By the time you read this, perhaps the disturbing story of Rachel Dolezal, the prevaricating White woman who passed for Black, led the Spokane NAACP, and wove a web of elaborate lies, would have receded from media headlines. Probably not. I expect additional disclosures, a book, and a reality show. While most African Americans have concluded that Dolezal is a mentally impaired liar, too many Caucasians, obsessed with race, are likely to give this story legs.
Meanwhile, there are millions of African American women who are rendered invisible by the media. If Matt Lauer wants to focus on the women in the NAACP, he ought to interview Roslyn Brock, the chair of the NAACP board. If he wants to look at the women who lead organizations, he should focus on Melanie Campbell (National Coalition for Black Civic Participation) or Sherilyn Ifill (NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund). These women can add substance, not sensationalist fluff, to a conversation about women and race.
Where is the 15-minute interview of Dajerria Becton, the teenager who, bikini-clad, was brutally dragged by her hair at a Texas pool party? Where is the follow-up on Renisha McBride, the teen who was killed by a crazed White man from behind his locked screen door? When have any of the African American women in Congress been featured in the lengthy interviews that others in Congress routinely get? Admittedly, lengthy profiles don’t happen often, but when they do happen, African American women certainly aren’t the focus of them.
The presence of African American women in media is much improved in some respects from just a decade ago. MSNBC anchor Melissa Harris-Perry brings a welcome approach to issues, Gayle King and Tamron Hall diversify a morning news lineup that was once far more homogeneous, and Gwen Ifill bring a necessary gravitas to evening news, and Donna Brazile is an important part of the ‘commentariat.’ While those who bring the news are more diverse, the content of news is much less so, and frivolous sensationalism is often given more visibility than substance.
African American women are also ignored by our natural allies, the White women who lead women’s organizations. To be sure, we can count on NOW’s Terry O’Neill to be an advocate for social and economic justice issues. She has been a reliable ally to the Rainbow PUSH Coalition, a regular presence on Rev. Jesse Jackson’s radio program (disclosure – I’ve been on the program with her on occasion), and a supportive force at national conventions. Still, Roland Martin was right to take her on regarding her silence around the way Dajerria Becton was brutalized. Truth be told, NOW should also be chastised for the many ways African American women, and our issues, are ignored by the nation’s premier women’s organization. In the words of Sojourner Truth, “Ain’t I a woman?”
Now that the Treasury Department has agreed that a woman will be on the U.S. currency by 2020, and Treasury Secretary Jack Lew is seeking input on which women through a Treasury department website. A self-described grassroots organization called Women on 20s delivered a petition to President Obama in May, calling for a woman to appear on the $20 bill. Of the 600,000 people who signed the petition, the most people selected Harriet Tubman to appear on the bill, with Eleanor Roosevelt being the second choice. Wouldn’t it be great if majority women’s organizations pushed for an African American woman to grace our currency? It would certainly go a long way toward recognizing instead of ignoring Black women.
The United Nations has designated 2015-2024 the International Decade for People of African Descent. The theme of the decade is recognition, justice and development. The U.N. General Assembly has released a resolution that includes objectives and a program of activities for the decade. What if the media spent as much time on this as they have spent on a troubled imposter? To the extent that women of African descent around the globe experience similar histories and oppressions, such coverage could be informative and educational.
Because African American women are too often invisible (or underrepresented) in the media and elsewhere, it is especially galling to watch the endless Dolezal coverage. Are African American only interesting when we are being portrayed by a confused wannabe Black woman? What about the real Black women? And what about asking African American women what they think about this nonsense to get interesting perspectives on this sideshow?
What about looking at the ‘passing’ phenomenon from an African American perspective (nobody knows how many African Americans passed for Caucasian to gain access to opportunities, educational and financial, during the Jim Crow days)? If Rachel Dolezal’s chicanery is to be covered by the media, it ought at least be placed in context. Sojourner Truth said: “I have plowed, and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And aren’t I a woman?”
Dolezal has neither plowed nor planted. Her hijinks should be ignored, not glorified.
(Julianne Malveaux is a Washington, D.C.-based author and economist. She can be reached at www.juliannemalveaux.com.)