What makes Rachel Dolezal’s story simultaneously remarkable and reprehensible, is that her experiences as a Howard University graduate student may have been the most potent additive in what eventually, and allegedly, became a grand deception about her racial identity. And for those of us who credit the sociopolitical elements of our blackness to our HBCU affiliation, we are having a particularly hard time reconciling the parts of her deceit that are mostly unacceptable, but in small part, honorable.
Rachel Dolezal’s work exemplifies that of the archetypal HBCU graduate, a person who chose the HBCU experience to define and develop a life committed to limiting the impact of black stereotypes and anti-black public policy. What places her outside of the archetype is her race, and her efforts to abandon it.
HBCUs, in large part were founded by white folks. They were endowed by wealthy white folks, have always been publicly legislated by white folks, and have readily welcomed white people historically among faculty and student ranks for generations.
One of the best sports information directors in the country is a white guy named Ed Cassiere at Xavier University in Louisiana. One of the best legal advocates for HBCUs, a white guy named Pace McConkie at Morgan State University. One of the best basketball coaches in HBCU basketball history, a white guy named Dave Robbins at Virginia Union University.
John Dell at the Winston-Salem Journal, Paul Gattis at AL.com, and FAMU journalism professor Doug Blackburn formerly of the Tallahassee Democrat — all white reporters who have become known for consistent, equitable coverage of HBCUs.
HBCUs have been the model for diversity in higher education in America, offering a version of the social experiment of inclusion that is the closest to ideal as the country will ever see, because it positions black folks to be the predominant in-group for policymaking and culture.
Dolezal, like many white students, faculty, staff and alumni with HBCU ties, makes no shame or secret about her empathy for black underprivilege and awareness of white privilege. But unlike like most white folks living and working within historically and predominantly black spaces and cultures, she took an extra step.
She attempted full immersion into black culture, not just through earning a degree from a black college, not just through marrying a black man, not just through working for a black advocacy organization or teaching on black topics at predominantly white Eastern Washington University.
She lied about her ethnicity, and changed her appearance to accentuate the deception. The story simultaneously amuses and offends the sensibilities of black folks nationwide. Why race-switch when ally status is good enough? Why highlight your privilege by changing your appearance to identify with our oppressed culture, knowing that most of us could not have the same opportunity, even if they wanted it?
But those are the surface issues which generate legitimate questions about her choices. But what about the symbolism of those choices, and their impact on the ways we consider diversity and inclusion on our own terms? We always want white people to “get it,” to be more active in casting off the benefits they are born with, to draw closer to the burden and struggle that is Black American birthright. It’s not that we want more people to self-identify as black, or recode their social DNA; we just want more people to be helpful in tearing down systems which oppose black progress.
But even we are confused in this allocation of ally status. We credit Marybeth Gasman as one of those great helpers, regarded by many as an expert on HBCU issues, but one who has never attended an HBCU, never worked at an HBCU beyond paid consultation and service as a board member, and who runs a research center for HBCUs and other minority serving institutions from Ivy League UPenn, all while framing most of her advocacy for our schools from a position of “what HBCUs won’t do and aren’t doing” rather than “what HBCUs are politically, culturally, and financially prohibited from doing.”
So if Dolezal lies about her ethnicity, but matches the lie with genuine credentialing, respect for, and immersion within the Black American context, should we be upset? Has our culture been appropriated for her personal gain? Did she exploit her position as a white advocate for black issues as a path to preferential consideration for private and public grants, media opportunities, and partnerships? Dolezal’s treatment from mainstream and black media would suggest otherwise.
Dolezal used black identity as a tool for familial and cultural rebellion, when for most of us, blackness is lifestyle, heritage, and lifeforce all in one. And that is, in itself, a painfully disrespectful form of lampooning, marginalizing, and for some, a new age form of minstrelsy.
HBCU graduates should be embarrassed that one of our own is caught in an embarrassing lie, just like we were embarrassed for Marion Barry, Kwame Kilpatrick, and other black folks who cross our moral and cultural code through crime, lies and bad judgement. Nothing about Rachel Dolezal’s lies suggest that we should embrace her as a community member, or at this point, even an ally.
But in the end, we still are looking for people to “get it.” We still are looking for alumni to give back to HBCUs, and to help enlighten people about black culture and value. Does her advocacy work now have an asterisk beside it? Is she any less of a graduate of Howard University?
More importantly, are we more judgmental of a white woman scheming for access and privilege in black spaces than we are of black folks who do everything short of skin bleaching for the same kind of access to white spaces?