits against Howard, fake and bake tan, weaves, wigs, fake dad, fake hate mail, and the custody battle for her son/brother you’re left with one thing: A white woman who wants to be Black, and self-identifies as such.
So what do we do with this? History – both fictional and real – says we accept her. Avatar won 86 awards – including 3 Grammys and 2 Golden Globes. The paraplegic Marine who no longer found himself useful in the world he knew found new purpose in his fake, albeit able body and embraced the culture of his sworn enemy, eventually becoming their leader, much to the delight of fans around the world. The now famous actor was even cast later in the last Terminator flick, not surprisingly, as a robot pretending to be human. Similar stories such as The Last Samurai and Dances With Wolves have – for decades – driven home the point that if you love a culture enough, you can have it. And once you have it, you can rule it.
In reality, the ideology powering the progression of the trans-movement should approve Rachel Dolezal as Black per her self-identification. Even if she had not painted herself a smidge beiger and crinkled her hair, she can always maintain that she “feels” Black, and there’s not a thing you can do to stop her. Jake Sully had to tame a wild flying beast to earn the trust of his new fellow race, but what hoops can Dolezal jump through to prove herself? Comical yet ultimately self-insulting hashtags such as #AskRachel indicate that perhaps she can redeem herself through an academic understanding of the Black experience. Are we going to make her memorize the Friday movies? Comb her hair till she cries? Go back in time and have her mom beat her with a switch? Burn her forehead with a curling iron? Memorize the Black National Anthem? Fire her gun when the revolution comes? Or is her earning a master’s degree from Howard University and running an NAACP chapter (things most Black people never accomplish) enough?
But there are better questions… Is there anything that a person born into one identifying social construct can do to earn a place within another? Is there any reason that Rachel should be barred from co-opting trans-rhetoric to defend her position? Is it a human right to be identified as how you feel you feel as opposed to as what you physically are?
I often hear people argue that it doesn’t matter. And to a point I agree. If Rachel came out and announced that she was a Black man, I would probably be confused (not a new sensation by any means) and move along with the understanding that she – err – he can believe whatever he wants. Feelings come into play whenever someone who considers themselves to be an “authentic” something-or-other takes exception to someone masquerading or altering the prevailing concept of that something. It is hard for people to take pride in a label, only to have someone else turn that label inside out. To many, this becomes a personal attack on their very being. Taking pride in who you are is to accept the good and the bad, the history and the baggage, and further to understand the nuances of the culture and protect the flock. Thus, claiming to be something which you are clearly not and demanding to be accepted without any sort of vetting process should be expected to create division, even if the goal of the co-opting party is the opposite. The core offense here is an abuse of privilege.
Let’s look beyond feelings though. What is the real impact of co-opting race? To me, an epidemic of “racial gentrification” would cause us to lose sight of the measurable areas of inequality. Just as gentrification increases the value and improves a neighborhood by most (if not all) measurable criteria by replacing the people within it, co-opting race altogether would falsely yield improvements to the statistically proven gaps in minority achievement. That is, how would we measure improvements to the minority condition if we allow the majority to claim our classifications? If the percentage of Black men incarcerated dropped by 10% because 100,000 white guys with clean records just decided to mark Black on the next census, would that actually mark an improvement in our situation? If 5 anatomically white males formed a board but 2 of them identified as Black, one as a female, and another as a Chinese female, is that actually a diverse board?
Maybe we’re just being trolled, I don’t know. But Rachel Dolezal, for all of her foolishness, has certainly exposed nerves in the progressive/liberal agenda as well as the Black community, adding questions to a world in which we already struggle to navigate. Safe travels.