insights from the rachel dolezal debacle

dolezalFor 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.

alain resnais/chris marker – statues also die (1953)

“We want to see their suffering, serenity, humour, even though we don’t know anything about them.”

Directors: Alain Resnais & Chris Marker
Narrator – Jean NĂ©groni
Music – Guy Bernard

A collaborative work by Resnais and Marker, this is a deeply felt study of African art and the decline it underwent as a result of its contact with Western civilization. The film was banned for more than a decade by French censors as an attack on French colonialism, and is now only available to watch in the shortened version I’ve posted here (turn on the subtitles on Youtube if you want English subtitling).

Statues Also Die traces the devastating impact of French colonialism on African art. As Resnais’ co-director, Chris Marker, stated, “We want to see their suffering, serenity, humor, even though we don’t know anything about them.” Their film shows what happens when art loses its connection to its cultural context of production. Witty, thoughtful commentary is combined with images of stark formal beauty in this outcry against the fate of an art once integral to communal life that became debased as it fell victim to the demands of a different system of knowledge and values.

statues also die
From Wikipedia:

Statues Also Die (French: Les Statues meurent aussi) is a 1953 French essay film directed by Chris Marker and Alain Resnais, about historical African art and the effects colonialism has had on how it is perceived. The film won the 1954 Prix Jean Vigo. Because of its criticism of colonialism, the second half of the film was censored in France until the 1960s.

Synopsis

The film exhibits a series of sculptures, masks and other traditional art from Sub-Saharan Africa. The images are frequently set to music and cut to the music’s pace. The narrator focuses on the emotional qualities of the objects, and discusses the perception of African sculptures from a historical and contemporary European perspective. Only occasionally does the film provide the geographical origin, time period or other contextual information about the objects. The idea of a dead statue is explained as a statue which has lost its original significance and become reduced to a museum object, similarly to a dead person who can be found in history books. Interweaved with the objects are a few scenes of Africans performing traditional music and dances, as well as the death of a disemboweled gorilla.

During the last third of the film, the modern commercialisation of African culture is problematised. The film argues that colonial presence has compelled African art to lose much of its idiosyncratic expression, in order to appeal to Western consumers. A mention is made of how African currencies previously had been replaced by European. In the final segment, the film comments on the position of black Africans themselves in contemporary Europe and North America. Footage is seen from a Harlem Globetrotters basketball show, of the boxer Sugar Ray Robinson, and a jazz drummer intercut with scenes from a confrontation between police and labour demonstrators. Lastly the narrator argues that we should regard African and European art history as one inseparable human culture.