Rachel Dolezal is president of the Spokane, Washington chapter of the NAACP. She chairs a city police oversight commission. She jokes about being watched for a “black” reaction at movie theaters, and she posts photos of her “natural” curls. In her world, and that of her friends and colleagues, she is a black woman.
But to her family, she’s white. On Thursday, reports BuzzFeed, her parents told local media outlets that their daughter’s heritage was Czech, Swedish, and German, with possible traces of Native American. This was prompted after Dolezal reported a hate crime—someone had purportedly mailed a threatening package to the local NAACP—that was challenged by postal workers who “told police the envelope was not timestamped or canceled.” The only way it could have been delivered there, notes BuzzFeed, is if it “had been placed there by a post office employee or someone who had the P.O. Box key.”
When the report of the hate crime hit local newscasts, her parents stepped in, challenging Dolezal’s entire narrative. When asked why their daughter would construct this identity, her parents gave a guess: “She has over the past 20 years assimilated herself into the African-American community through her various advocacy and social justice work, and so that may be part of the answer.”
This is a bizarre story, made difficult by the fact that we don’t have a language for this kind of white-to-black “passing.” Many Americans, and especially blacks, are familiar with black-to-white “passing,” whereby black Americans with European features present and identify as white. In A Chosen Exile: A History of Racial Passing in American Life, historian Allyson Hobbs describes men and women who left their black families to live in a white world.
Elsie Roxborough, for example, was a black elite. Raised in Michigan, her father became the state’s first black senator in 1930. She was the first black girl to live in a dorm at the University of Michigan, and after graduation, tried her hand as a playwright in Chicago and as an actor in California. But success eluded her, and in search of it, she decided to pass. In 1937, still a young woman, she dyed her hair auburn, learned enough Spanish to feign foreign origins, changed her name to Mona Manet, and moved to New York. It’s here her story takes an even sadder turn. Her father refused to support her, and she eventually committed suicide. On her death certificate, her race was listed as white.
Of course there were also black Americans who could pass but chose to stay in the black community. Walter Francis White led the national staff of the NAACP for nearly a quarter-century, from 1931 to 1955. The child of formerly enslaved people, White looked, well, white. And yet he chose blackness. “I am a Negro,” he wrote in his autobiography A Man Called White. “My skin is white, my eyes are blue, my hair is blond. The traits of my race are nowhere visible upon me.” That description—or at least, the first part—would also fit Mordecai Wyatt Johnson, the first black president of Howard University, the historically black university in Washington, D.C. (and alma mater of Dolezal). Like White, Johnson was the son of two former slaves. And like White, he didn’t look black.
Both phenomena, of blacks who chose to pass and of blacks who could but abstained, illustrate the porous reality of race, and more crucially, how it’s distinct from ethnicity. On one hand, “black” is a statement of identity. It describes a certain culture and a certain history, tied to the lives and experiences of enslaved Africans and their descendants. It’s a fluid culture, with room for a huge variety of people, from whites, to blacks, to people of Latin American and Caribbean descent.
On the other hand, however, it describes the bottom rung in the American racial hierarchy. It’s a construct, but it was built from physical features, as colonial Americans took Africans, made them slaves, and made them “black.” It designates the people who could be enslaved; the people who had to live under Jim Crow; the people who could be denied mortgage loans and crammed into ghettos; the people who can be plundered by petty municipal authorities.
The two are separate but related. I am a descendent of slaves with strong African features. This makes me culturally black—I identify with the American national group—and racially black; I’m more likely to face overt discrimination than my white friends. And in all likelihood, this would also be true if my mother (or father) were white. I would still have African features, I would still have a connection to black American history, and I would still occupy the bottom rung of the racial hierarchy. But if I were born with lighter skin and more European features, I might be able to escape the stigma of blackness. I would still have the cultural connection, but I wouldn’t occupy the same place in the hierarchy.
What’s key is that you can’t choose your position in the hierarchy. The political designation of race is a function of power—or, put differently, you are whatever the dominant group says you are. A Nigerian immigrant might not identify with black Americans, but she’s still “black,” regardless of what she says, and if she gets pulled over by the police, that identity will matter most. And on the other end, a black American with dark skin and African features could identify as white with her friends, but in society, she’s black, regardless of how she feels.
Which brings us back to Rachel Dolezal. Is she black just because she says she is?
In her favor are key parts of her life. Dolezal has identified as black for almost 10 years. She’s been heavily involved in the local black community, and a leader on issues important to black people. She has no apparent black ancestry—a real difference from blacks who pass—but she’s adopted a kind of black culture almost wholesale. If Walter Francis White is black, and Mordecai Wyatt Johnson is black, then why can’t Rachel Dolezal be black, even if her connections were manufactured?
Then again, her story involves lies and misrepresentations. She passed off a darker-skinned stranger as her father, and an adopted sibling as her son. There’s a chance she faked a hate crime against her, and she falsely claimed she was born in a tepee with a family that hunted for its food. She says she’s black, but we don’t know if she’s always black. Is she black when she’s purchasing a home? Talking to the police? Or is she black only when vying for a role where lived experience would help her odds?
To belong to the black community is to inherit a rich and important culture; to be racially black is to face discrimination and violence. And that has often gone for whites who identify with blacks, or for blacks who appear to be white. When investigating a lynching in Arkansas, White had to flee when locals learned he was a black man “masquerading” as a white one. Viola Liuzzo, a civil rights activist, was shot dead by Klansmen for assisting other activists. She was white.
We don’t know the entirety of Dolezal’s story, and we will likely learn more. If it’s troubling, it’s at least partly because it feels like Dolezal is adopting the culture without carrying the burdens. And with the fake father and the fake children, it seems like she’s deceiving people for the sake of an à la carte blackness, in which you take the best parts, and leave the pain aside.