Race, Transracialization, and Other Thoughts on Rachel Dolezal

Former Spokane NAACP president, Rachel Dolezal
Former Spokane NAACP president, Rachel Dolezal

If you spend any time thinking about race or identity politics, you have by now heard of Rachel Dolezal, the (former) president of the Spokane chapter of the NAACP who for several years passed as a (multiracial, light-skinned) Black woman until her parents revealed early last week that they are both White.

Because we haven’t had enough thinkpieces on this subject, here’s another. (Yes, that’s sarcasm.)

This story took social media by storm, with each day revealing new details of Dolezal’s life: born in Montana and growing up with blonde hair, pale skin, and blue-green eyes, Dolezal reportedly increasingly identified with Black culture when her family adopted her two (Black) brothers.  As a college student, Dolezal applied to Howard University as a fine arts major with a portfolio that focused on Black subjects, and was admitted on a scholarship. During her time at Howard, Dolezal identified as White, and when she graduated in 2002, she sued the school claiming racial discrimination when she was not offered a teaching position and when some of her work was removed from an exhibit to make room for other artists; the courts failed to uphold her claims.

It was at some point after Dolezal graduated and before she moved to Spokane that she began altering her appearance — darkening her skin and wearing her hair in braids — to (intentionally or unintentionally) lead the casual observer to assume she was multiracially Black. Perhaps initially, Dolezal simply chose not to correct those who made assumptions about her racial identity based on her appearance, but by the last few years, Dolezal was taking increasingly elaborate steps to maintain the subterfuge: she applied to a City commission position (which she received) while self-identifying as White, Black and Native, she wrote numerous social media posts subtly crafted to self-identify with Blackness, she presented her younger adopted brother as her own son, she identified an unknown older dark-skinned Black man as her father and fabricated a story about him forced to flee the Deep South, and she gave an hour-long interview with a graduate student (available in five parts on YouTube) where she recounts an apparently entirely made-up story of her life as a multiracial Black child discovering her Blackness at an early age.

Today, she told the Today show, “I identify as Black”.

As we approach this story, we must also question why and how this story came to be. Dolezal’s parents — estranged from Dolezal for many years — claim they are motivated only by the ethical implications of Dolezal’s racial performance. However, reports published this week say that last week’s revelation regarding Dolezal’s heritage may be an effort by Dolezal’s parents to discredit Dolezal, who has sided with the alleged victim in a sexual assault case involving Dolezal’s older biological brother. If so, anyone who chooses to write about Rachel Dolezal must acknowledge that this entire story may be part of a smear campaign designed to protect a sexual abuser from being held accountable for an alleged crime. Such smear tactics are disturbingly common countermeasures used to absolve those accused of rape and sexual assault by undermining the character of their (typically female) victims and their supporters.

Despite the circumstances of these revelations, however, we also cannot simply ignore the implications of Dolezal’s attempts at racial transformation. Dolezal’s attempts at passing enthralled the nation with equal parts fascination and disgust, in no small part because it raised for many of us weighty and confusing questions on the very construction of race: What constitutes membership in Blackness? Can a person not born into Blackness (or Whiteness or Brownness) simply choose to switch their race? If so, what would be the mechanism of this transformation? Is race-switching a one-way street?

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