Mere days after Rachel Dolezal was outed as white, and her transracial identity was being compared to transgender identity, Dylann Roof made the racial difference concrete. Dolezal’s white privilege allowed her to make the choice to pass as black, but those of us who cannot choose live with the actual consequences of being born black in this country.
The mass shooting at Emmanuel AME Church was not unusual. The black community has been the victim of white violence throughout American history. Search the bombing at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham. Or the lynchings of black people and the black towns that were rioted upon and burnt down in the 20th century.
Roof reportedly told his victims before he shot them that black men rape white women. The truth is, historically, it was white men who raped black women. This is one reason why African-American people come in so many colors. When a white woman is raped, it is usually by a white man.
Race was an invention of white people to justify discrimination, slavery and colonialism.
One positive outcome is that Roof was captured within 16 hours. If this were 50 years ago, he would not have been caught — and if he was, he would probably be tried by an all-white jury. Most of the white perpetrators of racial violence, from lynchings to the murder of Emmett Till and civil rights workers, were not caught. The few in the south who were caught were tried by all-white juries. Some were not caught and convicted until decades after the murders.
There are consequences to being black. What is missing from Rachel Dolezal’s presentation as transracial are those consequences. Her transracial experience can only work in one direction in this country.
Cultural appropriation, cultural barriers
Dolezal is an extreme example of white people appropriating black culture. She can become black fairly easily. There are few barriers to her participation in black society, but there are many barriers to black people’s participation in white society.
Transracial black people may pass as white, but they cannot become white, regardless of how light they are, due to the one drop rule. Even participating in cultural activities that are predominantly white is difficult.
If white people wish to appropriate black music and dance, it is fairly easy and no one stops them. Elvis Presley, Pat Boone and countless others up to Robin Thicke became successful singing like black people. African-American dances from swing and the Lindy Hop to twerking are frequently copied by whites. However, Marian Anderson was stopped from singing at Constitution Hall. Nina Simone believed she was refused admission to the Curtis Institute of Music because she was black. Black people continue to have difficulty finding work in classical orchestras and ballet companies.
Some people would say that they are trying to be white, and when pursuing their interests they encounter barriers.
Not everyone can choose
It is erroneous to compare Dolezal’s choice to pass as black to a transgender identity. For me, the difference between my gender identity and my racial identity is that I knew I was a girl from my earliest consciousness, at two or three years old, whereas being black is a consciousness I developed gradually as I grew up because of the boundaries of race that my family and I were corralled in.
The consciousness of being black or African-American varies depending on the individual and class. I thought there was no such thing as transracial, but there are black children who grow up in white families and claim that identity. Still they probably became aware of their difference as they grew up by the way our society treats people of color.
How does Dolezal suing Howard University fit in with this? She sued as a young woman claiming the historically black institution was discriminating against her because she was white. When being black ceases to be convenient for her, she can stop being black — for example, when white racists are killing black people. If she wants to be black, fine. She doesn’t have to lie about racist threats she received. Her lies call into question the veracity of the NAACP.
Some people don’t have the privilege of passing, and are therefore left exposed to violence and discrimination. Some women, such as Caitlyn Jenner, could pass as straight cisgender men while they were living as men. I was never able to pass as a straight cisgender male. For minority transgender women, there is the consequence of suffering the highest rates of hate crime violence.
I had an elderly Irish neighbor who became my surrogate grandmother when I was growing up. She taught me to bake in the afternoon after school. I loved her dearly, but that didn’t make me white. However, when I was growing up, I was accused of not being black enough because of the way I spoke, my tastes and friends. I really worried about actually being white on the inside until I realized that notion was limited and racist.
These consequences of being born black, these barriers, are real.
Josephine Baker left the United States in the 1920s and became a famous singer and actress in France. She became a French citizen, joined the French resistance in WWII, became a war hero. She essentially was French. She was an international legend. Yet when she returned to the United States in the 1950s, she was refused service at New York’s famous Stork Club.
Rachel Dolezal can become black, but black people, no matter how light or nice they are, cannot become white. That is the nature of racism.
Cei Bell is a Philadelphia-area writer and has been published in the Philadelphia Daily News, the Philadelphia Inquirer, Philadelphia Gay News, the Philadelphia Tribune, City Paper and other papers and magazines. She has written about minority transgender issues since long before it was fashionable. She co-founded one of the first transgender feminist groups, Radical Queens, which she wrote about in the anthology “Smash the Church, Smash the State.”