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'We are still not hearing from a black woman'

The Rachel Dolezal controversy highlights the difficulties the US faces in grappling with its history, an Afro-American studies scholar tells DW. She criticizes that the current debate sidelines a key issue.

DW: What is your take on the ongoing Rachel Dolezal saga?

Riché J. Daniel Barnes: At first I thought, isn't this interesting there is a white woman who is choosing to be black. That just felt really interesting because we understand race in America to be about power and privilege. And as much as Rachel Dolezal wants to talk about it as a social construct - that racially we are human and socially she sees herself as black - I think the thing that is troubling is that it seems to be at points that are conducive to her and her needs and goals. I learned a couple of days ago that she filed a lawsuit against Howard University back in 2002, arguing that she had been racially discriminated against as a white woman at a predominantly black university because she wasn't selected to be a teaching assistant there. That's a reverse discrimination conversation: that I am being discriminated against because I am white. And now she is saying she always felt like she is black. This seems opportunistic.

Rachel Dolezal apparently also taught African-American studies at a university as you do as well. What's your reaction to that?

Riché Barnes

Riché Barnes teaches at Smith College

It concerns me. She says that she knows about the history of blackface and that she doesn't see herself as performing blackface, that she feels like this is who she has always been. But I think she is in blackface. It is clear that something has colored her skin. She is not the same coloring she was according to pictures when she was as a young person. I am confused as to why.

We have a long history of white people teaching African-American history, African history. It's a very recent phenomenon that African-Americans and black people in general are in a position to be the professors in African-American studies departments even at predominantly black colleges and universities. Some of the most well known scholars in African-American history and culture prior to the civil rights movement were white folks. So I am still trying to wrap my mind around why she felt she had to do this type of performance. And all I can come up with is that at this particular moment in her region of the country she was able to gain a degree of power and notoriety and prestige by being light skinned. I think it is important to say, a light skinned black woman because issues of color still ring true even within our conversations around race.

So what does the whole debate over Rachel Dolezal say about race and ethnicity in American society today?

Because of the rhetoric of our becoming colorblind and post-racial we are at a point in our nation's history where we are trying to reconcile our understanding that race is a social construct, that it is not rooted in biology. But at the same time we have a 400 plus year history of having developed a social construct of race that aligns itself with biology that has real social, economic and political consequences for people of African ancestry.

And what that says about the US today is that we are not doing a good job of reconciling that history along with its effects. I think we are grappling with what to do about these contradictions. And we are not clear what that means now. Because we know we have a black president and we know that we move toward a predominantly of-color population and there is fear among white folks about what that means as we move forward. And I think that all the controversy about Rachel Dolezal has a lot to do with that.

One thing I am concerned about though is that this is a kind of a "here we go again" situation. While she claims to be a black woman, we are clear that she is a white woman. If she is ancestrally white and she is posing as a black woman, then by giving her all this media attention we are again privileging white voices. This is a white voice talking about its connection to a presumed black experience and concentrating that focus on how she, as a white woman posing as a black woman, has had to navigate being a black woman. We are still not hearing from a black woman about her experiences in the US, her experiences with raising black children.

I think what she has been getting or trying to get, using her status - whether she is white suing Howard University, or black being the president of a NAACP chapter, -she is using her power and her privilege whenever and however she can. And that's troubling.

Riché J. Daniel Barnes is an Assistant Professor of Anthropology, Urban Studies, and Women's Studies in the Department of Afro-American Studies at Smith College in Massachusetts.

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