In a particularly Kafkaesque turn of events, former American civil rights activist Rachel Dolezal is coming to The Republic of South Africa, to present a lecture on race to the victims of Apartheid.
What makes this development so disturbing is not the fact that there is going to be a discussion about non-racialism, but rather that the star of the event is a white woman most famous for her irreverent appropriation of African-American identity. Black identity.
A Caucasian, dressed head to toe in a costume that many have equated to blackface, will be attending an inaugural discussion about non-racialism hosted by Quest for Non-Racial South African Society Dialogue, a local organization that seeks to promote racial harmony.
Clyde Ramalaine, the founder of the group, invited Dolezal because he believes that her particular experience places her in a unique position to speak on the concept of non-racialism.
There is only one race: the human race. Homo sapiens sapiens, all of us. Kumbaya, my Lord. Rachel Dolezal agrees that “race is a lie.” And so we encounter the first contradiction. If Dolezal believes that race is a lie, which it is, how then can she claim that she’s inherently black?
What I cannot fathom is how Ramalaine thinks that bringing this charlatan to South Africa is in any way useful to racial discourse. South African black people have expressed outrage that Dolezal is coming, and many have asked who she’s being hosted by.
Perhaps Clyde Ramalaine should’ve consulted black South Africans before assuming that someone as offensive as Dolezal would be welcome here.
As a white person who is deeply committed to the promotion of white racial literacy, I am vehemently opposed to a spectacle that will only undermine this effort.
Moreover, Rachel Dolezal is likely receiving compensation for her appearance, and will also be promoting her book, “In Full Color: Finding My Place in a Black and White World.” In the book, Rachel describes her experience as a fantasy.
“In my fantasy, [my parents] Larry and Ruthanne had kidnapped me, brought me to the United States, and were now raising me against my will in a foreign land. Back home in Africa, I’d possessed the ability to control the weather, but here in Montana my special power didn’t work.”
In her fantasy, Rachel says. What a fantasy indeed. A fantasy that Clyde Ramalaine wants to promote in a bruised and battered country. The star of the show is a white-privileged woman who makes money by appropriating black pain.
It get’s worse. Make yourself comfortable, grab a snack.
Rachel Dolezal had been “passing” as a black woman for nearly two years while head of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), when reporter Jeff Humphrey confronted her on the street and asked her if she was African-American. She didn’t understand the question. Humphries probed further to ask if her parents were white. Dolezal became visibly upset, ripped off her microphone and stormed away, leaving her valuables behind.
Since her “outing” in 2015, Rachel has appeared on countless television talk shows peddling various contradicting claims about her childhood and how she came to realize her true identity.
In Rachel’s fable, she’s a little girl that was born in a teepee and always knew she was black. Even though Rachel was blonde-haired and green-eyed with freckly white skin, she always drew herself as a little black girl, you know, like the ones she’d seen pictures of in National Geographic magazine. Rachel claimed she loved her birth father so much. She claimed he was black too. But Rachel didn’t live with him.
Growing up, little Rachel and her family – Mother, Stepfather and three black siblings – had to hunt for their food using bows and arrows. They lived in Cape Town where her father did missionary work. But all was not well in the Dolezal household. Mother and Stepfather would beat Rachel and her brothers with something called a “baboon whip” — a tool purportedly used to chase primates away. Rachel remembers the whip being “pretty similar to what was used as whips during slavery” and carries the physical scars on her body.
Rachel’s fable came to an end in 2015 after somebody hired a private investigator to find out if Rachel was who Rachel said she was. She wasn’t.
The PI found Ruthanne and Lawrence Dolezal, Rachel’s biological parents. They were kind enough to show the PI Rachel’s birth certificate. Full name: Rachel Anne Dolezal, born November 12, 1977, to a good Christian Caucasian couple.
At this point, Rachel Dolezal resigned from her position at the NAACP after being urged to do so by outraged colleagues. Kitara Johnson, a NAACP member, says Dolezal is a con artist.
“She reminds me of a con artist who spins a story and you get lost in the words and she says nothing. She doesn’t feel she did anything wrong. In her head, she thinks she’s a hero of African-American people. She’s received a platform from someone else’s race.”
Meanwhile, back in Montana, Rachel’s mother confirmed that her daughter’s ancestry was lily white as far as had been recorded. Family photographs clearly showed Rachel as a young freckle-faced, blonde-haired, white-skinned Dolezal. Compelled by their moral obligation to truth, Ruthanne and Lawrence appeared on national television to out their daughter as a fraud.
“She is a very talented woman, doing work she believes in. Why can’t she do that as a Caucasian woman, which is what she is?”
She had never drawn herself as a little black girl. Ruthanne said that “She did not ever refer to herself or draw pictures or do anything that indicated she thought she was black.”
Her parents further provided details of a peculiar incident involving Rachel while she was studying a Master of Fine Arts degree at the historically black Howard University in 2002. Rachel sued the university for discriminating against her on account of her being white after her artwork was removed from a student exhibition. The case was dismissed.
Ezra Dolezal, Rachel’s younger brother, also broke his silence to dispel some of the claims his sister has made. He said that he was flabbergasted on a particular day when Rachel, 37 years old at the time, told him “not to blow her cover” about her life as a white woman.
“She told me not to blow her cover about the fact that she had this secret life or alternate identity. She told me not to tell anybody about Montana or her family over there. She said she was starting a new life and this one person over there was actually going to be her black father.”
Ezra believes Rachel’s lies have piled up to the point where it has become too big for her to handle. He also says his sister’s change in physical appearance is a “slap in the face to African-Americans” because she is permanently wearing blackface.
Even more fanciful is Dolezal’s claim that she is transracial. The term “transracial” is a relative newcomer to the sphere of identity discourse. All the more reason to ensure that the subject is delicately and accurately handled. In an article that appeared in the New York Times, Angela Tucker, a black woman who was adopted by white parents, hit out at Dolezal for misappropriating the term.
“It means a lot to those of us who call ourselves transracial adoptees. We have grown up in a culture different than what we physically represent. We’ve had to seek out our roots. What Rachel has done is misappropriate that.”
The transgender society has also vocally condemned Rachel’s careless comparison of her identity shift to gender dysphoria. In an article for the Guardian, Meredith Talusan, a transgender writer and photographer, clarified some of the criticism leveled at Dolezal.
“The fundamental difference between Dolezal’s actions and trans people’s is that her decision to identify as black was an active choice, whereas transgender people’s decision to transition is almost always involuntary… Thus, Dolezal identified as black, but I am a woman, and other trans people are the gender they feel themselves to be.”
There is a heavily strained tension in the Rainbow Nation land – a mythical place we have yet to discover – between white liberals who refuse to see race, and a rejuvenated wave of black consciousness that unapologetically celebrates the prepossessing nuance of blackness.
Mention the word race and white liberals either run away, implode or explode. It’s hard to predict. Our inability to deal with the most minimal amount of racial stress is one of the biggest barriers to cohesion. There’s an impenetrable wall of resistance, fortified with denial, that rises to shield the world of whiteness from any idea or concept that might cause even the tiniest upset to the collective mindset that took centuries of indoctrination to take root.
Once the site of one of the most brutal systems of racial segregation and oppression in human history, the South Africa of today is a country divided, deeply immersed in a quagmire of inequality and painfully grappling with the residual effects of colonial-era racism.
A post-colony beset with racial fatigue, the wounds that run like deep ravines etched into the soil of society have not yet healed. Exposed to the elements – the cruelty of poverty and continued systemic dehumanization, weighed down by the unrepentant, uncomprehending whiteness – the wounds are septic; inflamed.
White South Africans have never been required to account for the horrors of Apartheid, and although many argue that white people today aren’t responsible for the past, the fact that most whites voted for the National Party clearly indicates a deliberate endorsement of racist policies.
The fact that all whites still benefit almost exclusively from institutional racism, while blatantly denying its existence and doing next to nothing to dismantle the system, shows that we are happy to be complicit in the continued exploitation and oppression of black people.
Despite affirmative action legislation, white South Africans continue to dominate top managerial positions throughout the South African economy, making up seventy percent of top managers and fifty-nine percent of senior executives. Unemployment among whites is at between four and 7 percent. Additionally, a staggering sixty percent of the country’s economic wealth resides in the hands of whites. Not bad at all, for a mere 8 percent of the population.
As a beneficiary of white privilege herself, to the extent that she can invoke her race to suit her needs, what right does Rachel Dolezal have to lecture South Africans about non-racialism? As someone who lied about having lived in South Africa, she has absolutely no experience of the country’s racial dynamics.
Commenting in the New York Times on Dolezal’s objectionable appropriation of blackness, Tamara Winfrey Harris wrote that “Racial identity cannot be fluid as long as the definition of whiteness is fixed. And historically, the path to whiteness has been extremely narrow.”
“Being able to shift one’s race is a privilege. We cannot proclaim the black race a nebulous concept, while strictly policing whiteness and the privileges of that identity. I will accept Ms. Dolezal as black like me only when society can accept me as white like her.”
Rebecca Carroll, writing for Dame Magazine, believes Rachel’s act is nothing more than the ultimate manifestation of white privilege.
“To me, it’s apocalyptic, White privilege on steroids: ‘Look at me! Look what I can do! I can just take this race and culture because I want it! It’s a hyper-internalized colonization mentality…”
In a country where many white people still don’t understand the painful historical significance of critical issues like blackface, cultural appropriation and objectification of black bodies, a woman who does all those things for a living has no place whatsoever speaking on a public platform.
As an anti-whiteness activist, seeking to educate fellow whites about the multi-layered race issues we have never bothered to investigate, I reject Rachel’s visit. I urge Clyde Ramalaine to consider the implications of Rachel’s racist performance art for this country’s already strained national discourse.
[Featured image by Nicholas K. Geranios/AP Images]