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What Ijeoma Oluo’s Interview With Rachel Dolezal Reveals About White Privilege

3 minute read
Hopper is a former Ideas Editor for TIME.

A new interview in The Stranger by the writer Ijeoma Oluo is making the viral rounds. Oluo, who regularly writes about race and culture and is the author of The Badass Feminist Coloring Book, spoke with Rachel Dolezal, even though Oluo had sworn off using Dolezal anymore as a lens for examining black women’s identity. Oluo wrote that she surprised herself by agreeing to the assignment.

The conversation began with Dolezal asking whether Oluo had read In Full Color: Finding My Place in a Black and White World, the book Dolezal published in March as an examination of her own racial identity, after having been “outed” in 2015 for being white. Oluo had read the book. Dolezal, who maintains that she is black, seemed relieved.

But if Dolezal felt that her book should explain all Oluo could want to know, she soon learned she was wrong. Oluo’s resulting article is a treatise on how white privilege has extended so far that white people feel as if they can call themselves black.

Throughout the story, Oluo, who describes herself as “a giant black woman,” depicts Dolezal as almost vampiric in her need to stay in the shadows — Dolezal literally says she wishes to be photographed out of the sun so that her skin looks darker. Except she’s not a specter of fiction, she’s real. More revealing than the sun, though, are Oluo’s expositions of how Dolezal’s understandings of race are misinformed, and so commonly held that they’ve become clichés.

Oluo writes: “You can be extremely light-skinned and still be black, but you cannot be extremely or even moderately dark-skinned and be treated as white — ever.” She writes that “passing” as black out of “inspiration” is far from equal to passing as white for survival.

Oluo comes to describe Dolezal’s story as “the ultimate ‘you can be anything’ success story of white America. Another branch of manifest destiny.” She later writes:

And with that, the anger that I had toward her began to melt away. Dolezal is simply a white woman who cannot help but center herself in all that she does—including her fight for racial justice. And if racial justice doesn’t center her, she will redefine race itself in order to make that happen. It is a bit extreme, but it is in no way new for white people to take what they want from other cultures in the name of love and respect, while distorting or discarding the remainder of that culture for their comfort.

In this, Oluo finds comfort: “Maybe now that I’ve seen the unoriginality of it all, even with my sister’s name that she has claimed as her own, she will haunt me no more and simply blend into the rest of white supremacy that I battle every day.”

The full article is a must-read.

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