My wife and I watched as the Rachel Dolezal scandal blossomed on twitter then caught fire on every social media platform. What I initially thought was a satirical article from The Onion turned out to be real life. Someone actually masqueraded as Black for over a decade. Kim looked at me and said, “Someone is going to say she’s 'transracial' and compare this to the transgender experience. I promise you.” Needless to say, this weekend, #transracial and #wrongskin trended and people are actually trying to have a serious conversation about it’s validity. However transracial isn’t a thing, but cultural appropriation is.
There is a long and sordid history of fetishizing Black people and culture, profiting off its production and its exploitation simultaneously. Rachel Delozal is no different. She received a full scholarship, reserved for a Black woman from Howard University, one of the most renown Historically Black College’s in the country. She was active in Black community and racial justice work. She gradually began the mimicry and performance of Blackness with dreadlocks, ankhs, and academic rhetoric to back it up. She bamboozled hundreds of people for years. Rachel created narratives of racial profiling and harassment that are all now being called into question. She even told a reporter that she was born in a teepee, hunted food with bows and arrows, was beaten with a bamboo whip (“same as the ones used on slaves”) and lamented about how her mother lined her and her siblings up by complexion to be punished.
For a white woman, pretending to be Black, to interject a slave narrative into her own made up childhood is more complicated than your every day cultural appropriation. This is just creepy. These details that have surfaced about her life and the lengths she went to secure the deception and fuel the obsession makes it easy for some to assume there are some serious mental health issues at play. Regardless, that doesn’t preclude her from being abhorrent and racist. She tried in earnest to fabricate a Black experience, braiding hair and making sweet potato pie for the handful of Black folks in Northern Idaho and Spokane. She studied the culture and took up spaces and opportunity that were for Black people. There aren’t enough African American studies classes to recreate ancestral spirit and the depth of trauma and resilience that it marks us with. Dolezal lied and deceived people for the opportunity to ascend the ranks of her career and continue to invest in her delusion. Her existence is an eraser and replacement of actual Black women while at the same time trivializing a very real complex African-American experience. This is not “wrongskin”; this is the co-opting and eraser of Black femininity and is all too common.
Being born white with all its privileges and for some its internalized guilt isn’t driving people to suicide or getting them kicked out of their homes or isolated from their families. “Feeling Black” isn’t preventing you from getting adequate healthcare or getting you murdered by the police. “Transracial” literally means involving or between two or more racial groups. “Wrongskin” is not a thing, but being transgender is.
To draw parallels between the exploitation and fetishizing of Black culture to the transgender experience and existence of trans folks is completely ridiculous. It’s insulting particularly for trans people of color because, this silly fiasco has completely hijacked a moment. We’re having serious discussions about race and being trans after Caitlyn Jenner’s debut seemingly eclipsed every other trans experience including those who have fought their entire life for that very same validation. Now here is another white woman, in all of her opportunistic chutzpah, co-opting a Black experience. I, as a Black transman, feel triggered because our intersections are being coveted and we have less space to stand. We’re back to questioning the validity of a transgender identity because this one white woman took things too far. We’re pivoting from meaningfully discussing racialize trans-misogyny and its systemic effects on our community because Rachel Delozal, the President of the NAACP Spokane chapter, catfished everyone around her. Instead of looking at the differences between race and gender and it’s intersectional influences folks are using this as an indication that they exist in the exact same way. It’s unfair and maddening.
Delozal’s obession or pathology has absolute nothing to do with transgender people or our process. Race isn’t something you study and dress up as nor is gender solely a cultural performance to be tried on. This whole ordeal is a distracting digression that hopefully by next week we would have all had our fill.