Race traitors, Rachel Dolezal and Allyship

“So I never really fit in anywhere as a… as a…”

“..as a race traitor?” I asked, immediately worrying I had stepped over the line.

“THAT’S IT!!!!” she exclaimed with a mixture of enthusiasm and relief. “That’s what I’ve always been; a race traitor!”

I had just heard my blonde White friend sharing the stories that had made her such a powerful White ally for racial justice, from being told by her elementary school teacher in Texas that she wasn’t allowed to be friends with the Latina girl she had picked out when assigned to make a new friend (and also finding herself friendless when the Latin@ students weren’t in class during harvest season, since she had already marked herself as odd) to discovering that she was allowed to go to her Black friend’s house to play but not the other way around.

And I didn’t make up the term race traitor. While researching for an anti-racism training with a room of almost all White young adults years ago, I had come across a White allies group whose publication was called “Race Traitor Quarterly.” They claimed it as a badge of honor. So, it turned out, did my friend.

I haven’t felt compelled to say much about Rachel Dolezal. I’ve noticed a couple of my light-skinned mixed race radical activist friends have also been quiet and maybe a little self-reflective about the fact that her story isn’t ours but that while White privilege and light-skin privilege are two separate things, it’s a fine line we have to walk to honor the latter well. Also, about ten of my friends posted a blog post recently from the Black Girl Dangerous site about White people who pretend to be people of color. I’m aware that I am White presenting, and if I’m being 100% honest, as clear as I have been about my identity being an identity of solidarity and being aware of my light-skinned privilege and why it is important for me not to pass for White just because I can and my own hopes that in some way I’m following in the footsteps of people like Homer Plessy who used his ability to pass as a weapon for justice in solidarity with his brothers and sisters who could not pass, I know that there are moments people see me and wonder why I say “they” when I’m talking about White people, and I know I will spend my whole life navigating that complex terrain. So wading into this water as a White presenting person of color feels, well, a little treacherous.

 

Also, plenty of people have said really important stuff already, from what is problematic about comparing Rachel Dolezal to Caitlyn Jenner, to the complexity of racial identity to Davey D Cook’s reminder to keep an eye on what really matters, which is the culture of anti-blackness around us that results in poverty and lack of opportunity and systems of oppression instead of being distracted by this story.

 

But this morning I remembered the conversation with my race traitor friend and was reminded that there are people out there navigating this issue well. As Tim Wise points out in a recent essay on Rachel Dolezal, mimicry is not solidarity. And he also reminds us that solidarity is hard. For White folks to commit to standing with people of color and not speak for them, to have to earn trust over and over, takes work and time.

So the only thing I have to say is that I am grateful for the White people I know who are conscious of their privilege and use it to stand in solidarity, the people who recognize that what is going on in our society is profoundly broken and that it can only be fixed by supporting people of color leadership in creating solutions. I have no idea whether Rachel Dolezal passed for Black because being an ally was too hard or because acknowledging her privilege was too painful or because she didn’t want to be associated with her family’s legacy.

What I know today is that my friend who embraced the label of race traitor never got to sit comfortably in White circles, and she never got to sit comfortably in Latin@, Black, or indigenous circles. She had to choose humble and listening in circles of color and loud and firm in circles of white. But she chose uncomfortable allyship over oppressive comfort, and she did have one comfortable circle: the other folks who rejected the need to be comfortable. Because the fact of the matter is that being a person of color in America means rarely getting to be comfortable. And that won’t change until EVERYONE’S willing to be a little uncomfortable and not opt out until everyone gets to be comfortable.

So what I know today is I am grateful for the race traitors. And as a White presenting person of color who chooses not to pass for White because she doesn’t believe anyone should have to, I’m glad to call you friends. Both of our groups have a different role to play in the movement, but let’s not opt out of that role because we get tired. When we do get tired, let’s lean on one another instead.

 

That said, I want to share my two favorite jokes that have emerged from this saga.

One from a shero of the Black Lives Matter movement, who simply posted on facebook last week, “Anne Lamott and Rachel Dolezal walk into a bar…”

The other is a visual joke:

IMG_4610

Thanks, race traitors and allies of all types.

 

 

Comments (2)

  1. Timothy

    With friends and other activists, I’m doing my best to be a race-traitor too and inviting others on this liberating journey!

  2. Sandhya (Post author)

    Grateful for you, Timothy, and for the framing of the work as liberating…it is!

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