The politics of racial shifting in anti-racist feminist organizing has been made anew in recent debates over the cases of Rachel Dolezal (formerly known as Black) and Andrea Smith (formerly known as Cherokee).
I want to think—out loud— through these cases together and the incredibly different ways that people have responded to them. For myself, I am trying to understand the differences in the cultural and social expectations and claims on Blackness and Indigeneity that they mark and how those expectations and claims operate so differently within and for Black and Native communities. I have more questions than answers.
Dolezal’s parents, Ruthanne and Lawrence (Larry), reveal to local journalists and NBC news anchors that their daughter, Rachel, has been lying about her ancestry (see reports from June 15, June 16, and June 17). On June 15, under pressure from the NAACP, Rachel Dolezal resigns as President of the Spokane chapter of the NAACP, and subsequently loses her faculty position in the Africana Education program at Eastern Washington University. According to some reports, linked above, she is being investigated by the City of Spokane’s Ethics Commission for ethics violations in misrepresenting herself as Black on an application to serve on the City’s Police Oversight Board.
In a June 16 interview with Matt Lauer on the Today Show, Dolezal attempted to counter her parent’s statements by asserting her right of “self-identification.”
“Dolezal: Well, first of all, I really don’t see why they’re [her parents] in such a rush to whitewash some of the work that I have done, and who I am, and how I’ve identified, and this goes back to a very early age, with my self-identification with the black experience as a very young child. Lauer: When did it start? Dolezal: I would say about 5 years old. Lauer: You began identifying yourself as African-American? Dolezal: I was drawing self-portraits with the brown crayon instead of the peach crayon and black, curly, hair, you know, yeah. That was how I was portraying myself. Lauer: So it started way back then. Rachel, when did you start—and I’ll use the word, you can correct me if you don’t like it—when did you start deceiving people and telling them you were black when you knew their questions were pointed in a different direction? When someone said to you, back then, “Are you black or white?” and you’d say “I’m black,” you wouldn’t say, “I identify as black,” you’d say, “I’m black.” When did you start deceiving people? Dolezal: Well, I do take exception to that, because it’s a little more complex than me identifying as black or answering a question of “Are you black or white?” I was actually identified when I was doing human rights work in north Idaho as, first, trans-racial, and then when some of the opposition to some of the human rights work I was doing came forward, the next day’s newspaper article identified me as being a biracial woman, and then the next article when there were actually burglaries, nooses, etcetera, was, this is happening to a black woman. And I never corrected— Lauer: Well, why didn’t you correct it if you knew it wasn’t true? Dolezal: Because it’s more complex than, you know, being true or false in that particular instance. [After questions about the ways she has changed her appearance.] Dolezal: Absolutely. Absolutely. I have a huge issue with blackface. This is not some freak, Birth of a Nation mockery blackface performance. This is on a very real connected level, how I’ve actually had to go there with the experience, not just the visible representation, but with the experience, and the point at which that really solidified was when I got full custody of Izaiah. And he said, “you’re my real mom,” and he’s in high school, and for that to be something that is plausible, I certainly can’t be seen as white and be Izaiah’s mom. [After questions about misrepresenting her father as a Black man.] Dolezal: Albert Wilkerson is my dad. Every man can be a father, not every man can be a dad. Lauer: Your lawsuit in 2002 against Howard University, where you claim you were discriminated against because you were a pregnant white woman. Do you understand how people could hear that and say, “Here’s another example—she says she identified herself as being African-American or black from a young age, but here’s a case where she identified herself as a white woman because it worked for her under the circumstances.” Dolezal: The reasons for my full-tuition scholarship being removed and my teaching position as well, my TA position, were that other people needed opportunities and you probably have white relatives that can afford to help you with your tuition. And I thought that was an injustice. … Dolezal: Well, as much as this discussion has somewhat been at my expense, recently, in a very sort of viciously inhumane way—come out of the woodwork, and—the discussion’s really about what it is to be human, and I hope that that can drive at the core of definitions of race, ethnicity, culture, self-determination, personal agency, and ultimately empowerment. . . . Dolezal: I actually was talking to one of my sons yesterday and he said, “Mom, racially you’re human and culturally you’re black.” And, you know, so we’ve had these conversations over the years, I do know that they support the way that I identify, and they support me. Ultimately, we have each other’s back. We’re the Three Musketeers.”
Criticisms, however, of Dolezal had flooded social media, news, and community forums, accusing her of blackface, opportunism, appropriation, and privilege. Dolezal responded to these criticisms by claiming to be “transracial” (also of Native American descent—growing up in a tipi, hunting with a bow and arrow), identifying as a bisexual, claiming to have been sexually abused by her brother, and claiming to have been raised in a too-strict Christian home. In the end, none of these claims dissuaded her critics and only enraged them further with calls of accountability. Dolezal was forced to resign on June 15 from her position at the NAACP and from her faculty position at EWU.
About two weeks ago, Annita Lucchesi (Southern Cheyenne) posted a comment on her tumblr page entitled “Andrea Smith is not Cherokee.” In Lucchesi’s biography for an article she wrote for Last Real Indians in honor of Loretta Saunders, it says, “Annita Lucchesi is a Southern Cheyenne survivor of sexual and domestic violence. She is a graduate student in the Critical Culture, Gender, & Race Studies department at Washington State University, and also works at the National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center, which is dedicated to reclaiming the sovereignty of Native nations and safeguarding Native women and their children.” Her comment on tumblr about Smith begins:
“Andrea Smith is not Cherokee. omg. this is not new information. this is what bugs me about how Natives are treated by non-Natives in academia!!! most Native scholars that are connected to their cultures/communities have questioned her for a very long time. but non-Natives get so comfortable using their one token go-to Native Feminist to quote that those questions don’t get heard or understood.”
A day later, Lucchesi posted a comment entitled “cool indigenous feminist scholars to check out.” Both of her comments generated close to 6,000 replies, including likes, reposts, and remarks. The overwhelming majority of the respondents express some form of shock, dismay, pain, and outrage over the news about Smith and gratitude for the recommended reading list.
As Lucchesi’s comments were circulated on twitter and Facebook by Native and non-Native academics, activists, and community members, they provoked a diverse intensity of responses, including criticisms of those who did the circulating as witch-hunters, mean-spirited, lacking logic, not knowing what they were talking about, and the like.
Within a few days, a new tumblr page appeared: andreasmithisnotcherokee. With multiple Cherokee and other sources and primary and secondary documentation dating back to 1991, the page tracks a 24-year history of Smith misrepresenting herself as an enrolled Cherokee citizen, of being confronted on the validity of her claims and agreeing with the Cherokee Nation to no longer publicly identify as Cherokee, and of subsequently allowing others to misrepresent her as a Cherokee intellectual and activist.
Smith’s admissions to multiple Cherokee people in 1993, 2007, and 2008 that she has no lineal descent claims as a Cherokee is as striking as the fact, as noted on tumblr, that, “To date, no member of the Redbirth Smith family or any other Cherokee family has acknowledged Andrea Smith’s claims of descent/belonging.”
In the two weeks since Lucchesi’s posts, the twitter and Facebook flurry, and the appearance of andreasmithisnotcherokee, not a single national media outlet or professional institution or association to which Smith is a member has remarked on Smith’s case. And neither has Smith responded–to refute, to acknowledge, to apologize. In fact, it appears that all she has done in response is to close her twitter account (@andrea366, though one she seems to be affiliated with @NativeChristian remains active) and her Facebook account (Andy Smith).
[Insert the sounds of crickets here.]
In my albeit limited worlds of social media–wordpress, twitter, Facebook–I have watched as many Natives and non-Natives in and outside of the academy have posed questions about the timing and motivations of the tumblr posts/pages. These questions have oftentimes assumed that it has been common knowledge, certainly within Native studies since 2008, that Smith is a fraud, so why bring it all up (again) now?
Instead of assuming that “everybody knew/knows,” particularly within Native studies since 2008, which is clearly not the case given the responses to the tumblr posts and circulation mentioned above, a more productive place to begin might be to ask why there has not been any noticeable difference in professional or political expectations of Smith—in her self-presentations, speaking engagements, professional service, and publications? There are certainly many people who knew/know, so why have her ethics and integrity not been questioned or challenged in the same or similar way to those of Dolezal? Why does Smith’s fraud get excused on the grounds of “her good work” but Dolezal does not?
Obviously I am not suggesting that Dolezal and Smith have the same kind or volume of professional publications or that they do the same kind of political work.
But it seems to me that the ethical issues swirling around Smith are so viscous and thick for Native and non-Native academics (and) activists (especially those aligned as anti-racist feminists) that it is impossible to wade through them without taking any kind of action whatsoever. Like trying to stand nonchalantly in quick sand or to sit comfortably in a pot of water as it comes to a boil.
If the past 24 years are any indication of the future, I fear what will happen in regards Smith is this:
- non-Native academics (and) activists will eventually dismiss the sources and documentation of Smith’s fraud as crass or too-complicated identity politics, something that they can’t possibly understand or take a position on, as the advancement of oppressively racial state normativities, or as an example of problems unique to Native people that Natives have to sort out for themselves.
- Native academics (and) activists will turn on one another, will go mute, or will ignore the information (again) in the name of not advancing racism, not doing harm to Smith, or showing respect for her “good work” in “the community.”
Meanwhile, we’ll all fail to ask why, as Dolezal and Smith present themselves through such complicated personal stories of childhood abuse and family dysfunction, we respond so differently to Dolezal’s blackface and Smith’s redface. We’ll avoid the opportunity to think out loud together about why it seems the entire nation demands accountability of someone pretending to be Black–of literally altering her physical appearance to conform to racist expectations of Blackness–but doesn’t seem to give one iota of concern about those who pretend to be Indian.
Is this because, at the end and beginning and middle of Smith’s fraud, “we” would all like to claim or have already claimed to have been raised in tipis, hunting for our food, feeling Indian since we were kids, shifting out of ourselves into the Indian’s pains and successes? Is it that “we” all, secretly, want to be Indian like her? Or perhaps that “we” all, secretly, already claim to be Indian ourselves?
Please see, “On the Politics of Distraction,” which reflects on the reactions to this post.