Racially “passing” or “ performing ‘whiteness ” in America is older than the United States itself. While such a transgression might have any number of unseen psychological or emotional tolls on African Americans, the potential material gains from passing for white have been historically obvious. Much less obvious – except in the fictional domain of the C Thomas Howell film Soul Man – is why someone would want to “pass” in the other direction and voluntarily take on the weight of racial oppression. Especially this year .
And yet Rachel Dolezal, the president of the Spokane branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People had been passing herself off as mixed race with an African-American father for years, until she was outed as white by her parents this week. (When asked whether her parents were white, she refused to answer ).
Dolezal – who appears to have looked about as white as a white woman can be before she started passing herself off as mixed – was also a professor of African American Studies at Eastern Washington University who posed with Maryland prosecutor Marilyn Mosby, complained that the film The Help was, “A white woman [making] millions off of a black woman’s story,” and even gave a lecture on black hair.
As the theologian Broderick Greer tweeted , “only a white person could get this much attention for being black” – and only a white woman could get this much attention for being a black woman during a week when the national conversation finally turned to police violence directed at black women after video surfaced of a 14-year-old black girl terrorized by police in McKinney, Texas.
I have zero personal insight into why Dolezal chose to perform race as she did. But the reason that her story is so fascinating to me and to the rest of the world is that it exposes in a disquieting way that our race is performance – that, despite the stark differences in how our races are perceived and privileged (or not) by others, they are all predicated on a myth that the differences are intrinsic and intrinsically perceptible. As Greer wrote , Dolezal “shows us how stupid the construct of ‘race’ is. It can get you killed and it can get you an NAACP presidency.”
Not everyone has a conscious choice in performing race, or which race they’re allowed to perform. But from European colonialism to American chattel slavery, the idea that race is an immutable characteristic is a social and historical construct – one that has real economic and mortal consequences which have already lasted for generations, but one that is a mass delusion all the same.
As the mixed child of black and white parents, aunts and uncles, and grandparents, I have experienced and witnessed the ways in which being white or black or mixed shapes our experiences of America. There are shared familial experiences, of course, in being connected to black relatives orraising black children , as Dolezal seems to have done.
But the individual experience is very different. I’ll never forget how my white mother, Margaret, tried to handle the weight of racism to which she was subjected early in her marriage to my black father. She understood it to some degree already: she was arrested for prostitution on their first date and was expelled from college for continuing to see him. But the day-in, day-out of everyday racism wore on her so, one day, she decided to go by herself to eat lunch alone near Niagara Falls, to enjoy the carefree nature of being white and treated with respect by waiters. She only indulged the feeling once, and seemed forever to feel guilty about thereafter. But she understood that option to remove racism from a moment of her life was open to her in a way it never would be to her husband and her children, and that made her experience of race in America – even connected to a black family and subjected to the runoff of racism – a fundamentally different one.
We’ll likely never know Dolezal’s reasons for passing herself off as black – whether it was somehow out of the love for the adopted brother whom she raised, the opportunities in the civil rights movement of which she took advantage, or some mental illness through which she believed, as strongly as she wanted others to believe, that she really was African American and the biological child of the black man she told people was her father. Many are, and may remain, put off by the sight of a seemingly fair-skinned white woman who passed herself off as a light-skinned African American woman and became a local leader in one of the nation’s most venerable black civil rights group. But like it or not, she’s exposed how shaky and ridiculous the whole centuries-old construct of individual “race” is.
The real question now is whether we can ever move past debating an individual’s race and begin to address the structures and institutions we’ve created and let flourish to delineate and maintain the social and economic differences between individuals we’ve assigned to those groups for hundreds of years.