Rachel Dolezal and minstrelsy

So here’s what’s going on in Spokane, Washington.  The head of the local chapter of the NAACP is currently being questioned as to whether or not she is, as she claims to be, a black woman; or is she a white woman pretending to be black.

And thus we now have the story of Rachel Dolezal.

There are people treating this story as if it’s the equivalent of #thedress – is she white, is she black, is she both – and there are others that question if a person who appears to be Caucasian in childhood photographs can now operate an organization known as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

Now granted this is the 21st century; and we can change our lives and our goals and our environment, whether it’s through personal choice or reflective discovery.  Heck, thanks to modern medicine we can change our sex (see Jenner, Caitlyn).

But ethnicity?  Can you just “be black” if you weren’t born black?

And now, it’s not as simple as this old episode of the Partridge Family makes it seem.

What bothers me about the whole Rachel Dolezal story is that it reminds me of minstrelsy.

Let me explain.

See, there is a long history of white people pretending to be black; either for entertainment purposes or for acquiring some sort of advantage.  A century ago, one of the most popular forms of entertainment was the “minstrel show,” where white singers covered their faces with burnt cork.  Here’s an example.

Yeah, that’s Al Jolson. Al Jolson is white. Al Jolson is performing in blackface. This was considered high entertainment. Today, it’s extremely difficult to watch without feeling a pit of anger in the stomach.

Even more difficult to view is this movie, “Check and Double Check.”  The movie is based on characters portrayed in the Amos ‘n Andy radio series, and they actually got the original actors from the radio show to portray Amos and Andy in the movie.  Oh, did I happen to mention that Freeman Gosden (Amos) and Charles Correll (Andy) were white, and they wore black makeup to appear as African-Americans in this film?

Even in the early 1970’s, there were examples of white actors portraying black characters. This 1970’s television drama Boney stars James Laurenson as a half-caste Aboriginal police detective.  Oh yeah, I forgot to mention that Laurenson is a white New Zealander and is wearing lots of dark makeup.

Yeah, you would have thought we would live in a more enlightened time. Nope. A couple of decades later, we get actor C. Thomas Howell in blackface. With a movie about a guy pretending to be black so that he can get a full scholarship to law school.

And today we have Rachel Dolezal.

What are we, as a people, saying about this whole story?  How black are you?  How white are you?  Are you appropriating black culture and black history and the black experience by wearing skintone makeup and curling your hair up?

Let’s face it.  Curly hair by itself does not automatically make you a black woman, any more than knowing the words to “Penny Lane” automatically makes you a Beatle.

Personally, I have so many different ethnicities and cultures in my family tree, I could claim to be a Native American.  I could claim to be Lithuanian.  I could claim to have entered this country on the Mayflower, or on the Amistad, or in steerage en route to Ellis Island.

But that’s not who I am now.  Those portions of my past are just that.  They are in the past.  I don’t need to pull out some chunk of my distant ancestral past to claim any sort of advantage or benefit.

And I think that’s where people see the fault of Rachel Dolezal.  Even this morning, people are pointing fingers at Dolezal and saying, “Why the hell are you pretending to be what you are not?”  In her actions, they see a century of minstrelsy and Stephin Fetchit and Jim Crow, and all the “separate but equal” and “hands up don’t shoot” and “driving while black” that are more than just a skin color; it’s a part of history and culture.  It’s the shared experience, it’s the challenge to improve what was once wrong, and to make things right.

And in Rachel Dolezal, we see someone claiming to be what they are not, to enjoy a benefit or a position that they might not otherwise achieve or obtain.  It’s gaming the system, it’s subverting the process.

I thought we had made steps toward the day when a person isn’t judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.

Unfortunately, Rachel Dolezal’s character is lacking in content.  Because she did indeed game the system by claiming to be someone that she is not.

And now we’re talking about someone who lied, and then continued to lie to cover up the rest of the lies.  And all this subverts the true mission of the Spokane chapter of the NAACP.

Maybe someday this will all make sense.

Unfortunately, that “someday” might not be in our foreseeable future.

And that’s the saddest takeaway from this news story.


3 thoughts on “Rachel Dolezal and minstrelsy”

  1. It was a long and constantly evolving deception that ended with a truly stupid answer to a reporter’s question in which she said she would rather be called “black,” not “African-American,” and that “if we go back far enough, we all come from Africa.” She gamed the system, took a full 4-year scholarship that Howard University could have awarded to a worthy black student, and turned her back on and X’d out her own family. But what bothers me most is that she began to believe — and live — her own lie. Her suggestion that she and her friends should sit high up and in the back seats so white folks wouldn’t point at them indicates one thing if nothing else, that she has no business being an officer with the NAACP, which does not preach hatred or avoidance of any race. She’s a fake, she has disgraced herself, and she has dishonored both the black and white races. She needs to take off the blackface makeup and obvious wig, and start living life as the person she really is — if she even knows who that is.


  2. “I thought we had made steps toward the day when a person isn’t judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”

    Talk to Sharpton, Jackson and Obama about that…..


  3. So very well said, Chuck. I’m old enough to remember the original Amos and Andy. I grew up w/what we now call “old time radio.” I spent school holidays & summers w/my grandmother, alternating listening to radio shows (on WGY and what is now “The Magic” WROW, AM 590!) while the other watched As the World Turns, Days of Our Lives and Edge of Night on television, comparing notes at 4:00. (For a woman who “couldn’t speak English” grandma understood the most complex plots of these soaps!) I had no idea Amos and Andy were white till I was an adult.

    The irony is one doesn’t have to be African American to be President of an NAACP chapter or any African American organization. I could see engaging a white person w/ties to the Black community, perhaps one who has worked side by side w/African Americans in pursuit of justice, civil rights, etc. I have friends who have fought for civil rights, voting rights, desegregation, etc., going back to an era when that was downright DANGEROUS. Yes, they’re all quite too old to even consider heading even a small local NAACP chapter etc. But there are white folks who have dedicated themselves to social justice issues, raised totreat everyone w/fairness & dignity.

    I’m a white man so raised. My dad was a decent, fair-minded man who treated everyone fairly even if he thought you were the biggest jackass who ever walked earth! (You probably were!!!) He often had coworkers from every walk of life come to dinner, including Mr. Webster, father of the now former Schenectady NAACP President. I smile at the memory of mom going on an extended trip w/her Jewish Community Center seniors group w/ our dear friend Sue, an African American woman. Mom didn’t care about some of the looks she got and pretended not to hear snide remarks. Mom’s “selective hearing” came in handy sometimes! Sue was her FRIEND, that’s all mom cared about.

    Our Pride Center could hire a “straight but not narrow” ally as our next Executive Director. There are, indeed, “straight but not narrow” folks who have fought with us, taken up the banner for OUR rights including GENDA, noted in today’s TU editorial, equal rights for Transgender people. But NO ONE hired as Executive Director of any LGBT organization should pretend to be LGBT if they are not. (Harder to determine, I suppose. Plesmographs went out of vogue years ago. Anyone conducting such research would probably be tarred and feathered! It’s highly unethical today!) It IS your character as well as familiarity and solidarity with relevant issues NOT the color of your skin or sexual orientation. But Rachel Dolezal has NO character.

    For a white person to deliberately pass as Black is beyond the pale. I agree w/Jonathan Capehart and another Washington Post columnist: why would anyone WANT to? Just as the idea of a straight person passing as Gay, etc., is preposterous. (Many of us LGBT folks “passed” as “straight” for years! Once upon a time, that was SURVIVAL. Many of us even invented heterosexual identities in different ways for such survival). If Ms. Dolezal had been honest, expressed her support & familiarity w/African American and civil rights issues, had a history of solidarity with African Americans, one of activism a la our “straight but not narrow” folks, her skin color would not have mattered. Now, it does. Because her CHARACTER matters.


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