Essay: Blackface and whiteface in the time of Kamala Harris

As one woman of mixed race will be sworn in as the vice president of the USA on January 20 despite – or because of – identifying as black, another woman, a civil rights activist, had to give up her job five years ago for adopting a black identity. While Kamala Harris is seen as a symbol, Rachel Dolezal was accused of being a fake.

Fact is, the Harris “deception” has greater import because of the position she holds and, more importantly, her lack of any real engagement with black lives. Her affiliations have been of the kind a typical white person might have.

In her autobiography The Truths We Hold: An American Journey, she mentions singing along to gospel music and lists out all the black musicians they listened to at home. She uses Aretha Franklin for the purpose of legitimacy: “We listened to her version of To Be Young, Gifted and Black all the time, an anthem of black pride first performed by Nina Simone.”

Harris, as we know, was raised by a Tamil Hindu mother, who was divorced from her Jamaican husband when Kamala was seven. Therefore, it is a bit curious that they attended church and Bible classes and her mother “was raising two black daughters”. They were an educated family and privileged on that account, unlike black families that start out with a disadvantage. And, anyway, how do you raise people to be of a certain race?

Rachel Dolezal’s case is, therefore, both intriguing and challenging, for it raises a fundamental question: We choose professional, social, and even religious identities – so, why should race be off-limits? If Beyoncé can go blonde, why can a white woman not have her hair braided? Should one’s birth be the identifier for all of one’s life? Her memoirs In Full Color: Finding My Place in a Black and White World examines race “in an entirely new light – not as a biological imperative, but as a function of the experiences we have, the culture we embrace, and, ultimately, the identity we choose”.

Blackface and whiteface in the time of Kamala Harris
Blackface and whiteface in the time of Kamala Harris

She does raise a pertinent point when she asks, “Was Michael Jackson Black? By the end of his life his skin was nearly white and many of his features had been altered in a way that made him look far less Black than he did as a boy, but nearly everyone would still respond to that question by saying, ‘Of course’.”

Unlike Harris’ mother, Dolezal’s parents were white evangelists. They were the first to expose her. On the surface, her pretence seemed harmless – altering her hair, telling stories about hunting for food, but it appears she had indeed internalised the blackness, “drawing self-portraits with the brown crayon instead of the peach crayon”. It was also a rejection of her privilege: “I knew that nothing about whiteness described who I was. At the same time, I felt it would have been an oversimplification to have simply said yes. After all, I didn’t identify as African American; I identified as Black. I also hadn’t been raised by Black parents in a Black community and understood how that might affect the perception of my Blackness. In fact, I grew up in a painfully white world, one I was happy to escape from when I left home for college, where my identity as a Black woman began to emerge.”

Among Dolazel’s rather bold moves was to pass off a black man as her father, who she later described as her spiritual mentor after the exposé. In the foreword to her book, Albert Wilkerson Jr, while conceding that he wasn’t aware that her parents were white, states that he is more upset “that all the work she was doing was suddenly in jeopardy, as her parents, employers, and colleagues all rushed to throw her under the bus. If this country had more people like Rachel who were concerned with doing good things for people and achieving equity for all, it would be a much better place to live and raise children”.

Can empathy not exist without becoming the other? Was it necessary for Dolezal to be black in her job as part-time professor of African Studies or as chapter president for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People? Is her exploration of “the discrimination she’s suffered while living as a black woman” more valid than of those who inherit these experiences?

Harris, too, could just as well have represented people who needed her as a lawyer without the halo of being the “first black” in positions of power. But, whenever she touches upon atrocities against blacks, she quickly provides a “not all whites” argument. She speaks about her role as district prosecutor being for the people, but history – and that includes recent events – is witness to how the American system is complicit in promoting racism.

In the 19th Century, white audiences wouldn’t even accept black entertainers on stage unless they performed in blackface makeup. It has just become more sophisticated today. Minority groups in the US have to live with the fear of some among them being co-opted by racists to mask the dangers of racism.

Kamala Harris as the second-most important person in America – and the world, Americans would have us believe – will be a black totem from the white perspective. Rachel Dolezal seems to have followed Plato’s belief that the mask which the actor wears is apt to become his face. Both remain fictions mimicking reality.

Farzana Versey is a Mumbai-based writer. She tweets at @farzana_versey


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