For me, the most surprising part of the Rachel Dolezal debacle is how many people, both black and white, see faking black identity as selflessly forsaking one’s privilege.
On the contrary, in places of privilege that are inaccessible to most black people, particularly in contemporary humanities departments steeped in postcolonial critique, blackness has credibility that whites crave. Being able to claim that one has “been there” and experienced marginality trumps white voices who can only speak from second hand information. I’ve met American students at UCT who are as white as I am (and decidedly more privileged), but use the one drop of black or hispanic blood in their veins to reap the special bursaries, grants, opportunities and legitimacy reserved for black voices in humanities departments desperate to prove they are transforming.
Likewise, in South Africa, I can’t even count the number of white friends who lay claim to being African, to move themselves out of the uncomfortable status of hated, oppressive “settler” always on the wrong side of history. That’s not even counting those who confer on themselves “ancient African knowledge” as sangomas, or emphasise that they see themselves not as “white” but as “human” and they don’t “see colour.”
While being black is a cause of suffering for black people, cherrypicked “blackness” is a decided advantage for whites. We’d love nothing more than to deny the past ever happened, and claim that the system isn’t rigged to our advantage but that we deserve this. And we ogle at the rewards we could gain if we could lay our mitts on the credibility, cachet and funding our whiteness disqualifies us from. We’ve all dreamed of being able to have our cake and eat it, like Rachel Dolezal did. That she caved in to this temptation doesn’t make her a hero of non-racism.