Upon the French liberation from the Nazis in mid-1940’s there was, essentially, a witch-hunt conducted by the public. Women seen as collaborators, abettors, sympathizers with the Germans–serving as informants, prostitutes, acquaintances–were rounded-up by the public for essentially a trial by public decree. These women, some of whom may have formed these varied types of relationships under duress, coercion, threat or need for survival in an uncertain war, were summarily rounded up in their homes, local prisons, courts and, even, town squares; each meted out with a similar punishment: a shaven head and, on occasion, a branding of the Nazi swastika. According to historians, for three years–from 1943-1946–nearly 20,000 women were rounded up like this, for crimes (political affiliation; personal relationships; financial benefits) that were essentially reduced to infiltration, betrayal, and deceit. Some of these women their various types of unmasking and perceived duplicity dealt with a set of shears and a choir of spectators with little rigorous inclination to understand many of the accused’s motivations, culpability or accountability in many instances.
These transactional relationships that the women conducted were enough by anyone’s estimation were tantamount to societal war crimes, the trading of resources, relationships and identity the closest thing to domestic espionage in most of these French towns and villages.
There’s the dictionary definition of ‘espionage’–“the practice of spying or of using spies”–that doesn’t wholly capture its nature and intent; the silent destabilization of community(ies) through covert infiltration of relationships and information. It’s access in the most transactional sense, and in the last week or so we’ve seen several examples of domestic espionage at work.
When Rachel Dolezal finally resurfaced after spending weeks being harassed in the pubic and social media ‘spheres for her conspicuous unmasking, she did so in the most meta way possible: she appeared on BET‘s black female talk show, The Real. There, in plain sight of an all-black audience, flanked on a couch by the show’s black female co-hosts, Dolezal, now several months pregnant, took her latest upbraiding in stride. After answering so many questions about her identity and the carousel of emotions it elicited–excitement, embarrassment, confusion, anger and that most noxious emotion, betrayal–she seemed less at peace on the show; she seemed decidedly more resigned. The segment, unsurprisingly, feels less like an interview and more like a revisited autopsy, maybe even an exhumation. The public has largely moved past Dolezal at this point; I think by most people’s estimation she’d already been (rightly or wrongly) unmasked, which makes her choice to appear on the show all the more bewildering.
This is best seen in the tone and hues of the segment: after being asked if she ever felt as if she deceived anyone (to which she confidently answers “no”) one of the show’s other co-hosts, Loni Love, visibly agitated and over the ruse of not only the line of questioning but also probably the interviewee, leans into Rachel, whose bronzed, blue and buxom-y appearance makes her look like a deposed Texas pageant queen than a decades-long civil rights leader and activist, and says, “…when did you identify yourself as being black? Was it a year, was it when you were little…?”, a type of chronological cross-examination that’s not meant to actually pinpoint an epiphany but catch her in a deliberate, conscious lie. What Rachel fails to realize as she dutifully answers (“it was about 1996”) to the throng of hosts and onlookers in the audience, is that there’s no just answer to something you can wholly never own–blackness.
The social, political and emotional constructs that go into the formation of a racial identity isn’t something to be adopted, and you come to realize that Rachel found and perhaps likened, blackness to religion: a respite and sanctuary from her more besieged white childhood; an epiphany, an awakening that solace, survival and alignment could be found by accepting and adopting a community that perhaps mirrored the experiences she’d endured while also representing the hope that things could actually get better. You get the sense that Rachel Dolezal’s journey, in her perspective, was never anything as calculating as infiltration or deceit (one of the first questions she’s asked by The Real)–for her she’d probably felt she was essentially hiding in plain sight; not within the black community so much as away from her white family.
In the brief segment on The Real though, everyone gets in on their feelings about the matter as Loni continues on… “’cause you in my house, let’s get real now” and it’s a line of questioning that reveals what so many have also felt: that the transformation of ‘White Rachel’ to ‘Black Rachel’ was a beguiling, devilish mask, and it so the hosts are tasked with the nasty duty of throwing Holy Water on her in the form of questions, each one melting away Dolezal who eventually says to uproarious applause, “…I was born to biologically white parents, I am biologically white….”. It’s an admittance that makes it hard to tell if it’s an exoneration of her guilt or our glee in breaking her down. By any measure though, Dolezal was ultimately, successfully, outed as a seeming spy in our midst; someone who’d managed to get ‘inside’ and learn and share in our most intimate fears, vulnerabilities and successes. Someone who intimately spoke truth to the experiences and travails of so many African-Americans, but couldn’t have come from more wildly different circumstances. Her admittance, and her defeat, allowed us all to unmask her, almost Scooby-Doo style (“Why, she was Little White Midwestern Rachel all along!”).
We’ll never get back what it was felt like what people feel like she stole–the scholarships to schools; the formal and informal positions she’d earned in the community; the trust of so many–but there is the perception that something’s been gotten back by having her lose so much–blackness, identity, her role, her leadership–as sufficient repayment. The Real represented what we do best in society: we break things down, we extract more payment; we make it all precise to the point of being transactional. To be drug out in public and repeatedly verbally flogged was merely the cost of doing (bad) business. It’s ultimately not justice; it’s transactional.
The whole episode ultimately reminded me of one of the climatic scenes in Malena, the 2000 Italian film starring Monica Belucci as a widower who chooses to change allegiances and essentially identities in order to survive not only the Nazi invasion and seeming inevitable success, but in order to maintain some vestige of pride and station in life. When the tide inevitably turns, when her village realizes not only what she’s done, but who she’s done it with, she’s summarily dragged out into the town square to be beaten and humiliated, her crimes repaid twice fold as they heap a debt on her that seems to (at times literally) strip of her everything she’d worked to gain the last few years. Everything hinges on bringing all this to plain sight, despite the fact that she, like Rachel, had been there in plain sight all along.
At the heart of the Dolezal case is the idea of mistrust for having been duped for so long; that, for decades now, we’d let someone into our community, into our house, without knowing that they were deceiving us the entire time. You get the sense over time that the word isn’t entirely deceit that we’re looking for when discussing Rachel Dolezal, it’s infiltration–that under the cover of blackness, she slipped right inside and nested herself amongst us. Another analogous example for her case might actually be Barry Bonds–like Bonds, no one necessarily thinks it means that the work that she’s done should be invalidated, but that in her quest to do great work, along the way she inadvertently (or intentionally depending on the color of your feelings) took the spot of someone more deserving, honest, and pure. Like Bonds, also familiar with an endless public trial about the purity of one’s blood, at the end of the day the work may at least need to be marked with an asterisk.
Rachel Doleszal’s situation seems like it would have been ripe for investigation by the Demographics Unit, a NYPD investigative/intelligence unit that sounds like something borne out of Minority Report or the dystopian government of The Hunger Games. Only recently decommissioned in 2014, the Demographics Unit was borne out of post-9/11 USA; a unit explicitly tasked with monitoring the activities of Muslim citizens, watching anything and everything about what local Islam-practicing citizens did with their time, ranging from what TV shows they watched, to their social circles, to even where they get haircuts. A recent particular episode involving the now-defunct division involved “Mel”; a woman that infiltrated the local college’s Muslim community under the guise of finding Islam.
For years, it’s reported, Mel–a “light-skinned, dark-haired woman appearing to be in her 20’s”–was “Melike Ser”, a woman unattached to not only the school community and a community to call her own. In a public declaration of epiphany, Melike claimed to be ready to embrace the culture, religion and life that came with Islam to a crowd of Muslim college students, and from there, spent four years inside their homes, their community, their thoughts and their secrets. She became one of them, even going as far as being a bridesmaid in a wedding of one of the women she’d befriended.
Four years later, as Noelle Velentzas and Asia Siddiqui, were arrested and charged with allegedly planning to build a bomb, it was revealed that Melike Ser–“Mel” to her trusting Muslim friends and community she’d nested at that point–was actually an undercover NYPD cop who’d actually been conducting a series of surveil on people; Velentzas and Siddiqui didn’t meet Ser until several years into her deep-cover mission. For years, Ser sat, ate, talked, conversed and formed relationships with innocent people who’d taken her in–literally and figuratively–without any clear, deliberate target(s) she was after.
She instead, amassed a wealth of information about the community, and in the subsequent arrest of the two women, while evidence can’t be disclosed speaking to the extent to which “Mel” potentially participated, coerced, suggested, steered or informed these women about their actions or planning, the wider circle of folks she befriended–who had amassed some growing skepticism about Mel’s actual intentions and honesty–the entirety of the experience reminded the many, many unwitting participants in her deep-cover case about the uneasiness of the stereotyped American in the presumptive post- 9/11 and -racial country.
One Muslim woman’s quote sums up the the double-view and experiences of being inside-and-outside of the intersections of identity, infiltration and espionage, and the lack of clarity that drives anyone to inject themselves into communities, obscure their identities and hide in plain sight:
“But in the back of all our minds, there’s always that suspicion, that either, you are [a spy], or you think I’m one….We’re acting like criminals, even though we haven’t done anything.”