Friday, June 19, 2015

Performing Race... A little Too Well: Nightly Show Satirizes Black Community Views on Rachel Dolezal

If you are teaching a media studies, sociology or arts course that considers theories of race, identity or performativity, and you don't take time to discuss the Rachel Dolezal NAACP fiasco in the news, well, then either your syllabus is too rigid or you are a fool. Fortunately, we suffer fools gladly at ML4ML, and have just the clip to kick you into a wisely foolish discussion of this fascinating case of a woman born of White parents, who identifies as Black, and became the Vice President of the Spokane, WA chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. As you watch the clip below, consider using the following analysis prompts:
  • What are the three settings/personas selected to represent the views from the Black community, and what aspects or archetypes of Black culture do they satirize?
  • How do the correspondents question or support the host's race identity/performance at the end of the clip, and what do these jokes have to say about how we judge racial authenticity?

For a second viewing, consider these prompts:
  • What does the Black Emergency Technician's focus on Dolezal's hair say about the performance of race?
  • What are the White Amnesty Advocate's arguments for accepting the "world's first Black convert" on a "path to Black citizenship," what makes them funny, and how do they relate to real issues and views?
  • How does the White-Black-Woman Hunter's claim that "this is a conspiracy that white people have been hiding for years... fake Black people are everywhere" relate to reality?
Learners are likely to have strong reactions to the Dolezal story. I suggest asking all to write down their opinions of her situation in response to a straight news clip or in depth article about the fiasco, and then to phrase their opinions in the form of a question. This can take the sting out of some inflammatory views, and sometimes turn strong reactions into curiosity [but be prepared to redirect persistent confrontational simplifications, like "Why is she so crazy?"]. Then, once everyone has a basic idea of the news story, take a look at some comedy versions, like the Daily Show and Nightly Show, to see what is funny to people and why. 
"You can’t just appropriate persecution just because it’s ‘cool...
We don’t need oppression cosplay. We need allies, not replacements.”

--Jessica Williams (left), Daily Show Correspondent 
I think it's important to privilege Black comics' views (and news sources) in this inquiry since Black identity has been subjugated historically, and dominant media representations are still ultimately controlled predominantly by wealthy white men. It's also key to consider Dolezal's own voice, and the NAACP organizational response. Then, if it suits your learning situation, it'd be great to look at this news story, and its satirical critiques, through lenses of identity theories, which I have found to be useful to learners in discussing race.

However, I'd be a bit wary in how I'd use this clip in relation to performative identity theories; I'd guess that learners might easily conflate performance with lying, or pretending, as many may see Dolezal as consciously putting on airs to deceive. To help give learners some language and concepts for discussion and analysis of the issues raised by this news story, I'd probably use a cocktail of Stuart Hall's notion of race as floating signifier and racial permutations of Judith Butler's gender performativity theory (or research like this), balanced by more pop culture and biological perspectives as explored by Henry Louis Gates, Jr.'s Finding Your Roots series on PBS.

How do you feel about using humor to address this issue? [Doesn't it seem inevitable?] How would you design inquiry and discussion of the Rachel Dolezal news story?

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