By now, you'd have to have forgotten to pay your internet bill or be on a remote ranch in Wyoming to not know the story of Rachel Dolezal. Dolezal, a resident of Spokane, Washington, is a white woman who posed as black for at least nine years with a variety of public manifestations, from serving as president of the local NAACP, to claiming a black acquaintance in public photographs was her father, to posing as the biological mother of her parents black adopted son, to the most visually obvious: darkening her skin with makeup and mimicking hairstyles traditionally used by black women.
Once the allegations arose – Dolezal's white parents confirmed her biological background – the story quickly went viral, and voices from news sites to op ed pieces to random users on Twitter were quick to condemn Dolezal for her misrepresentation of identity. For good reason – Dolezal's deception represents a stark example of cultural theft, appropriation, and white privilege. She took positions of power in spaces that were created as safe for sufferers of discrimination. She accepted a full scholarship from a traditionally black university. She co-opted an underprivileged identity without suffering any of the discrimination or violence that many black men and women face from the day they are born.
The question is, why? Dolezal was a professor of Africana studies at Eastern Washington University, but it's not rare for white professors to teach Africa-based subjects. There are many ways she could have worked as an advocate for civil rights without falsifying an identity. The fight against discrimination in America today has many roles for white allies, posing as black is not one of them. She clearly thought she was working on behalf of the black community – why couldn't she be an outspoken ally without engaging in cultural appropriation?
I believe that the answer lies in what I'll call 'self marginalization,' the tendency for people occupying positions of privilege or traditional roles to create or emphasize aspects of their identity that seem underprivileged, in order to gain perceived legitimacy. People are uncomfortable inhabiting their privilege, so they create an identity for themselves that gives them a narrative of oppression. It may stem from the tendency to discredit the opinions, stories, and emotions of people who come from traditionally privileged backgrounds. Hypothesizing about what's behind this strange phenomena does not, by any means, make it acceptable. A behavior pattern can be analyzed and explained without legitimizing it.
When the cultural climate is so focused on discrediting people with privilege, it's certainly tempting to downplay the privileges one holds, in upbringing, identity, or social status. Perhaps if Rachel Dolezal had been taken more seriously as a white ally, she wouldn't have felt the need to obscure her identity. That, however, does not in any way excuse her actions. If, as an ally to a marginalized group, you are bothered by the accusations that you don't understand the struggle, or any similar complaints, the answer isn't to marginalize yourself in ways that are inherently false. What to do instead is, of course, more complicated, but I believe that it begins with critical engagement and analytical discussions about the nature of privilege and being an ally. It begins with having gratitude for your privileges while doing your best to uplift those who haven't had the same ones. Making a consistent effort to learn about the struggles and oppression that others face, and not taking actions that further subjugate already disadvantaged groups. Even the media uproar surrounding this scandal contributes to the problem, because focusing so much attention on Dolezal's deception distracts from the truly horrific cases of violence currently facing the black community.
Instead of creating a false marginalized identity for herself, Rachel Dolezal could have been honest and admitted her privileges, and responded thoughtfully and respectfully to whatever accusations she faced as a white woman interested in and engaged with black history. Hiding and obscuring her privileges is what led to the eventual, and somewhat deserved, public shame.