Why it was so easy for Rachel Dolezal to slip into black skin
So let’s talk about Rachel Dolezal. You may already know the basics of Dolezal’s case: she’s the 37-year-old head of the NAACP chapter in Spokane, Washington; a professor of Africana studies at Eastern Washington University; and—here’s where it gets kinda bananas—a white woman who has been passing as a black woman for years.
We know this not because of any misstep Dolezal made—she was essentially flawless in executing her ruse—but because her biological parents, from whom she’s been estranged for years, decided to go on television and announce it. Dolezal, as it turns out, isn’t actually African American at all, but German, Czech and Swedish, with a hint of Native American in there somewhere. In other words, the Rachel Dolezal story is a lot like Black Like Me, brought to actual 2015 life.
The whole thing might be a non-story if our long and twisted history of passing, which has roots that can be traced back to our country’s very foundation, weren’t understood to operate in only one direction. Some very fair black people, as a refuge from racism and persecution, have passed for a long time. Theophilus John McKee lived as a white man for four decades before his blackness was uncovered in 1948. This discovery may have helped kill him, considering he died of heart failure around five months after word got out. Writer Anatole Broyard only revealed his years of passing to his children on his deathbed. James Meredith had to have the National Guard protect him when he integrated Ole Miss in 1962, but the joke was on those dumb racists: Harry S. Murphy (who briefly passed for white and enrolled in the school from 1945-’46) had already attended the college undetected.
But Dolezal confounds our understanding of how passing is supposed to work. How many white people, given anonymity, would take the opportunity to become black? For the most part, even peddlers of the most bullshit “post-racial” and “colorblind” philosophies would opt to remain white, if they answered honestly. White privilege is a precious commodity.
Which is why Dolezal fascinates us. She flipped the script, and instead was committed to being black, going to great pains to make it so. This is a woman who attended Howard University, a historically black college, on full scholarship to earn her MFA. (Though new reports suggest she hadn’t yet begun passing during her time there.) Her art, if her blog offers any insight into her larger body of work, is almost singularly focused on representations of blackness and messages of anti-racism.
I don’t doubt that Dolezal loved her black ex-husband (you would have to love someone to forgive them for writing you this love song), but their marriage definitely fit neatly with the rest of the package. She adopted her African-American brothers, who had originally been adopted by her parents, and began calling them her sons. Her Twitter, which is @HarlmRenaissanc because of course it is, is filled with Langston Hughes quotes and positive womanist aphorisms. She kept up her tan unfailingly. And as Kara Brown noted at Jezebel, she must’ve spent a small fortune making her hair into a flawless version of every natural hairstyle known to black womanhood.
And it worked, at least for a few years. Dolezal, like Black Like Me’s John Howard Griffin, couldn’t change her blue eyes, but it actually didn’t matter. She presented as a convincing fair-skinned African-American woman because there are plenty of bonafide black Americans who look like Dolezal. Our nation’s legacy of slave rape, of hidden miscegenation that produced babies who looked an awful lot like the master, of secret relationships that ended with black men strung from trees—you know, the things so many of us like to pretend never happened just because we have a black president—all of these things have yielded African Americans of every hue and skin tone. Dolezal knew that racism requires whiteness be fragile, rendering anything that deviates even slightly from white—that falls under the one drop rule—non-white. Turning black was easy, a skin she could slip into, because the signage of blackness is so easily acquired. White supremacy couldn’t maintain itself without exclusivity. A deep tan and a perm (and on a few occasions, locs and braids) was enough to get herself pitched out of the most elite club.
Dolezal has spent the last few years performing blackness, a role to which she was welcomed by unknowing members of the black community. (If black privilege or even reverse racism were real, entry would have eluded her.) Ask anyone who believes in respectability politics—the absurd idea that if (mostly) black people would just do the work of being whiter, racism would disappear—if that magic trick would work for the majority of African Americans.
Or better yet, ask any black millionaire if racism has ceased to exist. You cannot “whiten up” because real whiteness is only for white people in this country. A key part of our history of passing for white is that it could get you killed; it was a very high-risk, high-yield investment. Playing at being white, gaming the system to take advantage of privilege that was meant to be off limits to you, was tremendously dangerous. To make extra certain that no people with even one drop of black blood were able to access that privilege, a number of states passed laws narrowing the definition of whiteness, including the Virginia Racial Integrity Act in 1924. The effects of those laws are still with us today. I am a “light-skinned” black woman and I guarantee you, were I to suddenly declare myself white tomorrow, an awful lot of (white) people would have serious problems with the idea, and possibly consider me insane.
Which is why this notion of transracialism, a made-up term that’s surfaced in the wake of Dolezal’s story, is so ridiculous. Social media is currently full of attempts to equate Dolezal’s situation with that of Caitlyn Jenner. Conservatives, who never bought into this whole “trans” thing anyway, have wondered aloud (mostly to be provocative) why, if Caitlyn Jenner is a woman, Rachel Dolezal can’t be black. But Caitlyn Jenner didn’t just become a woman; as a trans person, she has been a woman for as long as she can remember. She’s finally taken the step of having her exterior self correlate with who she always knew she was inside. Rachel Dolezal, until some number of years ago, was white: a person who identified as white, with a strong appreciation for blackness and black culture. But you cannot translate a love of a culture into a completely revamped identity. To pretend that one can merely snap her fingers and become black is silly.
Not to mention audacious. And a sign of privilege itself. How ballsy is it not only to pretend to be black, but to wield it as part of what makes you ideal to head up your local NAACP? (For the record, the NAACP is an interracial organization; Dolezal could have held the position without the whole performance.) There’s been a lot of writing on cultural appropriation and cooptation over the last few years, but Dolezal’s story is a version of both that sounds so outlandish on its face it would be funny if the whole thing weren’t so troubling. You cannot just make someone else’s oppression your own because you are a passionate ally (that’s actually doing the ally thing all wrong).
Part of what led to the investigation of Dolezal’s background were her repeated claims of racial harassment over the years. I would never, ever wish that anyone be subjected to racism, but I will say that I deeply and sincerely hope Dolezal didn’t make up those claims to bolster her claims to black authenticity. That would do a tremendous disservice to us all, especially those of us who live with the real, unchosen—and often disbelieved—consequences of racism.
I believe Rachel Dolezal started off as a white woman who had a deep and real interest in African-American arts and culture, in social justice, in being a principled adherent to the tenets of civil rights. And then something went off the rails. I cannot speak to the ruptures that seem to have occurred alongside her decision to “become black”—her refusal to speak to her family, and her continued insistence that she wants nothing to with them. For all any of us know, they could be wonderful parents who have done nothing wrong, or monsters with a daughter who made a terribly misguided attempt to escape her past. I do not know Dolezal’s mental state, and I’m pretty sure the publications I’ve seen speculating about it should probably just stop it right there.
But what we can say is that Dolezal’s advocacy for black people and black culture didn’t have to be done from within black skin. And the assumption that it could be so easily forged, that she could speak to the experience of life as a black person (and here I mean literally; Dolezal often lectured on this stuff as if it were taken from her own background) without ever actually having had it, is offensive. And ironically, able to do less good. The sad reality of race in this country is that many white people tend to listen to and believe other white people more on matters of race and anti-racism than they do people of color. Rachel Dolezal would actually be a more effective voice against racism in her own white, privileged skin.
I’m not sure what Rachel Dolezal’s next steps are, but hopefully, they involve becoming herself again, and sharing the ideals she seems to believe in, which so many people could benefit from learning about. Only this time, as her real, authentic self.