If you’ve been using Rachel Dolezal‘s matriculation at Howard University, one of the nation’s oldest and most prestigious Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), as a measure of her trans-blackness: stop. Just stop. Attending an HBCU doesn’t make a person black, any more than eating apple pie makes one American.
Must it really be explained that while blackness is many things, it is not a certification received along with a diploma at commencement? If it is, this editorial is my formal request for Vanderbilt University, where I spent twice as much time in graduate school than I did at undergrad at Fisk University, to send my long-overdue white card.
Oh, but attending Vanderbilt doesn’t make me white now does it? Even though my paternal ancestry, which I am told has roots in Italy by-way-of Cuba is probably white, I ain’t white. Even though I once mistook my white-ish grandfather, standing proudly next to his golden retriever, for one of those generic black and white images used to sell a photo frame, I ain’t white. I ain’t white because I don’t look white. I’ve long said, in this experience, you are who and what they put the APB out for.
In truth however, I am, like the vast majority of black peoples in the Americas, probably more white than I know or think. But passing as white, is not a privilege I can enjoy. Despite being a social construct to which I should, at least in-part qualify, whiteness is not extended to me because I do not “look white.” You have to look the part, to be extended the privilege associated with it. Passing, in this way, is privilege. Whether black to white, white to black or any other “color” or “race,” and any which way you put it, passing is privilege.
If we stretch the definition of passing beyond the limits of race, it is very clear that everyone enjoys some level of passing’s privilege. “Everybody passes. Not just racial minorities. As Marcia Alesan Dawkins explains, passing has been occurring for millennia, since intercultural and interracial contact began…[In her book Clearly Invisible: Racial Passing and the Color of Cultural Identity,] she explores its old limits and new possibilities: from women passing as men and able-bodied persons passing as disabled to black classics professors passing as Jewish and white supremacists passing as white.”
But not everyone enjoys the same level of privilege. Dolezal, who has hereto not demonstrated any black ancestry whatsoever, has been able to pass herself off as black. “The issue is power: the ability to define reality and have other people respond to your definition as if were their own,” observed Adisa Ajamu. “All these conversations are about kinds of doors, locks, and keys, while white folks fueled by white misanthropy get to decide what is or isn’t a door or if the topic of doors ever comes up in the first place.”
Even so, many black people have asked what is the privilege of passing as black? Damn. Don’t you think being black is something special? ‘Cause I do. If we only see passing as white as privileged, then we have bought into racist precepts that suppose there is inherently less value in blackness or no value in it at all. I don’t know whether or not Dolezal is mentally ill, but wanting to be black, which is as beautiful as it is bastardized, isn’t enough to convince me that she is.
Dolezal, who “since 2010, has been hired at Eastern Washington University on a quarter by quarter basis as an instructor in the Africana Education program,” and who received a full-ride to Howard when she was mistaken for black, fully knows the value of her faux-blackness. Crystal M. Hayes, a doctoral candidate in social work at the University of Connecticut knocked this one out of the park: “Being at the top of the food chain in Black culture is a lot more fun than at the bottom of white supremacy.” It’s especially important to note that Dolezal used hair to occupy “privileged” space as a black woman. “The fact that she used bad curly wigs/weaves to change the texture of her hair to pass as a Black woman,” noted Haynes, “in a world that literally punishes Black women for wearing their hair the way it grows out of their head is at the core of white supremacy.”
“So there’s race as performed and there’s race as projected. These things are fluid but they should also be held in tension. With that said, race isn’t only about the performative. We cannot ignore the historical projection which ties us to this thing called the colonial past,” Tamura A. Lomax, a Clark-Atlanta University alumna and the co-founder of The Feminist Wire. “And so my question regarding Rachel and her blackness is what is her approximation is to the colonial past?”
So what is it Rachel? Is you or ain’t you African-American? An honest answer may have went something this: “I self-identify with [or even ‘as’] black.” Instead, Rachel Dolezal opted to use her privilege to feign confusion and walk away instead of answering, what is a fairly elementary question for a person whose livelihood is tied to thinking about and teaching to others, blackness. Because she failed to do so, Black Twitter has opted to #AskRachel, and it’s a glorious sight of blackness to behold. Everybody [black] knows, getting ribbed is par for the course in the black community. So please miss me with the poor Rachel’s being picked on foolishness.
Meanwhile, we cannot ignore the ways in which Dolezal has privileged herself to blackness as a black studies professor who criticizes white privilege. Dolezal could have worked as a white ally–as a white ally. She could’ve attended Howard as a white ally, married her black ex-husband, be mother to her son, teach Africana studies, and yes, be president of her local NAACP chapter, as a white ally. But Dolezeal didn’t want anyone questioning her privilege to speak on, of, and for blackness. With some of you, she’ll get her wish.
But not with me. As Brother Malcolm X famously said: “Because a cat has kittens in an oven, it don’t make them biscuits.”
A member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc., Crystal A. deGregory, Ph.D. is a graduate of the historic Fisk University ’03. She received her master’s and doctoral degrees in history from Vanderbilt University. She also holds a master of education degree in curriculum and instruction from Tennessee State University, ’14, where she formerly taught in the department of history, geography and political science. A professional historian and passionate HBCU advocate, she is editor-in-chief of the forthcoming The Journal of HBCU Research + Culture. She is also a regular contributor to HBCU Digest, is a co-host of Black Docs radio show, and offers a wide-range of expertise on multiple topics including history, culture, education, black fraternity and sorority life and of course HBCUs. Follow her on twitter at @HBCUstorian, visit her website at http://www.CrystaldeGregory.com, or contact her via email at cadegregory@HBCUstory.com