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The Rachel Divide made me retrace my own privilege as a biracial black woman

May 28, 2018 8:00 pm

Watching The Rachel Divide is uncomfortable as fuck for a biracial black woman. It’s not just sitting in the face of light-skinned privilege (or, in Rachel Dolezal’s case of self-proclaimed racial fluidity, hyper-white privilege), or even just watching the pained, lingering shots of her black sons, their faces losing the begrudging on-camera smiles frame-by-frame, mouths folding slowly to flat lines as the movie progresses to its finish. For me, it’s that after watching Laura Brownson’s Netflix documentary, which debuted in late April 2018, I still don’t know how to feel about Rachel Dolezal.

To be more clear, I know what feelings I’m supposed to feel, among them hate, anger, incredulity, pain, boredom, bemusement. I know I’m not supposed to feel pity, empathy, ambivalence, amusement, respect, love, like.

But my feelings have turned more inward. I find myself thinking about my own journey as a light-skinned biracial woman and the toxic mist of tragic mulattoism that has followed me for much of my life. I have had feelings of uncertainty about my race growing up — not in wanting to be something else entirely, but in being something in-between, marginalized on one side and privileged on another (but really, in my case, marginalized from both ends: my father is Jewish, and the post-Trump proliferation of neo-Nazism reminds me that no piece of my particular blend is safe).

Here are some privileges I claim as a biracial black woman who has light skin: being able to walk in a store unfollowed, and to receive smiles from store associates who are not following me; feeling certain my life was not in danger when I was pulled over for crossing the double-yellow lines at a turning light; garnering positive responses from men, who see my blackness as peripheral exoticism and not a dating barrier; not being shamed for the color of my skin, texture of my hair, and strength of my features in school and in life.

Rachel claims these too. She is white.

Colin Mulvany/AP

Here is what she may not know, that I do: hearing my mother called the n-word twice growing up, once in the car during a road rage incident on Mother’s Day on a highway in New York, and once in front of her church as we unloaded supplies for a celebration being held there later that day (the boys yelling it from the long black Lincoln sounded very young and very white); being taunted on the bus by black peers who lived in my black neighborhood for no reason in particular but not being black enough; being told my mother was not my mother in second grade by a classmate when he saw her, her skin shades deeper than mine.

I watched the documentary more than three weeks ago and can only write this now. In fact, as a writer, I know I should watch the film again to better codify these thoughts, to have a more biting, specific argument, but I can’t bring myself to do it. Once, with Rachel Dolezal, is often enough.

Other mixed writers have clearer thoughts about Dolezal than I do, like novelist Mat Johnson.

“I'm an African American who appears white. I've had to spend my life negotiating the confusion and suspicion caused by this. Dolezal pretended to be like me to manipulate her infiltration into one of the only places her white privilege didn't provide access,” he wrote on Twitter. “She can go to hell.”

I wish I had these definitive thoughts about Dolezal.

Instead I still feel infuriatingly neutral feelings (though they sometimes skew toward apathy, if anything), and wonder if that ability — to not hate her, to not wish her to hell or worse — speaks to the privilege inherent in my light skin, the confusion the mixed experience sometimes engenders, and to my inability to claim only blackness (I identify as biracial, black and Jewish, Jew-maican, biracial black, and all other things that convey both sides of my parentage). Ironically, I am, in some ways, less resolute about my identity than Dolezal, whose fierce belief in her own blackness is leveraged with an irrational certainty that comes from stubbornness, denial, and the inability to know the pain of those less privileged than you are.

Again, to be clear: to not feel hate or anger toward Dolezal does not mean I find her forgivable to the community she lied to and continues to hurt. Dolezal is in no way a forgivable figure in this film. She deceptively worked to pass as another race (to the extent that the jobs she held in Spokane, Washington were inextricably connected to her black identity) and, when found out, claimed she was trans-racial black — emboldened again by the privilege she is embittered by (most notably addressed in this deeply uncomfortable profile by Ijeoma Oluo for The Stranger). Her lies extend beyond her identity; recent reports indicate she is being charged with welfare fraud. The story, by now, has been so thoroughly laundered in the media that I wonder what my words can add to it. Maybe they add nothing, though I still have them and the indulgent writer’s impulse to put them into the world.

My passive feelings may have to do with the character development in the film itself. Brownson admitted to BuzzFeed that Dolezal’s fierce insistence of her blackness resulted in her character arc being static. This resoluteness about her identity made her an impossible character to mine: every answer she gives is constructed to mirror the ones before it. She doesn’t concede, apologize, or acknowledge the experiences of others. She is willing to put her children in a precarious position to maintain her story. She must maintain her “blackness” to not feel transported back to the white fundamentalist upbringing that traumatized her in her youth. This stands, of course, in intense irony to the lawsuit she brought against Howard University in 2002, in which she claimed she was being discriminated against for being white.

Oddly enough, I did tear up in the film’s final minutes, when Dolezal makes the ultimate identity mockery by changing her legal name from Rachel Dolezal — a name that has become synonymous with fraud and modern minstrelsy in the media — to Nkechi Amare Diallo. The tears weren’t for Dolezal. I think my eyes watered for her sons, for the sad twang of Aurora’s “Life on Mars” cover playing in the background (there has never been a more fitting moment for the lyric “Now she walks through a sunken dream,” a place not so far from Jordan Peele’s sunken place), for knowing this woman has ruined her life to uphold a lie that harms the black women she so deeply wants to identify with — black women she once, as the white savior in bronze makeup, worked alongside in the fight for equality. Perhaps my eyes even salted for her art, which could move people and incite meaningful discussions about race were it not so irrevocably tied to its problematic creator.

The film manages to convey some complexity about race, although it does not address or explain that complexity as much as it just suggests that it exists…through the lens of a woman who refuses to acknowledge how that complexity might preclude her from blackness. For many, it’s a failure, a hollow feature that sidesteps both history and the structural origins of racism, and one that eclipses the plight of black women in America with the story of a white one.

After watching, I’m left with questions that writer Maiysha Kai noted in The Root:

“As for Dolezal, we’re inevitably left wondering what she could’ve been were it not for her unwavering fixation on being what she’s not. Could she have been a wildly successful artist? An incredibly effective ally to the communities she claims to love? A mother who could provide not only love to her sons (because she clearly loves them) but also assurance, instead of increasing isolation?”

I think Dolezal has made herself an island. Many black writers have cited their own weariness with her story and their unwillingness to fall into the histrionic web she has woven. I’m beginning to feel the same.

But here we are, writing.