Thin Ice: on #RachelDolezal and Being a White Ally

via AwesomelyLuvvie.com

via AwesomelyLuvvie.com

Why Rachel Is Wack is now well established. I’ll let the Black women who articulated it best for me speak here for themselves:

Writer Blue Telusma wrote on Facebook: “”It’s offensive that she decided to put on black womanhood like an outfit. as a black woman who has a healthy self esteem I’m clear that my identity isn’t a fad…Offensive that my trans brothers and sisters who are killed in the street and ostracized by their families at alarming rates… are being compared to a liar – simply cause folks don’t “get it'”

Alicia Walters wrote in The Guardian: “Dolezal managed to put on an identity – that of a black woman – in a way that renders invisible the experiences that actually forged for us our identities as black women…She represented us and gained status in both black and white communities as one of us, even though she could have worn her whiteness and talked to white people about their racism – something sorely needed in a town like Spokane.”

Luvvie blogged: “”Why couldn’t she just be a very vocal white ally? I am a firm believer that we need them, because racism is not a system that Black people can “fix.” It has been created, upheld and perpetuated by Rachel’s skin folks so white people HAVE to be a part of the solution. She could have been active in the NAACP as a white woman and took her place as an anti-racism white activist. She could actually use her white privilege to create space and elevate other people of color. Instead, she is playing the part of the people she purports to be fighting for, appropriating the culture in a role that is full of mimicry of hairstyles and repetition of theory, as well as a dollop of stereotypes to make it really authentic.”

And Jamila Lemieux wrote for Ebony: “We don’t say enough about how the racism of White women—who often escape scrutiny because the public face of racism is The White Man—harms people of color. We forget how the aggression of police when encountering Black bodies is often tied to the idea that these people present a danger to the fragility of White womanhood and how the word of a White woman will nearly almost always be believed over that of a Black man or Black woman (or a Black child, which is frightening, considering how many White women are teaching Black kids that they don’t necessarily value or believe in.)”

I’ve been teaching writing using hiphop for five years now. Yep, I’ve been a white woman the whole time. A Jewish white woman, cisgendered, with all the attendant privileges that entails. Unlike my colleagues of color who teach Black cultural products in class, I’m not subject to skeptical course evaluations that question my motives or lambast a supposed agenda (see this article [PDF], and there’s lots more on this phenomenon). And I do have a social justice agenda–one I have been free to pursue in the classroom with very, very little resistance from my white students.

Me reading a speech at a TGB rally last winter. Another member pointed out to me how easily I'd centered myself in the group's public image, even though I joined relatively late.

Me reading a speech at a TGB rally last winter. Another member pointed out to me how easily I’d centered myself in the group’s public image, even though I joined relatively late.

Despite thinking I was “doing the work” all these years, though, this past year was the first time I became enmeshed in a true activist community: THE General Body, an interracial group of students, faculty, and staff working for a broad array of united causes at Syracuse University. Doing activism in community with this truly diverse group–across age, race, ability, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexuality, activism experience, university status–I was subject, regularly and rightly, to critique.

I’ve been thinking over the last few months of the metaphor of “thin ice” to describe the position of a white person doing justice work for and with Black people and people of color, and studying Black culture in the academy.  At first I was resentful of some folks’ suspicion of me, the intimations that I needed to prove I was really down for the cause, both through my words and my deeds. But I have come to respect, and expect, folks’ suspicion of me. And why not? Rachel Dolezal only reminds us how wack white folks can be. But even more saliently, I have come to recognize that my resentment at having to prove myself was itself a function of my learned privilege–the privilege of always having been given the benefit of the doubt. My whole life–and this goes on still–whenever I’ve interrupted some teacher, store clerk, public official–I am always given the benefit of the doubt.

It’s time for me to own that as a white woman in integrated, activist, pro-Black spaces, and a white academic engaging Black artists and authors in my scholarship, I am always–and ought to be–on thin ice. I am in danger of making a wrong step–centering myself and my feelings, expecting my privilege to still hold, acting condescending, saying something offensive or plain wrong–and getting called out for it, falling through the ice. And oo-wee does that cold water sting. It takes your breath away. It makes me want to thrash and lash out. But it is also informative, that icy water, if I can be still enough to feel it: still enough to feel how my very feelings have been conditioned by white supremacy, how I’ve learned that my hurt is more important than other people’s, how much power my fear has in this racist world.

Feeling that hurt and processing it, really listening to the critique I get, is how I learn how to act, speak, and be better, so I can focus on the work. I feel lucky there are people who love me enough to explain what I’m doing wrong–because, to quote SethTheSophist, “this ain’t the learning annex,” and they don’t owe me shit. But I’ve learned this year that it is worth the trouble to walk on thin ice. It is worth speaking carefully and, also carefully–and infrequently–soliciting critique. It is worth, sometimes, feeling cold.

Rachel Dolezal’s story is strange and uniquely 2015. But stories like this catch on because they resonate with us, for a diversity of reasons. In my case, she reminds me of the value and the hard work (as Tim Wise has also noted) of being a white social justice activist–hard work Rachel apparently attempted to avoid.

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2 thoughts on “Thin Ice: on #RachelDolezal and Being a White Ally

  1. Fabulous as always Tessa. The analysis of “whiteness” is part of what has been missing in the discussion. Rachel is sack, but for a reason. As a psychoanalytic colleague of mine wrote on another listserv, what else has been ignored is that Rachel’s parents adopted several African-American children, often privileging them as children by “choice” rather than by “biology.” this competition around privilege likely had some impact on Rachel growing up, dontcha think? Taking nothing away from your keen social analysis, the individual analysis of this woman has not been detailed or sufficient enough. Congratulations on looking inward so insightfully. Best,Claire Rosenberg

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