Faking the Black

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By now, many people are familiar with Rachel Dolezal’s sensational story, the former president of the NAACP chapter in Spokane, Washington, who “passed” for a black woman.

The outing of Dolezal culminated from a series of harassment reports that she had filed, in which she alleged to have been a target of racism due to her (black) race, which in turn were being investigated by the local news station KXLY.

Courtesy of Twitter.

All of the allegations filed by Dolezal, including one in which she alleged to have found a rope resembling a noose on her porch, were suspended by the Spokane Police due to a lack of leads. (In later developments, it appeared the noose in question could have been her landlord’s rope used while hanging game meat).

But what’s noteworthy here is that Dolezal seemingly opted to live in a world where enduring racism was a possibility, and often a part of daily life, rather than shield herself with a birth-right white privilege.

In these same police reports, Dolezal was remarkably identified as a black woman. This subsequently raised the eyebrows of a KXLY journalist who had gotten in touch with her white parents as part of the investigation. Her estranged, deeply evangelical parents wasted no time in doling out photos of the older and paler version of Rachel Dolezal. There were speculations they were retaliating against their daughter. Dolezal had previously accused her parents of abuse and had also sided with a foster brother in his lawsuit against the Dolezal’s biological son for sexual abuse. In short, Dolezal’s background was marred by instability and muddy family relations seeped in bad blood to say the least.

And all of this served to be the catalyst for the consequent media circus that spiraled Dolezal’s life and career out of control.

“Like some sort of cultural fungus, outed-White-woman Rachel Dolezal just won’t go away.” – Britni Danielle.

She promptly resigned from both her post at the NAACP and her role as chair of the Spokane Police Ombudsman Commission. She also got fired from her adjunct teacher role at Eastern Washington University where she taught classes on African American subjects.

She was endlessly mocked and ridiculed. A hashtag #askrachel began trending on Twitter with comedic and condescending quizzes designed for Dolezal to prove she was black. There was an outrage among people who considered her actions irredeemable. It seemed the public wanted Dolezal to show remorse for her deceit and for appearing in what some called “Blackface,” but instead they got no such thing. [#askrachel https://twitter.com/hashtag/askrachel?lang=en]

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image3 (1)Photos courtesy of Twitter.

As she hopped between major TV network couches, Dolezal showed little signs of contrition. Rather, she introduced the public to the term “trans-racialism”and calmly stood her ground. She “identified as black.” It was as simple as that.

This, of course, drew parallels with the term “transgender” and many members of the transgender community, including writer Meredith Talusan, were quick to point out that theirs was rooted in biology, not a social construct such as race.

Meanwhile, behind the scenes, Dolezal was struggling, raising her two children on food stamps while pregnant with a third son. Once an ambitious and prominent activist for black causes, she now had lost all respectability and morphed into a disgrace to the very community she had dedicated her life to.

And now that she’s back in the spotlight to promote a new book called “In Full Color: Finding My Place in a Black and White World,” the vitriol against her hasn’t ceased. “Like some sort of cultural fungus, former NAACP Spokane, Wash. President-turned-outed-White-woman Rachel Dolezal just won’t go away,” writes Ebony writer Britni Danielle.

“Race is a modern idea. Ancient societies did not divide people according to physical differences, but according to religion, status, class and even language” – PBS

The book explores the discrimination she faced as a black woman and aims to challenge the meaning of racial identity. Many people agree that black people, especially, have a right to feel insulted by Dolezal’s claim to their heritage, when in essence she always had the option of walking away from her blackness.

“As people of color, no matter how hard we try, we cannot achieve whiteness,” argues civil rights activist Rosa Clemente, “but the fact that a white woman can achieve blackness and lie and take space and take resources and on top of it be belligerent when confronted is the epitome of white privilege.”

But can blackness, or any race for that matter, be one’s identity regardless of appearance or genetics? And if so, did Dolezal have the option of walking away from something she felt she was?

It is possible that Dolezal is pulling a fast one when excusing her deceitful behavior and cloaking it under the identity and personhood banner popularized by transgender civil rights movements. Reversely, it is also possible that Rachel Dolezal is indeed trans-racial. Even so, this is an important conversation to have, and Dolezal’s trans-racial crusade is oddly the perfect platform to commence it. Namely, what is racial identity? What is race? Is it a social construct? Is it an ethnicity? What’s the difference between race and ethnicity? Why is being Jewish, for example, a race and not a religion? Should we eliminate race?

All of these questions yield a myriad of varying answers. The only thing that can be universally agreed upon is that, given America’s sordid history, the question of race and identity are very difficult and complex topics.

Dolezal’s appropriation of black culture is of course very unfortunate, because it trivializes the groundbreaking idea that one can transcend one’s race by identifying with a race. She proudly tanned and weaved her hair to pass for a black woman, or to fit in within the black community, or to protect her black young children…

Whatever her motives were, these should not be the most important take-aways in the Rachel Dolezal saga.

In this NYT article, aptly titled “Rachel Dolezal’s Unintended Gift to America,” Allyson Hobbs, author of “A Chosen Exile” (a book about the history of “passing”), agrees that Dolezal–no matter her reasoning or motives–should be a window into a broader discussion on race and identity.

The concept of “passing” is also not what is most important, nor is it something new. A white person passing for a black person is something that has been well documented in American history. On the concept of passing, Hobbs reminds the readers that “Some did it for love…The geologist Clarence King passed as a Pullman porter and steelworker to be with a black woman whom he loved. Some did it for fame and fortune. Mezz Mezzrow, ‘a white Negro hipster’ and jazz musician, born to Russian-Jewish immigrants, often passed as black to shore up his musical credentials.”

What is important, and should be widely discussed stemming from the Dolezal debacle, is the concept of race in its entirety, how one may be able to transcend one’s race and the idea of trans-racialism. Imagine a world, naive as it may sound, where the lines of races were blurred. What might it look like?

PBS’s race timeline poignantly emphasizes that “Race is a modern idea. Ancient societies did not divide people according to physical differences, but according to religion, status, class and even language.”

In our modern day, race is more often than not manifested in sheer physical appearance. As Jamelle Bouie points out in Slate, “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.”

But if trans-racialism was a rampant movement and more people felt comfortable straddling the race fences, might it not alleviate some ails? Might it not create far more empathy and tolerance in cities where one’s neighbors, or brothers, or sisters “outed” themselves as trans-racial?

Talk show host Melissa-Harris Perry expressed the nuances and complexities of racial identity best in this interview when pondering “…but I wonder, can it be that one will be cis-Black and trans-Black? That there is actually a different category of Blackness that is about the achievement of Blackness, despite one’s parentage?”

Dolezal is but one person in a much larger and far more intricate reality of race relations in America, but her unapologetic, unabashed black identity has the potential to spark a much broader and important dialogue.

And no one contemplates this more eloquently than Hobbs. “One can only imagine the impact they would have if a significant number of white Americans chose to identify themselves as kindred of Eric Garner, Rekia Boyd, Tamir Rice, Tanisha Anderson, Freddie Gray, Kayla Moore, Oscar Grant, Shelly Frey and Michael Brown,” she writes.

*BTRtoday reached out to Rachel Dolezal for this story but she declined to participate, citing she’ll be available when her book is released and that she believes “having some of these personal questions answered in the full context of my life story will better serve the greater goals of continuing justice work.”