The media are lending an ear – and a platform – to those who believe “being white” can “drive you to do the weird and unthinkable,” as exemplified by former NAACP leader Rachel Dolezal.
University of Pennsylvania Professor Ali Michael recently disclosed, “I Sometimes Don't Want to Be White Either,” in a June 16 blog published by The Huffington Post’s Black Voices. In it, Michael described “the pain of realizing I'm White” and her want to “take on Africanness” during her very own “Rachel Dolezal phase.” Dolezal, she justified, may have wanted to “distance herself from the overwhelming oppressiveness of Whiteness.”
Michael began her piece by focusing on former NAACP leader Rachel Dolezal, “a fascinating case study in White racial identity development.”
According to Michael, Dolezal exemplified the “immersion/emersion stage” where “White people, having learned extensively about the realities of racism, and the ugly history of White supremacy in the U.S., ‘immerse’ themselves in trying to figure out how to be White in our society, and ‘emerge’ with a new relationship to Whiteness.”
“Only in the case of Dolezal,” she said, “her way of dealing with the pain of the reality of racism, was to deny her own Whiteness and to become Black.”
And “She's not alone,” Michael said, before she turned to herself as an example.
“There was a time in my 20s when everything I learned about the history of racism made me hate myself, my Whiteness, my ancestors... and my descendants,” she wrote. “I remember deciding that I couldn't have biological children because I didn't want to propagate my privilege biologically.”
During her “Rachel Dolezal phase,” she “swore off White authors” and learned from “Black authors” that “the job of White people lies with teaching other White people, seeing ourselves clearly, owning our role in oppression.”
But while Michael hated her own “Whiteness,” she “disliked the Whiteness of other White people more.”
“I felt like the way to really end racism was to feel guilty for it, and to make other White people feel guilty for it too,” she stressed.
To “take on Africanness” like Dolezal, Michael “lived with a Black family,” wore head wraps and shaved her head while studying abroad in South Africa.
“I didn't want to be White, but if I had to be, I wanted to be White in a way that was different from other White people I knew,” she pressed. “I wanted to be a special, different White person.”
Because “White people” do not “self-identify racially” (they call themselves things like “normal” or “just American”), America has a “society…where only people of color seem to be responsible for racialized problems.”
“White people” think they don’t have “racial stories” or “own our history” because “we don’t see it as ours,” Michael continued.
During the 20th century, Michael said, immigrants “abandoned” what made them “racialized” such as language and religion to “become White” (or…American?). Not only did they want to start “fitting in,” said Michael, but also they wanted rights “reserved for White people” like citizenship and police protection.
But Dolezal exemplified the opposite.
“[T]he process of becoming White that [Dolezal’s] ancestors undoubtedly went through…may be connected to her desire to un-become White,” or in Michael’s other words, “to lose that feeling of being cultureless, of being part of an unidentified group, and to leave behind that identity that has no positive way to be.”
Michael claimed, “[L]ots of White people,” like herself, “do this in thousands of tiny ways as we appropriate the cultures of others” from different countries to “fill in the blanks in our own.”
On the other hand, she argued, “[W]e need White people to see that we are White.”
“When we recognize and own our Whiteness, we can account for our own portion, our one 1/billionth of responsibility for what White people have done throughout history,” she wrote. “We can use our privilege to confront the sources of that unfair favoring.”
Michael listed possible reasons for Dolezal’s actions including mental illness, connecting with her adopted siblings and feeling “safer and more loved in Black communities.”
“Maybe it felt good to distance herself from the overwhelming oppressiveness of Whiteness -- her own and that of her country and of her ancestors,” Michael argued.
Turning once more to herself, Michael explained what she learned from her experience.
“But the lesson for me is remembering how deep the pain is, the pain of realizing I'm White, and that I and my ancestors are responsible for the incredible racialized mess we find ourselves in today,” she said.
Even though “Whiteness” is terrible, it’s still better than the alternative, according to Michael.
“Being White -- even with the feeling of culturelessness and responsibility for racism -- is nothing compared to not being White” – even if “being white” can “drive you to do the weird and unthinkable that we see in Dolezal today.”
According to Michael, Dolezal proved a “good warning.”
“Dolezal's actions are a potential pitfall for any White people on the journey towards recognizing the truth of what it means to be White,” she concluded. “But we cannot not be White. And we cannot undo what Whiteness has done. We can only start from where we are and who we are.”
Michael, the director of P-12 Consulting and Professional Development at the Center for the Study of Race Equity in Education at the University of Pennsylvania, boasts writing or editing books on the topic of “whiteness,” including Raising Race Questions: Whiteness and Inquiry in Education and Everyday White People Confront Racial and Social Injustice.
As producer, Michael advertises short films on her website with names like Speaking Truth to Privilege and Teens Talk Racial Privilege.
Michael is not alone in her sentiments – and expressing them through the media. Journalist Hannah Miet similarly wrote for The Washington Post “I’m a white woman who dated a Black Panther. I could have been Rachel Dolezal.”
“While I don’t agree with Dolezal’s actions,” Miet said, “I do think we have that in common: the refusal to live in cultural isolation.”