Complete this sentence: The Road to Hell is paved with _______
That’s right. Ding ding ding: “Good Intentions” is the correct answer. Everyone knows this maxim yet can’t seem to apply it in everyday life particularly with regard to this Rachel Dolezal fiasco. Allow me to assist with this.
First Off: I don’t know Rachel Dolezal and I’m not positing that she’s going to hell. What I am saying is that: I don’t know Rachel Dolezal and it doesn’t matter.
I’ve had several conversations with people this week regarding this long con that she’s intent on continuing and more than a handful of people have suggested to me that she has “good intentions” (she worked for the NAACP for goodness sakes!) and therefore, you know, you can’t get too upset about her blackface shtick because she was doing good for black people and, most importantly, you don’t know what’s in her heart
Guess what? I don’t know what’s in anybody’s heart! I can barely tell you what’s in mine at any given moment. But, I can see your actions. I can even be affected by your actions. And it’s your actions that generate my response (whether good or bad) not your intent.
Here is the most basic example: you accidentally step on my foot and I yell “ow” as I hop up in down. You didn’t mean it. You had good intentions (you were just trying to get in line for free snow cones) but your actions still resulted in harm (hypothetically to me). Are you going to turn around and tell me as I’m jumping around in pain “you don’t know my heart. I had good intentions!” If you’re a sane person then I would think not.
An even more extreme example: you are backing out of your driveway and accidentally run over your neighbor’s child. You didn’t mean it. You didn’t intend to do it; in fact, you are torn up inside about it. Your intention, however, is probably not what the parents will be thinking of at their child’s graveside. Their grief will not be any less intense because you didn’t mean to do it.
“I don’t have a racist bone in my body.” *always said after some ridiculously racist comment*
“Well, my family and my friends who really know me know that I would never….”
“That’s not who I really am. “
This is consistently the excuse that people offer up when their actions (whether intentional or not) harm others (see Paula Deen, SAE fraternity, or any other big news story over the last decade). People seem to think that who they are – the things in their heart that I cannot see – are in some way divorced from the things that they do–their actions. This is why you often hear stories about a serial killer’s favorite t.v. show or breakfast cereal. Who cares he killed 35 people!.
In fact, your actions are probably more indicative of your heart condition than anything else. Cue alternate maxim: actions speak louder than words. Or the bible’s metaphor about how a tree is known by the fruit that it produces. Your actions matter. So do mine
I get it. We’re all human and we make mistakes sometimes. Check. And sometimes we really do mean well, but we hurt other people. Check. But, part of being a good human – maybe a human being who is trying– is to not rationalize away the damage or hurt that you’ve caused (again, whether intentional or not). You don’t get to dictate how someone feels about the fact that you stepped on her foot.
And here are my thoughts on the particular damage that Rachel Dolezal has done:
You can be white and care about and fight against injustice. You can be white and be a part of (even a leader) in the NAACP or even the social justice movement at large. You can be white and really really really love black people and black culture. But you can’t be black.
Because being black is more than just your phenotype/skin color/hair type/how you talk. We’re not a monolith. Rachel assumed a “black identity” based on whatever it was that she associated with blackness (hair, skin, love interests and the like), but she got none of the baggage that goes along with it.
Race is a social construct that sorts people into categorical hierarchies which determine who gets jobs, who gets access to certain spaces, who gets viewed and treated as human, who sets the standards for beauty, who is more likely to be represented in media, books, and everyday life, and even who is more (or less likely) to get killed by the police. This sorting functions as a means of systemic oppression and discrimination for black people (and we all have different experiences with it). Being white, Rachel never experienced this. But she preemptively assumed the identity of a black woman (including a made up, fictional childhood and a fictional black father) and attempted to give voice and speak for something that does not belong to her. She decided (for whatever reason) that what she felt and thought about blackness outweighed or should have equal weight of actual black women and their lived experiences (that aren’t necessarily the same).
Being black is not a costume that you get to don when you feel it is convenient. She crossed a line when she decided to essentially engage in blackface and set herself up as an authority on black womanhood. How arrogant is that though? Let me tell you what it’s like to be a black woman. Um….and you know this because you put in some braids and tanned your skin? #byeFelicia. Rachel decided (for whatever reasons) to center herself in a conversation that was never about her in the first place.
She erased the voice of women who actually live the daily experience of being black women (me!) with her fictional rendering of black womanhood. You don’t just “become black.” That’s not how race works. It’s not a feeling that you get inside. It’s not a tingling or a special level of transcendence that comes from listening to hip hop or motown. It’s not something that you one day decide that you identify with and so you co-opt it. So no, she doesn’t get to be an authority on blackness. She doesn’t get to explain to me “the struggles of being a black woman” or what “being black” really means. She doesn’t get to erase my lived experiences by being a caricature of what she thinks that black is. That’s not ok.
So perhaps she has good intentions. As evidenced by her multiple interviews today, she “identifies as black” (whatever that means). Perhaps she means well and is a true social justice warrior. But her good works in no way nullify or invalidate the problematic, insulting, and inherently disrespectful nature of her blackface performance. Because guess what? She could have done every single one of those “good” things for the black community as a white woman. Blackface is NEVER a requirement (repeat this to yourself on Halloween kids).
So think about this before you tell me about her heart or her good intentions.