Like anyone who has been on the internet over the last three days, my social media accounts have been inundated with news about two things: the release the third season of Neflix’s phenomenal hit “Orange is the New Black”, and the complete trainwreck that is Rachel Dolezal and her audacious attempt at assimilating into Black womanhood. Both stories, while seemingly unconnected, actually have quite a bit in common.
Over the last few days, I’ve watched with great disdain and some amusement the downfall of Rachel Dolezal. Dolezal, the president of the Spokane, Washington chapter of the NAACP and professor of African American studies, has successfully fooled an entire community of people into believing that she is a Black woman. According to her family (the very people who outed her as White), Dolezal began identifying as a Black woman more than 10 years ago, while on scholarship to Howard University. She has since distanced herself from her (White) family and created an entire life in Washington which includes several positions advocating for the advancement of People of Color. She’s a professor of African American and Black Women’s studies, and is the chair of the independent citizen police ombudsman commission in Spokane. It appears that she has done a lot of great work for this community in her time here.
What, then, is the big deal with what she’s done?
To answer that question, I’d like to segue to the other news item I’ve made mention of here – Orange is the New Black. When OITNB premiered three years ago, it received rave reviews from the public and critics alike, and creator Jenji Kohan was deemed to have another bonafide hit on her hands. The show, while originally centering on the story of Piper Chapman – a WASPy blonde imprisoned for transporting drugs several years prior – quickly gained renown for being one of the few shows on television that gave voice to the millions of Women of Color in American prisons. Although not always the most favorable, the representation given to the groups of women who comprise the bulk of America’s prison population was an eye-opening thing being broadcast on a major entertainment provider.
The show does a good job of examining the intersections of race and culture within the multicultural environment of the Litchfield prison, and this season is no different. One of the most striking examples that stuck out to me during my requisite binge-watching session this weekend was a small story arc that taught a lesson on cultural appropriation.
In episode two of this new season, the prison was overcome by bedbugs. The Latina women in charge of the kitchen began working double duty by providing home remedies for itching and making tinctures and spells to ward off the creepy crawlies. Norma, the lone White woman still allowed to work in the kitchen at this point, joined in on the remedy making and eventually Columbused the practice. She took the lessons she’d learned from the Latina women and made them her own, providing services to inmates around the prison from her cell space, eventually earning the name “Magic Norma”.
Two episodes later, Gloria Mendoza (the head cook), came to correct Norma on her cultural faux pas, giving her a quick lesson on dealing with the orishas and the spiritual aspect of what they were doing, and letting her know in no uncertain terms that “this ain’t your history – this ain’t your culture”.
Herein lies the issue with Rachel Dolezal. The fact that she is a White woman serving in a major position at the NAACP isn’t the issue. Her allyship – had she done it in an appropriate manner, would actually have been greatly appreciated. The problem with Rachel Dolezal is that she pretended to not only be a Black woman, she also co-opted the lived experiences of Black women everywhere, making them her own. She could have easily made a difference within the Black community without misrepresenting herself.
Instead, she chose to lie about who she is as a person. She chose to imitate the pain and trauma that accompany existing in a society that is inherently anti-Black. She took our experiences and tried them on for a while – as if they were a prom dress or some other silly costume. She took it upon herself to represent herself as a Black woman, speaking on our pain and our love as if she were one of us. In doing so, she not only made a complete mockery of herself and of the NAACP, one of the nation’s oldest Black advocacy organizations, but she also made us question ourselves and each other. What we’ve learned from Rachel Dolezal is that we aren’t even safe in our Blackness – we can’t even have peace in our own skin without worrying that White privilege – the thing that has taken everything else from us – will take that too.
Cultural appropriation denotes the fine line between appreciating and disrespecting the cultures of others around you. There are, of course, many ways to appreciate and pay homage to the cultures of others whom you respect and admire without making a mockery of them by claiming them for yourself without bothering to understand the nuances of what you seek to emulate. Rachel didn’t do that, though. She showed blatant disrespect for Black people, especially Black women, by choosing to lie about who she was and in the process, has successfully cast a shadow on all of the great work she alleges to have accomplished for our community.
Rachel could actually learn quite a bit from watching a couple of episodes of OITNB – while it’s okay to appreciate the culture of other people, it is not okay to steal their experiences with reckless abandon, just because you can.
In the words of Gloria Mendoza, “this ain’t your history, this ain’t your culture”.