The Rachel Dolezal story getting more bizarre by the minute. On Tuesday, we discovered that while she identifies as black, she sued Howard University for racial discrimination against her because she’s white.
I’m confused and, like many others, I’m offended.
Rachel’s interview with Matt Lauer confirms my reason for being offended. The interview begins with this question and answer:
Matt Lauer: Are you an African-American woman?
Rachel Dolezal: I identify as black.
Then Rachel continues to defend herself for 10 minutes, claiming that she identifies with the black experience.
But Rachel is doing more than identifying with the black experience. She’s claiming to be part of the black experience. She said she “had to go there with the [African-American] experience … and the point at which that really solidified was when I got full custody of Isaiah [her adopted brother], and he said, ‘You’re my real mom,’ and for that to be plausible, I certainly can’t be seen as white.” She also told Lauer that she has identified as black since she was 5 years old. “I was drawing self-portraits with the brown crayon instead of the peach crayon, and the black curly hair.”
On national television, that’s the story she tells about her “black experience?” She gained custody of her African-American adopted brother? I adopted my daughter from China; am I now Chinese? And crayons? I don’t get it.
Now, I don’t know what Rachel has been through in her life, but Jamelle Bouie makes an important distinction in understanding Rachel’s situation over at Slate. He writes that, “To belong to the black community is to inherit a rich culture; to be racially black is to face discrimination and violence.” Here’s a bit of information about the modern black experience of racism, discrimination, and violence in the U.S. FYI – being black in America is more dangerous than gaining custody of an adopted brother and drawing with crayons:
- The racial wealth gap continues to expand. In 2011, the median wealth holdings for white households was $111,146. For black households it was $7,113.
- Blacks make up 1 million of the 2.3 million people incarcerated in the U.S.
- Blue-on-black violence has become a tragic fact of American life as “ young black males in recent years were at a far greater risk of being shot dead by police than their white counterparts – 21 times greater."
- If you are black, wearing a hoodie and carrying candy can get you shot because that somehow creates a situation in which one might need to invoke protection under “stand your ground.”
- The curriculum of public schools emphasizes the white experience as good and normative, while ignoring the African-American experience. “Indeed, while European culture and thought are implicitly presented as universal and Europe as the only place from which great ideas and discoveries originated, Africa and African descended people find themselves quasi excluded from the curriculum.”
Of course, racism has infected the United States since its founding. It’s been called America’s Original Sin. Events in Ferguson, Baltimore, and McKinney are just a few of the latest examples of modern-day racism. As mimetic theory helps us understand, group identity formation is usually constructed in a negative way that pits us over-and-against another group. For example, racism is an identity construct in America that gives white people a sense of superiority over-and-against black people. From slavery to Jim Crow to lynching to segregation to the modern-day prison system, racism continues to infect the U.S.
Unfortunately, this way of constructing identity is bigger than American racism. It is an aspect of the Christian notion of Original Sin. Throughout American history in particular, and world history in general, we find that the easiest way to find group solidarity is to channel our inner hostility against a common enemy.
Mimetic theory calls this the scapegoat mechanism. The demonic aspect of scapegoating is that it feels right because it gives us a sense of “goodness.” But scapegoating, like racism, is based on a lie. That lie claims that another’s life, no matter how guilty or innocent, is less valuable than ours. As such, another’s life can be demonized and sacrificed for our benefit.
It’s hard for me to condemn Rachel too much because we have a bigger problem. Rachel is likely very deluded, but her story shows how addicted we are to the scapegoat mechanism. Just seven days ago, nobody knew the name Rachel Dolezal, but now she has become the lightning rod for our cultural hostility. White, black, brown, whatever color we are, we can now unite against Rachel.
And that’s the problem because next week Rachel Dolezal will be old news. But the cycle of scapegoating will continue as we find someone new to unite against.
Our cultural hostility against Rachel isn’t going to solve the problem. Next week when we’ve forgotten all about her and move on to our next scapegoat, we will still have the problems of racism and white privilege. As a white man, I know that the statistics I provided above doesn’t come close to telling the black experience of racism in the U.S. I also know that the flip side of those statistics show the clear privilege of being born white. Because I am white, police and security guards do not hover over me, I have never been “stopped and frisked,” flesh colored Band-Aids are always my flesh, I can turn on the television and be 95 percent sure that I will see a white person, and I know that my middle-class white neighborhood will stay a middle-class and white neighborhood.
White privilege is summed up by an important study of two economists. They discovered that the vast majority of entrepreneurs are “white, male, and highly educated.” But even more interesting is that in their high school and college years, they were more likely than average Americans to have committed “aggressive, illicit, risk taking activities.” Among those activities are smoking pot, skipping class, shoplifting, and gambling.
But that’s OK because they were privileged by being born white. In claiming to be black, Dolezal denies the truth about the privileges of being white and she diminishes the plight of the African-American experience in America. Neither are helpful. The best way for white people to deal with racism in America is to recognize the privileges of being white and begin the process of critiquing and giving up those privileges.