There’s been a lot of outrage directed at Rachel Dolezal, the civil rights activist recently outed for “passing” as a black woman. But some of us are scratching our heads trying to figure out why Dolezal’s particular case has evoked such anger when she’s simply doing what has been standard in American culture for years: hijacking aspects of black culture, and black beauty in particular, reaping the rewards while black women with the same attributes rarely do.
According to reports, and accompanying photos, as part of her alleged fraud, Dolezal tanned her skin and braided her hair. So in other words she’s like a zillion white female celebrities. Jennifer Aniston recently noted in an interview that she needed a tanning “intervention” to let go of her obsession with darkening herself. She is far from alone in Hollywood where spray tans have become as ubiquitous on red carpets as spanx.
As for the braid craze, celebs like Christina Aguilera, Paris Hilton, Gwen Stefani, and Fergie have all rocked them. Doing so got them noticed for being cool or edgy. Yet they still can’t hold a candle to the most famous cornrow wearer of all-time: Bo Derek. The image of Derek sporting blonde cornrows is one of the most iconic and recognizable in Hollywood history. Meanwhile, black women have been sporting cornrows forever.
And therein lies the rub, as they say. Consistently when white women, particularly famous ones, adopt a beauty attribute predominantly seen in minority culture, all of sudden what was once seen as odd is suddenly seen as beautiful. Perhaps the most obvious modern day example is the rise of Kardashian Inc. or rather the rise of the Kardashian derriere.
Vogue and Vanity Fair both did tributes to big backsides. But only after the Kardashians and glamour model Jen Selter—all white—gained notoriety. Apparently big butts were not in until they started being celebrated by white women and the men who love them, not merely when they were celebrated by black culture.
It’s not that I believe that white women shouldn’t be allowed to adopt whatever hairstyles they choose, or to celebrate their curves along with the rest of us, but there is something jarring about the fact that it took our culture so long to see someone who looks like Lupita N’Yongo as beautiful while the same culture has been rewarding wealthy white women for getting darker for years.
Which brings me back to Dolezal. Ultimately Bo Derek’s famous hairstyle was just that: a hairstyle that made her more famous than she would have ever been without it. I’ve never heard her attach any cultural meaning to the experience of wearing a hairstyle linked with cultural identity in the black community. Similarly, I’ve never heard the Kardashians pay homage to the women who came before them. Women like Sarah Baartman, the African woman whose large posterior made her an object of ridicule and exploitation in the 19th century. For the Kardashians celebrating big butts is a means to an end, more specifically a means to a paycheck.
At least Dolezal celebrated, and possibly exploited, black beauty as a means to educate others on our culture and to potentially uplift our culture. Should her dishonesty make her a subject of ridicule? Absoutely. But of outrage? I don’t think so.