Rachel Dolezal: Passing in America

Rachel-Dolezal-NAACP-Spokane-1

Rachel Dolezal Source

Let me guess: you thought this was over, didn’t you? You thought that all the journalists in all the world had turned over every possible angle, viable or not, on this subject. Well, you were wrong! I’m going to talk about Rachel Dolezal. Again. You may ask yourself, why bother? We already tweeted and Facebooked and snapped and all that nonsense the kids are doing. We explored her family life, her history at the Spokane Washington NAACP chapter, and her potentially unstable mental health. A good journalist wouldn’t keep talking about this, to which I say we can definitely keep talking about it. We can and will keep talking about it because there’s a problem with the way we’ve been talking about Rachel Dolezal in the aftermath of discovering her alleged “true identity.” Also, I’m a volunteer writer, not a journalist, so there’s that technicality.

The point missing from this massive topic in its aftermath, or at least something that I feel has been sorely under discussed is the question of a transracial identity. Mainly, is there validity, not necessarily to the lying and media involvement, but to the claim of a transracial identity?

To recap, on Thursday, June 11, news broke out that Rachel Dolezal, the president of the Spokane Washington chapter of the NAACP and a part-time educator on Black Studies at a local Spokane college, is in fact white. For the following weeks, everyone talked about how white this person was. The reason this news shocked the greater public was because Dolezal identified both in real life and on social media as an African-American, and her very white parents Lawrence and Ruthanne Dolezal came forward with high school photos of Dolezal, showing her as what we all presumed to be a white girl.

And before we continue with this racially charged article, I would like to make a massive disclaimer: I am white. This isn’t an accomplishment or a trophy for me or anything, but it does have a role in how I perceive the world because I maintain some privilege. But to follow in the footsteps of Daniel Silvermint, the feminist philosopher and University of Connecticut professor who has contributed an important voice on this issue, my thoughts are strongly-worded observations and nothing more. And what I’m observing is the particular standards we have for defining transracialism and what it means to “pass.”

We, America and in particular American society, seem to care when individuals “pass” one way (privilege to sans privilege) but not the other way (sans privilege to privilege). My concern is why do we care so much about how individuals pass? Regardless of the existence of transracialism as a concept, it seems this is one woman making the choice to pose as African-American. Since the initial “discovery” of Rachel’s “condition,” she came forward in an interview on The Today Show, which you can watch here. Among many things, it was extremely awkward. It wasn’t awkward because Dolezal was doing or saying something out of turn. She actually held her own professionally and respectfully, despite saying things out of left field on other occasions. Matt Lauer, on the other hand, seemed to have his final opinion of the situation decided and was in no way there to learn from her. Instead, his goal was to make her crack and admit that she is white. He specifically chose the word “deceit” to describe Dolezal’s actions to her. He, along with many others, are making this case out to be that this woman intentionally deceived the world in order to gain…what? That’s the interesting thing we’re fixating on, and it’s something I initially fixated on and vilified Dolezal for. Like I hinted at earlier, the reason we’re so affronted by this example of “passing” is because Rachel was born white but “passed” as black. Historically, we are used to the form of “passing” in which African-American individuals “pass” into white society for their personal advantage. And that’s not a bad thing. It was important to those who could pass in order to survive a culture that values the lives economically and socially of white people over other races. But when initially looking at the Dolezal case, we come up short for a reason why someone from the assumed advantaged group would want to “pass” into the assumed disadvantaged group.

Matt Lauer interviews Rachel Dolezal on The Today Show Source

Matt Lauer interviews Rachel Dolezal on The Today Show Source

“Passing” is a historically significant and viable part of race culture in America. Traditionally, the act of “passing” meant that a black or mixed-race individual’s attributes appeared white, and therefore, they could “pass-off” as a white person. This concept of a hybrid identity and the ability to “pass” racially played an important role thematically in art and novels during the Harlem Renaissance. Despite this, the ability to pass went against the idea of African-American cultural pride and revival that the Harlem Renaissance was about because one could essentially be either race if they wanted to. “Passing” also implied that African-American people wanted to not be African-America even while living in an era like the Harlem Renaissance, which set foundations for black pride. But “passing” was a means for people to survive in a culture that values the safety and import (emphasis on safety) of white people over other races. The ability to “pass,” however, doesn’t necessarily manifest within an individual but depends on society as a whole. Daniel Silvermint, the feminist philosopher I introduced earlier, makes the argument that we as a society impose certain racial boundaries because we are unable to identify binary-definitions. He argues that these boundaries are the- things that assert dichotomies of race, i.e. a “white” person’s hair style versus a “black”-person’s hairstyle. We rely on presupposed binaries to categorize others, and that allows others to “pass” without us knowing because we are unable to identify the subtleties of “passing.” Going back to The Today Show interview, Matt Lauer blatantly does this. He calls Rachel’s choice not to correct the race used in newspaper articles covering her involvement in NAACP work a deception, but Matt and all of us feel deceived because she’s broken the rules of what is categorically acceptable, in that someone who is born white identifies as black. Just to play a fun little game for a second in which you ignore whether or not you believe in transracialism, let me ask you a simple question: why would someone who identifies as black or African-American correct that assumption about themselves? That’s like if a transgender man corrected someone who called him what he wished to be called, which is a man. Calling myself out, I referred to Dolezal’s biological parent’s earlier in this article as “very white,” but that’s the inference I’ve made. According to Silvermint, I have imposed my racial bias on those people and have organized them into the “white” category because they appear that way to me.

Then, what does it mean to be transracial? If we only use the dictionary, it is the concept that race is fluid. In that, a person can “pass” from one race to the other, not necessarily because they make that choice due to personal advantages, but because they feel they truly belong to that race. However, there is a term called “transracial adoptee.” These are people who have been born into one race and adopted by a family of another race. Transracial adoptees have come forward expressing their anger at Dolezal’s deceit, arguing that her privilege as a white woman allowed her to take advantage of something that she shouldn’t have. This matters because, shortly after the Dolezal story, another woman named Verda Byrd living in Converse, Texas came forward to say that she had been living as a black woman for 70 years without knowing she had been born white. She didn’t know that she was adopted by a black family and born white. Interestingly, this lack of knowledge for so long makes her free from the deceit that Dolezal is guilty of. In ABC’s article of her story, Byrd is personally offended by Rachel Dolezal, and Byrd claims Dolezal lied about her race. But in Byrd’s case, she didn’t know about the race of her birth parents, and so their situations are different. The reporter then graciously called this woman “transracial.”

Verda Byrd Source

Verda Byrd Source

I’m not here to vilify yet another person who’s questioning their race, but I am questioning the way we report these stories and what qualifies someone to be black or white. In Dolezal’s case, she identified as black through the advocacy work she did for the African-American community and as an African-American studies instructor. She identified as black through attending Howard University, the historically black college. She identified by her hair. Verda identified as black through her experiences during the civil rights movement and her experiences with her friend Linda Brown of Brown v. Board of Education. And she also identified by her hair, and because of these things, no one questioned Verda’s identity as a black woman. If physical appearance and activism are what make someone black, these women both characterize their experiences as black women through the same type of experiences. Then how is Verda Byrd “transracial” but Rachel Dolezal is just a liar? As more people come forward to talk about what constitutes race, an interesting layer to the acceptable order of passing is being revealed. In this case, the lack of knowledge and adoption into a black family made Verda a transracial woman, not identifying as black or white herself.

Toni Morrison, celebrated African-American writer and one of my personal favorites, has said in previous interviews that race is a purely social construction, citing the biological study that we are genetically the same and “race” is merely determined by skin pigmentation and nothing else. So, then what does that mean for Rachel? Is Silvermint right in that we have enforced cultural expectations associated with race? And, in doing so, we have identified Dolezal as white for her? When I wrote the first draft of this article, Rachel hadn’t spoken for herself yet. At that time, we had all made our final opinions. We were speculating why someone would lie to everyone like that. And we used strong words like that: lie, deceive, cheat. Since then, Rachel has come forward, and her reason was simple: she identifies as black. It wasn’t earth-shattering or heartbreaking. She just believes she didn’t deceive anyone because she identifies as a different race then the one she was born as. Regardless if you believe in transracialism, this woman didn’t lie to you. In fact, it really has nothing to do with you. “Passing” has been a practice for a long time, and it has been a historically significant practice in American culture. The issue we have with it is not that someone “passed-off” as a different race at all, but that a white woman passed. And while privilege definitely exists and is an awful thing, if we’re going to assume that “passing” is only acceptable this one way, then that means we continue to assume that disadvantaged, unprivileged people always need or want to abandon their identity in order to join the group of advantaged, privileged people. So, all that our outrage and anger at Rachel’s actions really shows is our understanding of what a person needs to be in order to “pass,” which reveals our leftover social biases. And all of this, then, really has nothing to do with how the individual personally identifies, but how people in society identify each other.

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4 thoughts on “Rachel Dolezal: Passing in America

  1. Passing is so much more than coIor and being accepted by the culture society one is trying to gain entry or acceptance. I completely agree that race is a social construction, but it has psychological and sociological implications from birth, or debatably even in the womb (see Dole and Hertz-Picciotto, 2003 article, “Maternal Stress and pre term birth”). I am outraged by Rachel Dolezal’s passing off as knowing and having a black experience–any black experience. My entire character and life experience has been shaped by the social condition of race, so it may not be made up by humans, but it for sure is a real, tangible, entity. I am most outraged however, that Dolezal sought the spotlight of moving forward race consciousness within a community of color as opposed to supporting the community in making their own change. She, a white woman, knew what was best for the black community. She not only took away our (black people’s) empowerment, she did it from a selfish and patronizing perspective.

    • I’m certainly not doubting the very real psychological and sociological effects of race. In fact, thank you for bringing this up. I wish I had stressed those aspects more in order to make that point clearer in my article. Additionally, I’m not disputing your particular situation. I would never deny that there are particular experiences that people of color experience that I will never experience or understand. What I’m questioning is the fluidity of race in terms of “passing,” and if that makes transracialism a possibility. Unfortunately, I disagree with the idea that Rachel Dolezal was actively being selfish or patronizing. I’m not certain if the larger question about “passing” and transracialism I initially asked can be answered, but I do think Rachel Dolezal believes she is black. Perhaps I should have been clearer in my article that I don’t view her as completely innocent. She has made many mistakes in her responses to this situation, and there are multiple incidents that put her psychological state into question, indicating deeper problems than her racial identity. However, the purposes of the article were to take this singular experience in order to understand our reactions as a society to this form of “passing” and, as I said before, question whether or not transracialism is possible.

      Thank you for taking the time to comment.

      • It’s unfortunate you think her actions were not selfish, but you are entitled to your opinion. I felt (and still do) the need to comment because the ideas on this situation and in this public space necessitates that a person from a racially stigmatized community speak up! I think people from all cultures need to talk about race, but the voice and opinion of this blog entry from a white woman was the only one present and that’s not right.

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