Rachel Dolezal – can a white person really identify as black?

This week Rachel Dolezal has spoken out regarding the controversy surrounding her ethnic identity. The African Studies Instructor and former President of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in Spokane, Washington has had to face claims that she has deliberately mislead people into thinking that she is an African American woman. She has denied allegations that she has been deceptive about her race, choosing to instead to explain how she “identifies” as being black. This has led to a public discussion about the meaning and fluidity within racial categorization. Comparisons have been drawn with the transgender community. However, is this really a fair comparison? Can a person really be said to have been born into the wrong skin?

Some transgender individuals have been angered by the comparison commenting that the supposed similarities insinuated that transgender individuals were attempting to “pass” as male or female just as Dolezal was trying to pass as being black. Dolezal was in disguise, pretending to be somebody she wasn’t, whereas transgender individuals are simply seeking to be themselves. Dolezal has only begun to be truthful about her ethnic identity, and this is only after she was forced to after being outed by her birth parents. To those around her, she was a woman of black heritage with an African American father. If she had been open about her transracial identity from the beginning then perhaps her critics would have been more sympathetic. As it now stands, she is widely viewed to have invaded and violated a safe space and has broken the trust of the black activists who she claimed to share a common history and struggle with.

Dolezal has drawn criticism from various black individuals who have accused her of cultural appropriation. Some believe that she has reduced the nature of what it is to be black to white perspective stereotypes and physical attributes. She has confused what it is to be black culturally with being black racially. Moreover, she has undermined the experiences of those who do identify as being transracial. For example, a  black child who has been adopted by a white family might well identify as being transracial due to the fact that they are being torn between two cultures.  Her adopted brother Ezra Dolezal, who is of African American ethnicity, has even likened the contrived alteration of her appearance to the mocking blackface caricature of the early twentieth century. Whereas Dolezal’s intentions were not to deliberately mock but to conceal, which is perhaps even more complicated and offensive.

Despite identifying as being black, Dolezal did not have to grow up as a black girl, encountering the early prejudices that this entails. She had the childhood and teenage years of a middle class white girl. She only began to identify as being black once she was a fully grown woman with a high level of education and a good social and economic status. For her to not recognise this privilege is baffling. What’s more, the temporality of her identity needs to be addressed. Dolezal can scrub away the fake tan and wash away the curls that attribute to her “blackness” whenever she pleases. The same cannot be said for many black individuals who are wrongly held in police custody, or looked over for a job interview or even, murdered for the nature of their race.

Despite this, Dolezal has attempted to portray herself as somebody who has suffered personally from racial prejudice. She has fabricated an abusive childhood where an invented Stepfather punished her with a whip for the supposed dark colour of her skin. She compared this imaginary series of punishments to the treatment of black slaves, who were physically abused with whips. She also invented a fictional black father who was wrongly pursued by a white police officer. She has used the painful issues that affect black Americans every day to authenticate a new identity for herself. The fact that she has profited from these lies and has become a respected figure in various black communities has only added to the hurt of those who have suffered on account of their blackness.               

Dolezal’s commitment to civil rights causes are, admittedly, commendable and are perhaps the only part of her identity that one could be considered genuine. However, she could have carried out her great work as a white woman who was empathetic to the cause of black civil rights. Many of the activists who worked alongside and within the NAACP were white. Indeed, showing solidarity to the cause as a white woman would surely have been welcome. The question remains, what was her motivation? Why did she not feel that she could have been a prominent activist, and a complete person, by being herself?         


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