Ninety years ago, writer Carl Van Vechten published a novel intended to be a celebration of Harlem, which at the time was experiencing a budding literary, artistic, and intellectual movement that sparked a new cultural identity for Black America.
Van Vechten’s vivid and nuanced tale granted white America a voyeur pass to “the great black walled city” of Harlem. There was only one problem: Van Vechten was a white man. Worse, to further inspire exposure over this willful exploit, which he referred to as his “Negro novel,” Van Vechten decided to name his roman à clef after an expression used to describe the balcony seating of Blacks in the era of overt segregation: Nigger Heaven.
Juxtapose this unauthorized thievery of select cultural expressions of an oppressed minority group with a present-day example. Last summer, educator and NAACP chapter president Rachel Dolezal was exposed as a white woman portraying herself as being Black. A torrent of media coverage and interviews ensued. Seemingly for the first time, the US was obsessed with the plight of a Black woman, except that the attention centered on a white woman who donned blackface and frizzy hairpieces.
Dolezal—who recently signed a publishing deal to write a book about her self-imposed racial identity crisis—is the modern Nigger Heaven. She is a living embodiment of all the conceit, self-indulgence, insensibility, and intellectual malpractice that went into Vechten’s bestselling work of fiction, penned after infiltrating the inner circles of Harlem trendsetters, intellectuals, and other native, influential Black folks.
Like Van Vechten, Dolezal shamelessly satiates a fascination with both an existence and way of being that doesn’t belong to her. Both acts are cousins to cultural appropriation in that both involve members of a dominant group exploiting the culture of a less privileged group with no concern for the social context that framed the latter’s history, marginalization, and traditions part and parcel to their unique collection of experiences.
When asked for her take on Dolezal’s narcissistic charade, critical race academic Robin DiAngelo stated,
Being a good person and being complicit with racism are mutually exclusive in the white mind. In keeping with this binary thinking, in some progressive circles wherein it is understood that all whites are indeed complicit with racism, being white becomes bad and being Black becomes good. For her to pass herself as Black rather than face what it means to be white can be seen as a form of white fragility—the inability to take responsibility for her position within a white supremacist culture. Rather than face the discomfort of that position, she has appropriated Black identity and the social capital that it affords within a racially liberal milieu.
Some cry: “But race is only a social construct!” Touché. But those who cite this fact to minimize or excuse Dolezal’s actions often omit a significant part of that equation. While discussing the concept of race, Guardian writer Steven Thrasher offers some nuance:
Race is a fiction—which has only existed as we presently conceive it over the past few hundred years, since European colonialism and American chattel slavery began peddling its mythology. But despite being a fiction, its effects are so real in our lives that it can be difficult to imagine ourselves outside our present hell.
Yes, we get that race doesn’t exist, but that doesn’t mitigate the concept’s very real impact on the everyday racism and anti-blackness that saturates our culture. Dolezal’s poor facsimile co-opts a struggle foreign to her own for personal gain. This is the pinnacle of white privilege: being white, pretending to be Black, and profiting from this masquerade while countless actual Black people continue to suffer social, economic, and political deprivations by mere virtue of their actual-Black existence.
Scrutiny that either challenges or highlights inconsistency in her counterfeit identity seems to be received as white noise, as she isn’t actually concerned with reality. This is exactly what we’d expect from a cherry-picked narrative. Dolezal’s warped love affair with blackness is a position of special pleading. If the notion of “transracial” had any crumb of credibility it would necessarily extend to everyone.
With this rationale, Blacks could simply renounce their blackness. No more racial profiling. No more “DWBs” (driving while black). No more being viewed as a threat when occupying public space. No more getting assassinated for possessing toy guns or seeking help after a car crash. No more redlining. No more being victims of a criminal justice system that doles out disproportionate arrest and sentencing rates. No more defective healthcare.
If I chose to self-identify and “dress-up” as a white person as portrayed by Eddie Murphy in a Saturday Night Live skit, would I then be free to benefit from white privilege? If I had a strong inner-hankering that I was really meant to be Caucasian, would our white-oriented society permit me to obtain that excess social and political capital denied to blackness?
Of course not. We know damn well that’s not how any of this works. Whiteness isn’t merely a reference to skin color. Whiteness describes a socially and politically constructed concept. It’s both a systemic and systematic ideology based on beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors that results in unequal distribution of power and privilege that accords a higher regard for the intellectual, behavioral, and inherent value of those defined as “white.”
Blacks can’t magically ingratiate themselves into whitehood given that whiteness is specifically defined in opposition to blackness. Our place within our society’s racial hierarchy is tattooed across our being the moment we exit the womb—with the baggage of anti-Black propaganda and preformed beliefs about our character in tow.
It isn’t that Dolezal should be criticized just because she tries to be something she isn’t. The problem lies in the implications and splash damage of her foolhardy antics. Regardless of her intentions, she makes a mockery of legitimate concerns along racial lines. Her bizarre story also further solidifies an issue educator and journalist Stacey Patton teased out when news broke of Dolezal’s deal with BenBella Books.
Patton says, “White America loves to hear about the experiences of black people but they don’t want to hear about them from the voices and perspectives of black people. They want blackness interpreted by white people, minstrels, coons, and transracial folk who can then authenticate our truths by deviously passing themselves off as black while making a buck off the experience.”
Transracial isn’t a thing and it never was. Those who say otherwise are trying to sell you something. I have no doubt Rachel Dolezal’s book will be a profitable fount of whitesplaining.