Author/activist Tim Wise has made a career out of studying and critiquing whiteness, so he’s the perfect person to discuss all of the issues surrounding Rachel Dolezal, the President of the Spokane NAACP currently under fire for apparently masquerading as a Black woman for the last decade. While Dolezal has only spoken in broad terms about her ethnic background, her biological parents say she was born white. Wise says that despite the jokes and memes directed at Dolezal, she brings forth some ideas about race and identity worth discussing. Here’s what he had to say:
I participated like a lot of folks in taking some shot at Rachel and I think they were well deserved. But I also think there’s a more serious issue that for me as a white aspiring ally that I have to think about and I think that all white folks, including Rachel Dolezal, need to think about. I read a comment from one of the Black brothers her parents adopted and he said something about when she was at Howard getting her Master’s that she didn’t feel fully accepted. She didn’t have a good experience and probably because here’s this white girl from Montana who does Black portraiture art very authentic I should point out and she probably did get a little side eye – ‘Hey who are you,’ because you can’t just show up as a white person and be considered down.
You can’t just show up and say I’m down with the struggle and I embrace your culture and have Black folks trust you. Ally-ship is hard. It’s messy. You’ve got to prove yourself. I suspect that she didn’t have the stomach to do the hard work of tending the field of white ally-ship. She decided ‘Forget it. I’m not going to work with Black people, I’m going to work for and as a Black person. It’s almost as if she said the heritage of solidarity work and white ally work all the way back to John Brown or… the Grimke sisters … or Anne and Carl Braden. Those white allies, they’re not enough for me.
I don’t want to listen to Black people and follow their lead, I need to be in the lead. I think it’s not only a slap in the face to actual Black folks, to adopt your struggle as if it was my own and act as though your pain is my pain, that’s obviously insulting, it’s obviously an insult to white ally-ship as well. It’s saying that that isn’t important and I don’t want to be part of that. I’m just going to pretend to be something that I’m not. I think that’s unfortunate. For those of that are white, there is a role to play in this work. We have to cultivate authentic, anti-racist white identity. We can’t just shed our skin, we can’t just shed our identity, we have to work with people of color to change the system. They key word is with, not as people of color. We have to find a different way to live in the skin that we’re in.
SNCC said it in 1967. Malcolm X said it shortly before his death. [That the only thing White people can do for the Black struggle is nothing]. There’s a definite role to play. It’s almost like she said I don’t want to work with white folks. I don’t want to challenge white folks. And I get it. It’s not easy talking to white folks about white supremacy. But that’s the work. It’s not supposed to be easy. We can’t just go get our kumbaya on and hang out in Black spaces. I understand that’s very attractive to folks that want to reject white supremacy.
But if we really want to do the work, we have to do the work that is ours to do. It’s what Black folks have been telling us to do for a very long time and she just wanted us to take a shortcut. I would tell Rachel to be honest and come home and do the work that you want to do. All of us who are allies have made mistakes. I’ve made my share. I’m going to keep making them. But the difference is when you make them, you try to own them and you try to get back in the game. This work is too important and if Rachel Dolezal wants to do that, she can do that but she needs to be that as the actual human being in the world that she is, flaws and all, and if she can do that, then we can do the work.