The Rachel Dolezal Divide: Blackness as a Forced Classification and a Subsequent Cultural Genealogy and Lineage
Perhaps rather than Black, Nkechi Amare Diallo (formerly Rachel Dolezal, yet another extremely problematic and insensitive appropriation given the historical significance of African names for African-Americans), could identify as non-White being that she seems genuinely appalled and reviled by— though steeped within — White Supremacy. The difficulty with just becoming Black on the basis that race is after all a mere social construct (which it is) amidst other painful life experiences, is a typical white-centering politics of historical revisionism, which further erases the catastrophic experience of black people and doubly that of Black women, under which blackness has arduously emerged. After all, acknowledging what was deliberately done for centuries to people who are black – and continues to be done to us to this very day – remains difficult for the West.
Blackness has a politico-cultural lineage pointing back to the genesis of the catastrophic experience in Africa — not as the home of all humankind but as the place where a very diverse people in all spheres of social life, who did not consider themselves black, were made specific and uniform, and in that way, were blackened for purposes of imperialism, slavery and colonialism; to justify their gross dehumanization and to buttress the subsequent violent exploitation under which they would endure as they figured out their stripped dignity and humanity. Nkechi’s identification as black and as a black woman does not take this into account. Rather, she seems to have acquired it from somewhere else.
More is below.
Nkechi Amare Diallo (formerly Rachel Dolezal), based on the few excerpts I have read from her book and the documentary about her which is now available on Netflix, espouses a view about her identification with Blackness which stems from a feeling of being “othered” by her very religious and white parents. She recounts that her birth was extremely painful for her mother, unlike her brother’s, which was, as she put it, “a textbook” birth.
From there, she develops a sense of feeling cursed as opposed to her brother who, having caused very little suffering during his birth, was blessed; this is further extrapolated with a biblical story about a mother who had two children, one of whom was cursed at birth (and who was later theologized by some Christian traditions as having a darker skin color to symbolize that curse), and the other, blessed (and thus, with a lighter skin in those Christian traditions). Moreover, Nkechi also speaks of sexual abuse at the hands of her older biological brother who had also repeatedly abused her adopted sister sexually. This sister was one of the four adopted black children of the Dolezals. Additionally, Nkechi noticed the physical abuse experienced by her adopted siblings at the hands of her parents. In the documentary, Esther, the adopted sibling who was sexually abused by Nkechi’s biological brother, reveals scaring on her legs from beatings she received from her adopting parents as a child. Nkechi adds that Izaiah too, her other adopted brother who is now adopted by her as her son, has marks on his back from the same physical abuse. (Izaiah’s scars are not revealed in the documentary but Nkechi begins to cry as she tells the story.)
These stories of sexual and physical abuse on their own raise a whole range of troubling questions about Nkechi’s family which I am sure traverse race and expose racism in their own way — but I will push ahead with the Diallo story.
The two life experiences (the first, of feeling cursed together with the physical and sexual abuse Nkechi experienced, and the second, of watching the physical and sexual abuse of her adopted black siblings and her sister) seem to have led to her identification with blackness as a type of otherness to the experience of whiteness in her family along with the rather demographically homogeneous nature of her community (including religious circles) and the state in which she lived and grew-up (Montana).
But more importantly, Nkechi seems to see blackness as a kind of automatic countervailing opposite of whiteness and thus as a ready resource, intellectually, emotionally and culturally, for opposing it.
Firstly, her becoming black is gradual and gathers steam as she pushes into her teens: a process ostensibly visible in her early pictures and in the progression of her artwork over time.
Secondly, her philosophical reasoning for identifying as black begins from a rather strange premise in so far as that premise is used as a basis for blackness and black identification. She argues from the premise that: race is a social construct — indeed this is true but neither is it the entirety nor the core of the story of racism and being black, as I will later illustrate. In another part of the documentary, she argues from a second premise that: we are all from Africa — again this is true as a fact for the ultimate origin of all humanity. But this is not something that bears any significance to, nor reveals a grasp of, blackness and being black outside of ahistorical, anachronistic politically motivated and intellectually lazy liberal assertions found in great insufferable abundance on platforms like BBC, MSNBC, CNN and other so-called liberal outlets. And from there, she then sees a way for saying: Based on the arbitrary nature of race as a social construct, the fact that all people are ultimately descended from Africa, and her experience of being a rejected or cursed white female, she can construct herself as black through the cultural and intellectual aesthetics associated with blackness and black identity which conveniently denounce and seem to be already primed in opposition to the horrors she witnessed in her own life: horrors which she has come to associate with whiteness.
What Nkechi fails to see (from within her white privilege which affords her this luxury to shift among races) when she is confronted with questions and even hostility for calling herself a black woman is the historical imperial, colonial and Western gaze of ascription or classification, along with its attendant brutality, coercion and power, as a first and primary mover for the blackening of African peoples in order to justify oppressive exploitation for the enrichment of the Western, Eurocentric enclave and its people. Blackness did not begin as a choice (as Nkechi is able to do). It has however emerged in all its abounding eclecticism out of catastrophic experience — BUT it is not just struggle or being brutalized either (as Nkechi is also at the same time advancing).
When a black woman walks down the street, her body and all the attendant aesthetics bare witness to and provide testimony for the inter-generational character of the violence that was first initialized by that blackening classification on the African continent by European whites —the opposition to which she and those of us who are known to each other as black provides a lineage. The context of black struggle — and even more acutely black women’s struggle deepened further in catastrophe by its intersectional character — is historically determined and specified across generations as black people opposed and resisted catastrophic experiences visited upon them even as they clung to and expanded an understanding of their molested humanity within an emerging context of blackness: community formed on the other side of a racial classification which was deployed to truncate, simplify, homogenize and dehumanize.
Over time, the term “Black” would be wrestled away and redefined in sufficient quantity to construct such a thing as a positive, humanized blackness for us and by us, described not just as a life of resistance and opposition but a basis for community, pride and self-respect continuously built out of an on-going inter-generational refusal to be broken both on the diverse continent of Africa and in the diverse African diaspora.
(Having said this, I must bear in mind that throughout the struggle, black women encountered erasure as seen in their gross omission from the official histories which valorize masculinity and emphasize the centrality of the black male. Additionally, there was a horrific scourge of sexual violence unleashed by the enslavers and colonialists which was compounded in many ways by the abusive black male as well: in trying to protect black males and to safeguard the struggle from collapse, black women endured and endure to this day through lagging cultural and institutional legacies, horrifying sexual, domestic, emotional, physical and other targeted forms of violence on and in their bodies.)
It is this underlying genealogy which provides for some sort of basic understanding across a variety of contexts among those who know themselves as black and are seen as black by an imperial, colonial and postcolonial gaze: In my own experience as an African Malawian in the United States, I have found that this genealogy is the most frequent basis for establishing a connection with African Americans and other Africans in the diaspora such as Jamaicans and Trinidadians.
In the documentary itself — a former co-activist with Nkechi (who knows her as Rachel) mentioned something similar to this as well. She said what made her question Nkechi’s blackness is how she almost exclusively spoke of herself in terms of struggle or adversity — or in terms of the dangers her two black sons were under as black males living in the United States. Her former co-activist dismantles this view of blackness as merely struggle as a fiction: blackness or being black is not reducible to just struggle or adversity: Its inner texture which is apparent to those within its lineage is the culture and tradition of community and pride which underlies its outward aesthetics which, in a West-centric society and world, can only appear as militaristic opposition to, struggle against, and subversion of, an overly magnanimous status quo or norm. That is, the outward aesthetic which seems to attract Nkechi is precisely that which is seen as dangerous, and with which western society associates with blackness. Some of the inner texture reveals its beauty through the commodifying processes of capitalism in mass produced pop-culture through genres of music and other performing arts; the rest of it largely remains invisible to a gaze grossly incapable of seeing beyond the projected exterior which is permanently condemned with an oppositional and subversive quality aimed at the gaze itself.
Keep in mind that those first classified as blacks in Africa all those centuries ago spoke hundreds of different languages, had hundreds of different gods and spiritual systems, and were extremely diverse culturally, intellectually, politically, materially and socially. And yet — their invaders would look at the one thing with which they could easily identify them as others to themselves: their skin color! And from there, they would aggressively flatten out all diversity into an artificial homogenization founded around the imposed terminology and concept of race: Of black. Everything else was to became secondary from then on, including the numerous homegrown processes by which the most diverse human continent on the earth could potentially have built systems which could enable it to found conducive societies for such diversity over time. Africa would become frozen in “blackness” occasioned by an external actor. And Africans, continental and diasporic, would carve out and expand their humanity within it and through it: even as they resisted, and even as they lived, loved and fought. Even as they raised children to whom this way of life would be passed on. To the western gaze, all of this was simply subversion.
From then on, Africans became black — and black became an inter-generational struggle as well as the contexts within which a people, further estranged from each other, would grapple with questions about identity: Those taken to North America, the Caribbean and South America as enslaved people would forge blackness there; those left in Africa would find themselves transformed into rival identities (ethnicities) jostling for turfs within expanding colonial and postcolonial realities, with the missionaries having already started their work of erasing African spirituality as a barbarity on the basis that partaking in the blood and flesh of a Palestinian man who died centuries prior was more civilized; colonial borders were erected, and black bodies once more transmorphed into colonial nationalities to which so many of us now cleave today.
Nkechi Amare Diallo, using her race-is-a-construct theory aided by the appropriation and exploitation of black intellectual and cultural resources as tools for her resistance against a feeling of otherness to her white family and perhaps wider whiteness, thus sees blackness as a pathological opposite of whiteness (it is not and we are not: we are a people and not a mere oppositional derivative of whiteness), and thus embraces it on the basis of its pathologized status through the eyes of whiteness. She calls herself black because black was probably in her eyes the diagnosis for the sickness of otherness she experienced in her family, community and the wider country. She thus exited the city, seeking after those she felt were also afflicted with her black leprosy…and identified with them through her own projection of this illness.
Nkechi’s fundamental assumptions in all this seems to be that whiteness is the norm while Blackness is the relegating pathology and resource pool from which those who are unable to meet white standards can exist. The subconscious tools by which this diagnosis of blackness is achieved are all steeped in a white-centric worldview. Blackness has never been optional — NEITHER IS IT CHEAP! And it most definitely is not a kind of disease.
In this article I have presented the case for a historical imperative for identification .
As long as Black woman and Black people are cast within a specific gaze which configures whole arrangements under which they live, prescribing a value upon their lives, and maintaining a gradient of power which renders them its objects, Nkechi’s story will resonate only as another instance of colonial and racist privilege; a derision greatly assisted by her tone-deafness to history which is itself a long-standing white artifact.
The problem is thus not at the level of self-constructs nor at the level of self-identification: Rather it is at the level of external classification imposed by power and reified by capitalist modes of social and political organization which exploit and commodify such constructs. In the history of blackness, this commodification is undertaken by white monopoly capitalism: it made the African a piece of property, and it birthed the colony for exploitation. And it set into motion a very specific set of precarious and existential experiences which have been navigated by black women — experiences which cannot be so lightly waved away in the manner seen above.