Political Blackface

By Kehinde Andrews

Rachael Dolezal has become infamous for posing as a Black woman for over a decade, and using this pretence to be a spokeswoman for the Black community. She was head of a chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), taught African American Studies and amongst other things gave talks about Black hair and ‘our experiences’ of discrimination. Depending on who you ask she is a figure of ridicule, a trail blazing ‘transracial’, or perhaps someone with mental health issues. Dolezal is not, however, some crazy exception of Whiteness; she may have gone to the extreme but she represents the logical conclusion of the role the White liberal ‘ally’ has taken in Black liberation.

There is a story from the Malcolm’s autobiography where a young White female student comes up to him and asks him what she can do to help the Black struggle. He coldly looks at her and says ‘nothing’, and she runs off crying. Malcolm, later regretted this and argued that White folk can play a role, it is just a very different one to Black folk. For Malcolm:

Whites who are sincere should organise themselves and figure out some strategy to break down the prejudice that exists in White communities. This is where they can function more intelligently and more effectively, in the White community itself, and this has never been done.

Unfortunately, the problem with the White liberal ally is that they have often taken the exact opposite approach. Avoiding any serious engagement with White communities and instead inserting themselves directly into the Black struggle, often times inserting themselves at the head of it. It should be no surprise that the NAACP issued a statement of support, when the truth was revealed, tellingly saying that ‘one’s racial identity is not a qualifying criteria or disqualifying standard for NAACP leadership’. This association was founded when a group of White liberals issued a call to action, and of the original 60 members, only 7 were African American. When Garvey arrived in New York he sought out WEB Dubois who edited the NAACP magazine Crisis and was surprised at the number of White staff working on the paper. The first president of the organisation was White and there has continued to be as significant White presence in local and national leadership. The irony for Dolezal didn’t need to pretend to be Black to have a leadership role in the NAACP.

The problem with liberal Whites taking the lead, and shaping Black activism is that it tends to dull the radical edge of the movement. It is not in the interests of Whites liberals to overturn the system and work for Black liberation. The aim is to improve things enough to assuage White guilt, but never enough for liberation. A perfect example of the impact of White liberals on Black protest is the showpiece event of the Civil Rights movement, the 1963 March on Washington.

Malcolm savaged the event, dubbing it the ‘Farce on Washington’, for how scripted, tame and controlled it was; it was a performance that ‘Hollywood couldn’t have topped’. The march had been planned as a grassroots, leaderless movement to create civil disobedience in the capital, However, when the President and the White power structure got wind of it they funded the Big Six Civil Right leaders at the time to take control of it, and marshal it. As Malcolm explains in his autobiography:

The original “angry” March on Washington was now about to be entirely changed. Massive international publicity projected the “big six” as March on Washington leaders. Invited next to join the March were four famous white public figures. The massive publicity now gently hinted that the “big ten” would “supervise” the March on Washington’s “mood,” and its “direction.”… Talk about “integrated”! It was like salt and pepper. And, by now, there wasn’t a single logistics aspect uncontrolled. The marchers had been instructed to bring no signs–signs were provided. They had been told to sing one song: “We Shall Overcome.” They had been told how to arrive, when, where to arrive, where to assemble, when to start marching, the route to march. First aid stations were strategically located–even where to faint!… Who ever heard of angry revolutionists swinging their bare feet together with their oppressor in lily-pad park pools, with gospels and guitars and “I Have A Dream” speeches?

White privilege has led liberals to believe that they have the right to shape Black protest, which they need to be the moderating and sensible hand so that changes will be made. This is the arrogance that Dolezal embodies. She apparently felt that she was a better spokesperson for the Black experience, Black suffering and Black protest, than Black people. This paternalistic concern is not helpful or welcome. This arrogance was on full show when confronted with her lies, she explained that she ‘didn’t like the term African American’ and preferred Black, because she could apparently identify with it. As if she has the right to define the terms of reference for Black communities. There are plenty of Black people to speak on our behalf, to adequately express our struggle. We don’t need any more well-meaning Whites who are too afraid to confront the White community, seeking refuge in the cultural and political appropriation of Blackness. If she is serious about helping the Black community she should drop the pretense and go and ‘figure out some strategy to break down the prejudice that exists in White communities’.

Photo by Aaron Robert Kathman

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