Rachel Dolezal & Free-flowing Appropriation

In a perfect world, a White woman like Rachel Dolezal would be free to reference a Black beauty aesthetic without any push-back. We do it all the time.

But the reality of living Black and female is often too difficult to bear the thought of such a free-flowing, cross-cultural appreciation. In these most-racial times, we’ve had it up to here with Dolezal’s adventures in blackness and failure to grasp the perversion of her appropriation.

Here’s the reality that lies beneath her suntanned surface: Black women are broke. We’re unhealthy. We’re lucky if our babies’ daddies live with the 72 percent of our children born outside the supposed security of marriage. We flood classrooms, yet we can’t rely on our education to actually help us get the job. When we do, we can’t count on sponsors to step up when we’ve been performing in all due excellence to help us find our way to executive ranks. And, really, it doesn’t matter because we don’t have feelings anyway — supposedly — and can rely on OKCupid’s annual survey to let us know we’re not desirable.

Now that we’ve laughed till we’ve cried about the tragicomedy that is Dolezal, the disgraced Spokane, Washington, former civil rights leader outed by her White parents for living in Blackface in earnest for at least a decade, let’s tackle some underlying assumptions. The real issue is why a White woman, with all the privilege and access that entails, would ever don the skin and aesthetic of a Black woman, the proverbial mule of the world, to quote Zora Neale Hurston. It’s thoroughly OK to:

  • Appropriate a Black aesthetic through look and language, and pass it off as one’s own to Iggy Azalean proportions
  • Bask in the celebration of a brave, fresh new ’do a la Bo Derek’s cornrows, the original skin against Blackness for many.
  • Evoke the pose of the Hottentot Venus, a.k.a. Saartjie Baartman, and break the Internet like Kim Kardashian. During that shoot, did anyone consider why it’s acceptable to celebrate Kardashian for physical proportions simultaneously ridiculed, sexualized, ignored (or rendered grotesque in Baartman’s case) when draped in Black skin? Nevermind.

So deep goes the dismissal of the Black woman’s physical gifts to the world, even Black women have fallen this false narrative. Every day African-American women worship at the altar of the White woman’s beauty ideal, spending a fortune to attach a semblance of her long, flowing and often blonde locks to their nappy or relaxed heads. It costs a small fortune to keep up the cost of weaving the hair of another woman, Indian, if you’re investing in the “good” stuff, to maintain an aesthetic deriving from White women, who, by virtue of the status whiteness confers, serve as the beauty default.

I give us credit, though, for persistently trying to figure it out and reinvent a model that fits. In fact, relaxer sales are declining in the $774 million (and growing) Black haircare industry, according to Mintel, and two-thirds of Black women report wearing a natural style (no color nor extensions) in the past year.

In certain African countries, women bleach their skin to dangerous proportions, leaving them looking ghost-like with a paper-thin countenance. So much was the rejection of natural Black beauty in Senegal when I visited Dakar a few years ago, middle-class women would rather wear motley, straight-hair wigs than figure out how to honor their natural, God-given hair. (And I thought that trip to the Motherland would make me feel more confident about my looks. Pish tosh.) Though, I was pleased to travel last week to Johannesburg and Cape Town to find Black women a tad more likely to don cornrows, twists and braids, as they were a weave.

Some will argue that the weavy wonder is a choice. After all, the beauty of being a woman is transformation through our hirsute and sartorial choices. Psychologically speaking, I’d argue Black women are the ones who’ve gone mental in feeling bad about ourselves when between appointments as new growth starts to spread across our scalps like slow-growing kudzu till we can chemically straighten it into conformity or weave it up into oblivion.

As a Black woman who wears cultivated dreadlocks, I’ve had conversations with young Black women who swear I can get away with this look because I have “good hair.” I always respond by telling them, “It’s all good hair.” And please ask as many questions as necessary to get to the place where they feel they can wear their naturally kinky hair in confidence.

Such a place surely exists as it certainly does for White women who wash ’n’ go daily because it comes naturally. It’s a lifestyle that allows them to be healthier because they’re not over-investing in hairstyles that can’t touch water or are damaged by physical activity such as jogging, as is the case with many Black women’s hairstyles.

Hiding between the lines of hilarious tweets is the fact Black women reference and revere the White woman’s beauty aesthetic on a daily basis. So what if Dolezal isn’t a culturally confused sociopath, but someone who is on to something? If all things were equal, why wouldn’t women reference aesthetics cross-culturally in all transparence and respect?

To be sure, despite all the negative indicators, living in Black skin is not the all-purpose terrible thing the data suggests, especially when we’re surrounded by love, culture, opportunity and the chance to make a difference every day, as Dolezal found.

And while there’s no question what she did is wrong and creepy, as a thought-experiment, it’s certainly compelling to consider White women could borrow from a Black woman’s beauty ideal and feel amplified, elevated and celebrated with no negative blowback.


Deborah Douglas is a Chicago-based writer.