Transracial Lives Matter: Rachel Dolezal and the Privilege of Racial Manipulation

06/17/2015 03:23 pm ET | Updated Jun 16, 2016

"The commodification of Otherness has been so successful because it is offered as a new delight, more intense, more satisfying than normal ways of doing and feeling. Within commodity culture, ethnicity becomes spice, seasoning that can liven up the dull dish that is mainstream white culture." bell hooks -- Eating the Other: Desire and Resistance

"They love our bodies, but they don't love us." #BlackWomensLivesMatter #SayHerName

"Everybody wanna be a nigga, but nobody wanna be a nigga." Paul Mooney.


I was doing my best to ignore this story. It wasn't until one of my fellow adult adoptees alerted me to the fact that Twitter (which I use religiously, but avoided specifically the past two days) had begun to use the term "Transracial" to refer to Rachel Dolezal, a white woman who has been outed as hiding her whiteness and living as a black woman that I paid attention. I discovered that Twitter had also begun a hashtag as a sarcastic taunt -- #TransracialLivesMatter. Then, I read an article that argued that "transracial identity, is not a thing." Um. No.

For those of you who don't know, and clearly there are a lot of you, the term "transracial" is used in scholarly research, creative writing and cultural work to denote a particular "state of being" for people adopted across race. It also describes a kind of family unit/type of parenting. In other words, it IS a 'thing.' It is disheartening and disconcerting to see this term used dismissively as if it does not encompass an entire population of Black, Brown, Native and Asian people across the globe. For the past 35ish years, I've considered myself to be a transracial adoptee. The "trans" in transracial for me never meant my race changed. It meant I was a multiracial black girl, adopted into a white family. It meant I was taken without my consent from one home, one place of origin, and put inside another family, another culture, another race, one that didn't belong to me. It meant I had to learn how to navigate my blackness and my black girlness inside an oftentimes racist, religious, violent and rigid white world. It meant living in a house and community that simultaneously erased me, racialized me and tokenized me. It gave me a language to articulate what was happening to me. But you know what it didn't do? It never actually changed my race. And even with all the 'privileges' of whiteness, even with all the education, the middle class living, camping, fishing, hunting , it never made me white.

Dr. John Raible has investigated how white transracial adoptive family members can become "transracialized" by the experiences of having Black, Brown and Asian people in their homes. In his study, he interviews siblings of Black adopted people and shows how many siblings of transracial adoptees who might never have thought about race and racism are impacted. He says, "The individual can transcend the myth of color-blindness and come to a deeper understanding of the role of race and discrimination based on color-consciousness in our society." (See Dr. Raible's work here.)

But not even this -- the experience of being 'transracialized' and moving past the colorblind mythology the United States still so eagerly wants us to embrace, changes the race of these siblings. It doesn't even encourage them to consider changing their race. In fact, it argues that they should embrace the potential to grow by their proximity to racism and racialized violence. It argues they can be a different kind of white person, one who can operate as an ally to people of color in a real, thoughtful way. Of course, this kind of transformation is not the kind that happens often. More often than not, white mothers and fathers (and siblings) live vicariously through the "authentic cultures" of their adopted children of color. More often than not they ignore how appropriation and fetishization of culture is not at all the same as making a lifelong commitment to being an active, anti-racist ally.

The conversations around and flippant use of "transracial" to describe Ms. Dolezal's deception (and lets be clear: she has lied, profited from that lie, garnered a privileged position and has no plans to stop calling herself Black) have been particularly triggering for me. I am a woman who through taking courses in and teaching Black Feminist Theory found solace, healing, inspiration in those sacred spaces. I am a Black woman who found my way back to the community I was taken from. The community that was the first to tell me I was beautiful when all I experienced was rejection and shame about my skin color and hair texture. As a Black woman who discovered that Black diaspora celebrated and embraced my very particular transracial adopted hybridity -- I'm angry at the dismissal of my identity and at the very real glorification of Ms. Dolezal's.

As a multiracial Black person, as a transracial adoptee, I don't take issue with racial and cultural hybridity, nor the way race and racial identity in our world is shifting. I believe in shattering notions of "authenticity." I didn't grow up in a home with mainstream media ideas about what is authentically "Black." Does that mean because I didn't have access to Black or Filipino culture, mythologies, food, spirituality as a child that I'm not Black or Filipino? Not. Tell the authenticity police to talk to 14 year old me, sitting outside the front of my own house with my boyfriend, having the cops roll up on me and ask me what I'm doing there. But here - we are talking about race, not culture, yes (sarcasm)?

The crucial difference here is that I had and continue to have no choice in my blackness. I cannot hide my skin or make myself invisible when I am protesting police terror or creating theater art for other Black women with skin like mine. I cannot manipulate what race is for my own pleasure. Ms. Dolezal is a white woman, who made choices, who used and is still using every bit of her white privilege to maintain the power and elite status she has accrued from her deception. This use of white privilege in her case is no different from transracial adoptive parents who adopt bi-racial children because they want these children to identify with the "white side" of themselves. These parents completely ignore that how they want race to function is not actually how race operates out in the world. They are completely assured of their own power to bend and change race and meanings of race at their own white whim. This manipulation is what Ms. Dolezal has done. This manipulation of race is no different from what white supremacists did in the early days of our country, moving the lines of race back and forth when it pleased them, using the language of the law, even at the cost of Black, Brown, Asian and Native lives.

I want to be clear that this is complicated. I can speculate Ms. Dolezal's living in a transracial adoptive family and having Black brothers and sisters has impacted the ways she thinks about race. But this complexity is where the danger lies. The global system of transracial adoption itself is too often the place where white people who desire close proximity to bodies of color, their "exotic," their "natural rhythms and cultures" make their fetish dreams come true. And hasn't Ms. Dolezal adopted her Black brother and claimed him as her son to gain authenticity? How is this different?

There are families who after adopting across race begin to call themselves "Chinese American" after of adopting a girl from China. Um, no. You are not a Chinese American family simply because you follow the ownership model of adoption and have some kind of claim to a Chinese body of color. You are a white family with a child of color, you are a multiracial family, but no matter what, you are still White. You have a responsibility to your children to be open, honest and respectful about what experiences are yours and what experiences are theirs. You have a responsibility not to lie about the very real life and death issues that your adopted person will be facing.

Ultimately this is where I land with Ms. Dolezal. I don't care what she has done for "the community." I'm enraged at those of you (and I'm looking directly at you NAACP for not firing this woman) who are asking me to be "grateful" to a White woman who has "done lots of work for the black community." This language is a line transracial adoptees have learned to obliterate and resist against years ago. We are constantly told we should be grateful we didn't grow up in a orphanage or become a prostitute, because our own families weren't good enough. Our Black or Brown or Third World mothers weren't good enough. This discourse of gratefulness is part of white supremacist thinking, it is a kind of linguistic violence that asks us to silence our own experiences, to erase ourselves. It asks me to let a White person tell me how I should act, what I should feel, how I should behave and ultimately, what Blackness is. Another white woman telling me what diasporic Blackness is, what Black womanhood is? I think not.

So yeah, #TransracialLivesMatter but in many more ways than you think.

(P.S. can I also just not get even started on academic integrity? Even the worst academic knows that positionality is EVERYTHING. Killing me.)