Penny For Your Thoughts: What If There Were A Transracial Movement?

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There weren’t any new developments in the Rachel Dolezal story over the weekend. Still, her online likeness continues to make hilarious appearances (#AskRachel). On Friday, Dolezal turned out to be a universally funny punch line. A rich comedic gift that kept on giving and had people of all races in knee-slapping, tear-wiping, ROTFLMAO (aka, “rolling on the floor laughing my ass off”) hysterics, though Dolezal may or may not have been laughing with us. 

Now that the jokes have died down, we eagerly wait to hear in full from the woman who has been publicly identifying–tweeting, working, dating, protesting and teaching–as a Black woman for a decade. On Sunday, Dolezal was expected to address the litany of bizarre details about her that have been revealed over the past few days. But her statement has been postponed “for a later time.” 

But Dolezal does plan to explain herself to the Black community, and only the Black community. As she stated to a reporter from KREM, she “doesn’t give two sh*ts” what anyone else thinks.

“It’s more important for me to clarify that with the Black community and my executive board than it is to explain it to a community that I, quite frankly, don’t think really understands the definitions of race and ethnicity.”

Love it or hate it, Dolezal’s story is fascinating. You can already see the Lifetime movie, best-selling memoir and the exclusive interview with Oprah for OWN. There are still many dots to connect, but I suspect that once Dolezal goes public we will hear more from her by way of a defense and explanation for her actions. 

In the meantime, people seem to be having as hard a time deciphering Dolezal’s actions as they are identifying the best way to describe her actions. Was her behavior aspirational? Was it delusional? Was it, on any level, rational?

“Transracial icon” is a term that this (satirical?) article used to describe Dolezal, who performed an outward show of blackness to the hilt, expertly donning box braids and a curly afro. In a post-#AskRachel world, the word “transracial” appears to be taking on new meaning. Until now, the term has mostly been applied to adoption cases where a child’s race differs from that of his or her adoptive parent. Say, the various tykes whose mothers belong to the white-actresses-who’ve-adopted-brown-babies club, which includes Angelina Jolie, Madonna, Sandra Bullock, Charlize Theron and Connie Britton.

However, can or should the term not only describe a White woman adopting a Black child but also a White woman adopting a Black identity? Well, to answer that question, Dolezal might point to this W.E.B. DuBois quote that she previously cited in interviews: “Race is usually biological, always cultural.” 

Biological vs. cultural.

Enter Caitlyn Jenner. Now, look, I won’t spend a lot of time here. Google any combination of “Caitlyn Jenner,” “Rachel Dolezal” and “conflate” to read various opinions about why it’s problematic to bring the woman who has become a transgender icon into a conversation about the woman who’s only jokingly being called a transracial icon. Many claim there’s a differentiation of the apples vs. oranges variety.

But what if the comparison isn’t as misguided as we think? What if we’re at the tipping point and the term transracial is set to undergo an evolution of sorts? What if this strange moment in the news cycle becomes an actual movement for the history books? 

Can/will transracial identity ever be, you know, a thing? And would America–Black America especially–be able to handle it? Would we separate ourselves into Black folks who accept trans Blacks and Black folks who don’t? Would it be an issue that divides neighborhoods, churches, and families? Where mom and dad wouldn’t know how to react when their HBCU-attending daughter brings home her trans-Black boyfriend (whom they essentially see as white)?

In a pre-transition interview, Bruce Jenner suggested that transgender rights have superseded gay rights as the civil rights issue of our time. So, perhaps, transracial acceptance is a civil rights movement in waiting. Maybe one of our biggest tolerance hurdles to overcome in the next 10 or 20 years will be embracing other people’s decision to be transracial. Maybe Rachel Dolezal will go down in history as an early foot soldier. Hell, maybe Michael Jackson will be known as a pioneer! (I’m kidding. Or, at least, I think I am.)

On CNN.com, Lisa Respers France, who is African-American, jokingly asked, “In this day and age who in the world willingly wants to be Black?”

It’s not difficult to see why many of us would cosign this rhetorical question. In this country, blackness can certainly coexist with unfairness and injustice. Yet being Black in America also remains a thing of pride. So why would we question Dolezal wanting to be Black when so many of us if given a choice, wouldn’t choose to be anything else? Maybe those Black power/I’m Black, and I’m proud/Black is beautiful slogans were so powerful that Black people aren’t the only ones on whom they worked on.

Ask Dolezal. She has said, “Yes, I do consider myself to be Black…that’s how I identify.”

Who’s to say that in the future, the word “transracial” won’t rightly belong to people like Dolezal? Or to the fictitious Clayton Bigsby, Dave Chappelle’s white supremacist character who was blind to his own blackness?

I’ve heard many people say that the only problem with Dolezal’s ruse is that it was, in fact, a ruse. I get that. Lies taint everything. So, I ask: Without the deception, how would we feel about a white woman who said, essentially, “Well, I’m white but I identify as Black. It’s who I’ve always felt I was on the inside”?

One of my favorite moments in the Dolezal debacle was reading an excellent piece by Hillary Crosley, whose article for Jezebel introduced me to a new term: “reverse passing.” Historically, it was mostly Black people who, for various reasons on the by-any-means-necessary survival scale, passed as white to enjoy the verifiable advantages of the privileged race.  (Think the character Sarah Jane, who passed for White in the movie Imitation of Life or the lesser-known jazz performer Ina Ray Hutton, who passed for White in real life.)

For the game to be played the other way around, however, was a lot less likely back then. As Princeton University history professor Martha Sandweiss put it, “There was little to be gained by identifying yourself as Black.”

But a brave new world with a Black president and where a White woman asserts her desire to identify as Black–well, that kind of spins the idea of privilege on its head, doesn’t it? Or, at least, it pits Black privilege (being the preferred race that another race wants to be) against White privilege (being the more physiologically mutable race with the option to even become or put on other races) in a creepily interesting way.

Blackness is more than box braids and brown skin (or bronzed or spray-tanned skin in Dolezal’s case). There was a lot of talk about Dolezal having the freedom to “take off” her Black identity if she just scrubbed off her skin colorants and cut out her hair extensions.  But would it really a freedom if Rachel doesn’t deem it so? What if she felt so boxed in and not free to be herself because of her whiteness that washing off her bronzer and taking off her Afro wig at bedtime was a horrifying ritual that bore great terror and shame? What if she stared at herself in the mirror and wept, knowing that everything she desperately wished she were naturally she had to spend hours to become artificially?

Maybe that’s my inner Jackie Collins over-romanticizing, but I can’t help letting my imagination run a little wild here. And think about it: What if Dolezal continues to live as a Black woman, now that we all know she’s not…?

That’s when things will really get interesting.

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