When news broke that Rachel Dolezal, the Spokane NAACP chapter president and a professor of African-American Studies at Eastern Washington University, was a white woman who had pretended to be black for nearly a decade, the primary emotion people expressed was deep confusion, followed by denial and anger.
Black Twitter instantly descended on the story, hilariously deconstructing the situation with hashtags like #RachelDolezalPlaylist and #askrachel, while many — including Dolezal’s family members — openly condemned her behavior. Her 22-year-old brother, Ezra Dolezal, told The Washington Post that what she’s doing is effectively blackface, adding, “Back in the early 1900s, what she did would be considered highly racist. You really should not do that. It’s completely opposite — she’s basically creating more racism.”
And yet, despite overwhelming criticism, some commentators have questioned whether Dolezal has done anything wrong. Many have pointed to her living as a black woman as an example of something known as #transracial identity, even comparing Dolezal’s story to Caitlyn Jenner’s transition.
But let’s make one thing clear: transracial identity is not a thing.
The idea that Dolezal’s choice to publicly identify as a black woman — one who occupied positions of power in spaces specifically designated for members of a marginalized group — is the same as being a trans woman, simply doesn’t add up.
What Dolezal did is culturally appropriative, and suggesting otherwise disrupts actual discussions about transgender identity and issues. (It’s also worth noting that a white woman’s decade-long deception has effectively hijacked the conversation about race, during a week where the nation was focusing on police brutality in McKinney, Texas.)
As Darnell L. Moore of Mic eloquently put it, “In attempting to pass as black, Dolezal falsely represented her identity. Trans people don’t lie about their gender identities — they express their gender according to categories that reflect who they are.”
Racial divisions may ultimately be a construct, Moore notes, but “skin color is hereditary.” And it’s skin color that primarily determines racial privilege, and the way others in the world interact with your racial identity.
Transracial identity is a concept that allows white people to indulge in blackness as a commodity, without having to actually engage with every facet of what being black entails — discrimination, marginalization, oppression, and so on. It plays into racial stereotypes, and perpetuates the false idea that it is possible to “feel” a race. As a white woman, Dolezal retains her privilege; she can take out the box braids and strip off the self-tanner and navigate the world without the stigma tied to actually being black. Her connection to racial oppression is something she has complete control over, a costume she can put on — and take off — as she pleases.
While an undergrad at Bellhaven University in Mississipi, the now 37-year-old Dolezal was in Voice of Calvary, a “racial reconciliation community development project where black and whites lived together.” After graduating, she applied to grad school at Howard University, earning a full ride scholarship, as a black woman, after submitting an art portfolio comprised solely of African-American portraits. It was around this time, Dolezal’s parents claim, that she began actively presenting herself as a black woman, eventually working her way up to president of the Spokane NAACP in 2014. It seems that at some point, Dolezal’s interest and fascination with blackness morphed into fetishization, exotification and actual erasure.
Amidst the many hilarious Dolezal-related memes, countless questions remain. Why would someone pursue this kind of deception for so long? And why did no one call Dolezal out until now? Details about the last 10 years of Dolezal’s life have been trickling in, creating a hazy timeline of a woman seemingly determined to immerse herself in African-American culture. In an interview with The Washington Post, the Dolezals claim that their daughter’s interest in black culture may have began during her teenage years, around the time they adopted two black sons.
Dolezal’s Twitter account provides yet another public record of her desire to represent herself as black. She goes by @HarlemRenaissanc, tweeting things like “#Tyrese thinks #blackwomen are too independent. His reason for being single, or a preamble for why he’s gonna choose white women?”
It’s unclear what Dolezal believes her authentic racial identity to be — she has yet to comment publicly, and actively dodged the question when a reporter asked her if she was African-American on June 10. “I don’t understand the question,” she answered, ending the interview abruptly.
But what is clear, is that she wanted to “pass” as black, in black-dominated spaces, going so far as to claim a black man — to whom she is not related at all — was her biological father on Facebook.
Dolezal’s delusion and commitment to living as a black woman is profound. And it’s inherently wrong. The implications of a white woman, donning blackness and then using that blackness in order to navigate black spaces is offensive. Her passing flies in the face of the countless black women who have had to pass as white in the history of this country, not because of a preference for or fetishization of whiteness, but purely out of survival. And comparing her life to Caitlyn Jenner’s is an insult to Jenner’s personal struggle. “I’m not doing this to be interesting. I’m doing this to live,” she told Vanity Fair.
Dolezal is not trying to survive. She’s merely indulging in the fantasy of being “other.”
Perhaps the most unfortunate thing about the Dolezal story is that she has operated in activist spaces, and has consistently expressed a desire to actually help the advancement of black people. But as Twitter user @MoreAndAgain pointed out last night, Dolezal could have gone to Howard, taught African studies, and been a member of the NAACP without actively trying to imply through self-tanner and curly wigs that she was black. (The NAACP’s statement, released this afternoon declaring that “one’s racial identity is not a qualifying criteria or disqualifying standard for NAACP leadership,” backs this assertion up.)
If Dolezal had lived her life as a visibly white ally, it would have been a powerful statement. Instead, she chose to actively lie about her identity, betraying the trust she had built within black activist spaces. There is the possibility, of course, that Dolezal’s behavior goes far beyond mere white cluelessness and white appropriation, into the territory of mental illness. However, until she comments publicly, the drive behind her behavior remains a disturbing mystery.
Whatever the underlying motivations, comparing Dolezal’s behavior to the real struggles of black and trans people is dangerous, irresponsible, and sets back the progress we’ve made in discourse on race and gender. Dolezal should not, and cannot, get a pass for passing.
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