1 September 2015


Why would Dolezal go to such extreme lengths to escape her white identity?

by Paula Ioanide

via ABC News

I interpret Dolezal's move to pass as Black to be motivated by a number of factors. One of those factors has to do with the fact that whiteness is afforded numerous privileges, but moral authority is not one of them. That is, when it comes to pursuing anti-racist justice, white identity is rightfully suspected of potential fraud, co-optation, and of fleeing back into white advantage when the going gets tough. This does not mean individual white people can't genuinely pursue justice; it simply means that sustaining moral integrity as a white anti-racist activist requires a perpetual confrontation with the ways white embodied identity is virtually equated with (and continues to benefit from) the oppression of white supremacy. Dolezal's move into a Black identity sought to escape this burden of having to prove her commitment to anti-racism through actions rather than an embodied identity.

Most people forget that the structure of white advantages in the U.S. was obtained at a monstrous moral price. It was gained through the active and/or complicit processes of denigrating, excluding, and violating people of color. This moral price is regularly concealed in U.S. society through the perpetuation of systematic ignorance about the country's real history. Its cover-up requires a normative structure of denial and disavowal in most white Americans. Even with this systematic ignorance, many people somehow know and feel that white supremacy, and its entrenched association with white identity, is grounded in moral illegitimacy. This is unconsciously betrayed each time a white person preemptively states, "I'm not racist" long before anyone has accused them of racism.

In the U.S., the genealogy of Black struggle stands as a symbol of moral authority. The soul of the United States manifests when marginalized and oppressed people attempt to expand notions of democratic praxis, calling upon the nation to live up to its ideals.

Black people have always been at the center of the struggle for America's soul; they have been instrumental in the prospect that America might obtain a semblance of collective moral integrity. For Dolezal, who wanted to be seen as an "authentic" anti-racist educator and activist, passing for Black afforded her a way to shed the moral depravity attached to whiteness. In anti-racist activist spaces, white identity is situated in a perpetual place of non-belonging: people of color's justified suspicion prevents automatic affinity and inclusion while white people's racism also feels alienating.

The irony of Dolezal's passing for Black is that, methodologically, she employed the most classic white practices to gain the belonging she coveted. While trying to capitalize on the symbol of moral authority afforded to Black anti-racist struggle, Dolezal defaulted back into the classic tenets of white immorality by lying, deceiving, and positioning herself as a gatekeeper who authenticated or de-authenticated those similarly in pursuit of anti-racist justice. The recent disclosure of Dolezal's "reverse racism" lawsuit against Howard University when she still identified as white testifies to another factor motivating Dolezal's desire to pass for Black.

In her hallmark essay "Whiteness as Property," Cheryl Harris describes how white Americans were institutionally, legally and socially afforded exclusive rights to use for most of U.S. history (including the use of black bodies and labor). Placing limits on those exclusive rights--as happened in the eras of Reconstruction and civil rights--has resulted in some of the most remarkable patterns of collective white resentment. Extending long overdue opportunities to people of color (through policies such as affirmative action) is sufficient to generate a crisis in the normative structure of white American narcissism, which cannot bear the thought of sharing.

Dolezal's claim of "reverse racism" against Howard University speaks to her participation in a white structure that resents the idea that Black people might have the right to create their own exclusive spaces without whites or that certain institutional positions of leadership (e.g. in the NAACP) should perhaps be off limits to whites.

Consciously undertaken or not, Dolezal couldn't bear the idea of confronting any limitations on her identity and desires. Positioning herself as a "white victim" whose exclusive or limitless rights were facing restrictions, Dolezal thought best to jump ship into Black identity before any more limits were imposed on her white entitlements.

The third potential motivating factor for Dolezal's passing for Black has to do with one of the most guarded secrets about normative white identity: a profound jealousy of people of color. Whether it's because people of color seemingly have "community" and "culture" in ways that white people lack, or because they are the inventors of "cool," the social alienation of white identity has bred an underlying jealousy for the meaning and purpose that appears to structure the lives of people of color. Perhaps the greatest irony of white identity is that in giving up its soul in exchange for materialist advantages, it is perpetually haunted by a desire for soul and meaning. Dolezal oozes with a neurotic jealousy for the meaning and purpose that often necessarily emerges from the experiences of Black suffering. She has to create this suffering (as made clear by her numerous claims of anti-Black hate crimes) in order to construct her meaning and purpose. It's as if the suffering resulting from Dolezal's white alienation (clearly evident in the structure of her family) seeks reprieve and redemption through yet another immoral act of appropriating Black suffering as her own.

It is easy to default into the enjoyments of demonizing and condemning Dolezal. Certainly, only Dolezal can confront her responsibility to redress her wrongs. But Dolezal is simply an extreme and complicated case of what is normative to the structure of white identities who stay passively complicit or actively aggressive in perpetuating the lies, denials, deceptions, and appropriating acts of white supremacy. There is another way to live white identity in America. It requires persistent confrontations with our complicity in racism, conscious or unconscious. It requires a constant commitment to anti-racist feminist struggles as white people who are courageous enough to contend with and change the advantages and moral depravity we've been endowed with, not to run from it.

For a more extensive analysis of some of these points see Ioanide's new book, The Emotional Politics of Racism:How Feelings Trump Facts inan Era of Colorblindness.

Paula Ioanide

September 2015

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