The confusing case of Rachel Dolezal

After nearly two days of labor, my daughter, Kiana, was born with a pout on her perfect, pink lips. Exhausted, I gazed at her long fingers and feet, and wondered if she'd be a pianist, like me (the answer is, no, at least, not so far). Mainly, though, I wanted to know if her pale skin color would be permanent, because it was a shock that my child was so very white.

Is "transracial" the next "transexual"? (photo of Rachel Dolezal via Facebook/Spokane NAACP)

She quickly became more beige than porcelain. I forgot how much lighter-skinned my daughter is than I am, though, until recently, when she told me that her high school classmates assumed one of her parents is white. She informed those who'd asked that both of her parents are black, and word got around, as it does in high school, and she became involved in a discussion about the things African Americans deal with. When she said she understood, one of her fellow black students dismissed her, saying she wasn't really black, perhaps because she also loves musical theater, has little grasp of Ebonics, and enjoys playing guitar while singing folky ballads.

This is a struggle I’ve dealt with myself. When I moved from Western Canada, where black people were relatively rare, to New York to study at Juilliard, I learned that I wasn't quite as “black” as I thought — I didn't know the slang, hadn't grown up listening to classic R&B, and didn't get some of the jokes. At least being at a conservatory helped me to avoid the view, held by wider black culture, that classical music isn't black — an opinion still held,  as evidenced in a recent series in Essence recognizing black classical musicians. I'm grateful that we're mentioned at all, having been ignored for years, but every piece comments on the performer's bona fides — that tenor Lawrence Brownlee, for example, grew up singing gospel in church.

Learning to love ourselves is difficult anyway, but it’s especially challenging when the wider world conveys messages, implicitly or explicitly, that there's something inherently negative or inferior about you. At the same time, though, redefining these identities as something positive (as in the Black Is Beautiful movement) can result in codes of conduct that straitjacket people just as completely. “Keeping it real” is another code for conforming to an urban stereotype of blackness.

The nature of passing

What does it mean to be perceived by others as belonging to a race different from the one indicated by the color of your skin and the texture of your hair? What does it mean to intentionally present yourself — or understand yourself — in such a way?

These questions are raised, obviously, by the recent discovery that Rachel Dolezal, former head of the Spokane NAACP, is not, in fact, black. Many black people who could pull it off have passed for white for obvious reasons, given the virulent racism that is woven into the fabric of American history. But a white woman passing for black, except to write a book about it (á la John Howard Griffin's Black Like Me), is a bit confusing.

There have always been wannabes — people who love the culture so much that they wear African clothing, listen to jazz (or hip-hop), use the slang, and hang around black people as much as possible. But rarely has someone tried, on a systematic basis, to invite the sometimes negative reaction that looking black all the time can create.

Cultural constraints

Are we constrained to participate only in the culture, and cultural roles, into which we are born, or do we have the right to define ourselves as we see fit? Our society is in the midst of figuring out how to relate and react to transgender people — we’re getting comfortable with the idea that sex is defined by biology, but gender is more complex. Is race a construct similar to gender? People who are transgender portray their identification as something they were born with. Does it make sense, though, that a white woman could be born identifying as black? Obviously not.

In Matt Lauer’s interview with Ms. Dolezal, she mentioned identifying as black since the age of five. When I was five, I ran around the house with a towel on my head, pretending it was my long, straight hair, but apparently Ms. Dolezal did the opposite, choosing to draw herself in shades of brown rather than peach.

A heritage of racism

Ms. Dolezal apparently did a great job revitalizing the Spokane chapter of the NAACP — an organization that was founded, in part, by white people. Could she have done her job just as well if she'd maintained her original straight blonde hair and light skin? Black people have developed an understandable sensitivity about white saviors. Would her previous incarnation have gotten a chance?

I am writing this on the anniversary of the 1944 date on which 14-year-old George Stinney, who was black, became the youngest person in American history to be executed in the electric chair, condemned to death by the state of South Carolina for killing two young white girls. Was he guilty? Southern black men died, both at the hands of the law and vigilante groups, for rapes and murders involving white victims that they didn't commit, so I have to wonder. Today, young black men are incarcerated for drug crimes at a disproportionate rate and with longer sentences compared to young white men. I don't think I even need to mention that the nation is finally considering whether or not black people are treated more harshly by the police.

There are real issues in this country related to race, and dynamic people who want to address them should be encouraged to do so. Honesty and transparency are important, but in the end, when the offense isn't criminal, I think that the commitment to the cause should be the paramount qualification. Underlying this, however, should be the bigger question of why race continues to matter so much. Sickle cell is real. Most of the other stuff, though, is constructed. Can we please just dismantle it?

Our readers respond

philman

of Philadelphia, PA on June 17, 2015

There are real questions about whether many of Ms. Dolezal's acts were indeed criminal: lying on applications, submitting what appear to be false reports of hate crimes, etc.

Benjamin Barnett

of Philadelphia, PA on June 17, 2015

This is indeed very confusing, based on the vastly different responses from the black and white community. (I see no comparison to Kaitlyn Jenner, by the way). I sense the black community is more confused than anybody. Chappelle's comment that she is more black than Clarence Thomas was appallingto some, but sadly— based on the endless attacks he has received from the black community— perhaps makes a lot of sense.
By most counts, many of Ms. Dolezal's actions appear to constitute fraud. This is hard to embrace or get past and is where I think most comments cease their analysis. To be perceived as black, she appears to have taken on the persona of an oppressed black person who lives the struggle. Maybe she has. If she is perceived as black, would she not have been treated as such? That said, she apparently lied on applications and in court cases about her family; she lied enough that she teaches college courses as if her experience is enough to justify her qualifications to teach the class. (I suppose  her students can sue the school now.)
Commitment to the cause? What truth is she speaking if she lied so much to get there in the first place? That's her paradox and I believe she knew this could blow up on her at anytime. She did it anyway.
I see this as perhaps the biggest racial teaching moment in our time, as it has finally opened up the dialogue with what you said: Why does race continue to matter so much?

Bob Levin

of Berkeley, CA on June 17, 2015

What's the big deal? Nobody cared when it was the Greek-parented Johnny ("As a kid I decided that if our society dictated that one had to be black or white, I would be black.") Otis. And he gave us "Willie and the Hand Jive."

Robert Zaller

of Bala Cynwyd, on June 17, 2015

Whites seem to regard Rachel Dolezal as a traitor to her race, and blacks as an interloper on theirs. Apparently, Ms. Dolezal has some identity issues— so did Simone Weil— but, surely, the question is whether she was doing her job well. Apparently she was, and so it is disappointing that none of her NAACP colleagues were willing to stick up for her. Ben Burns, the white, Jewish father of a friend of mine, was the editor of Ebony magazine, and was instrumental in its success. Was that wrong or fraudulent? Did Goodman or Schwerner usurp the place that belonged to black martyrs during Freedom Summer? Should Nelson Mandela have refused the services of the white lawyers who defended him? What the Dolezal case tells us is how high the barriers to inclusion remain in American society, and how terrified we remain of race "mixing."
 

Editor's Response

The difference between the examples you offer and the Dolezal case -- and it's a significant one -- is that none of those people presented themselves as being black. /Judy Weightman

Joseph Glantz

of Levittown, PA on June 17, 2015

I think Kareem Abdul Jabbar,who now admits he is only 5-foot-8, gets it right. Click here.

Tom Bissinger

of Pottstown, PA on June 17, 2015

This is the first commentary I've read where Dolezal's performance as head of NAACP was mentioned. Evidently, she was doing a great job. As long as I've been alive and aware (76 years), white people have belonged to the NAACP. Had she just been a member and not the head, would that have been OK? She stretched the parameters, told a few lies— not good, but again, she doesn't appear to be a wannabe. So why is everybody's knickers in a twist? I think her coming out is good for the debate about racism. And by the way, isn't there just one race, the human race, into which we are all divided into tribes or sub-tribes?

Author's Response

I only know about Rachel Dolezal from reading about her and watching her interviews. With each new bit of information, it becomes increasingly clear that she has decided that all the world's a stage, and she is both the star and the playwright in her personal drama, so she might as well be creative. Or maybe her inspiration was Paul Laurence Dunbar, who wrote (of black people), "We wear the mask that grins and lies." The thing is, there was a time, not too long ago, when someone could be seen as a positive figure by the public, even hailed, while carrying on a private life that would have resulted in widespread censure. JFK was an example. More recently, we've discovered a lot about Dennis Hastert, who had a lot more influence than Ms. Dolezal. There are many similar examples.
I agree with my friends who commented that the fascination with Rachel Dolezal is "gossipy," and that the current discourse tends to draw attention away from life-and-death issues. That said, it's frustrating that so few BSR readers are picking up that Rachel Dolezal isn't my ultimate point— it's that we need to ask ourselves why race matters so much. 

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