Monday, June 15, 2015


Rachel Dolezal, Passing, & White Self-Hatred

Rachel Dolezal
Right: Rachel Dolezal poses in front of a mural she painted at the Human Rights Education Institute offices in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho. Nicholas K. Geranios/AP 

On June 11, 2015, the Coeur d' Alene Press broke the story that the head of the Spokane chapter of the NAACP, Rachel Dolezal, had woven a web of lies in order to falsely present herself as a Black woman. In a testament to the highly charged and contested nature of modern racial discourse the story has since "Gone viral" and international.

The phenomenon of so-called light-skinned Black people "passing as White" has long been a source of curiosity to me. If someone has so much non-African ancestry that they appear to the casual observer as White and they have/have adopted "White" cultural values and behaviors—whatever those may be—then who is to say they are not White? Do we take the White racist's and/or the Black racist's word for this?

Of course, it is true that the "one-drop rule" was a creation of White people made for enforcing slavery and later Jim Crow but now it seems just as many, if not more, Black people accept it (see, e.g. a recent Atlanta Blackstar photo gallery with the contradictory title "9 Black Celebrities Who Rejected The One Drop Rule" and especially the photo captions for Devyn (#2) and Zoe Saldana (#5)). It is in no small part because many Black people embrace the one-drop rule or some version of it that Rachel Dolezal was able to "pass as Black," apparently, for years.

This Black and White madness over racial identity leads to other bizarre outcomes. So, on The Atlantic we have Baz Dreisinger, author of Near Black: White-to-Black Passing in American Culture, telling an interviewer: "The earliest cases [of Whites passing for Black] that I look at are from the slave era. There are cases of white people who are kidnapped and sold into slavery, and which therefore are cases of involuntary passing." While on Slate, Jamelle Bouie writes:
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."
White is Bouie's example of a Black American who stayed Black. Bouie nowhere admits the possibility, if not fact, that the obviously European traits of White's race were quite visible upon him. Instead, implicitly, slavery is equated with Blackness (because there was no such thing as White slaves in the antebellum South, right?) and the one-drop rule is affirmed.

So why did Rachel Dolezal decide to deceive people about her identity? If anyone knows for sure, and that's not clear, it would be Rachel Dolezal herself. However, there are some interesting possibilities to consider. First, as Baz Dreisinger claims: "Anytime you're talking about the cultural domain, it certainly can be advantageous to pass as black." Dolezal is a talented artist whose work seemingly has mostly African-American themes. So there's that.

Second, and this is the one I find more compelling, there's the possibility that Dolezal is a victim of self-hatred for being White. As David Smedley, a Howard University associate professor, who was Dolezal's Master of Fine Arts thesis adviser told the Washington Post:
" 'White' people who have inherited a privileged place in society seemingly have just two choices: stay ignorant, accept and continue to justify the delusion that America is and always has been great and democratic; or do some research and then feel the heavy guilt and shame upon discovering the ugly truth about the systemic unfairnesses that their ancestors perpetuated.

"Neither of these are healthy, and I suspect that this isn't the last time we will see another white person chose to switch sides."
One need not accept Prof. Smedley's beliefs lock, stock, and barrel to see that there's more than a grain of truth to what he says about the choices White people are presented with in terms of how they see themselves. More evidence for this perspective comes from Dolezal's adopted Black brother, Ezra Dolezal. According to CNN:
Dolezal's time at predominantly black Howard University may have been a major turning point in her transformation, her adopted brother said.
"When she applied they thought she was a black student," he said. "When she came there, they saw she was white and she wasn't treated that well, especially by people that worked there. She probably started developing this kind of dislike for being white and dislike for white people. She used to tell [her Black adopted brother] Izaiah ... that all white people are racists. She might have developed some self-hatred."
Rachel Dolezal unsuccessfully "sued Howard for discrimination in 2002, the year she graduated from the historically black college with a Master of Fine Arts degree." If her brother is correct, then Rachel Dolezal would not be the first person to internalize perceived and/or actual discrimination and bias as self-hatred. In the case of White people like Dolezal there is also the poisonous concept of trans-generational collective guilt for the past sins—real or imagined—of others.

If the story of Rachel Dolezal is a case of self-hatred then one can hope that she will examine the lies and distortions that led her to this point and reject and combat them. She doesn't need the people who she may have thought needed or wanted her to be Black and there are probably far more Black and other people than she imagined who would have embraced her openly as an artist and humans rights activist who is White.

I want to shift now to the comparisons of Rachel Dolezal to Caitlyn Jenner. As Nick Gillespie writes: "... what conservatives dig most about Dolezal is that she is a punchline regarding not racial misrepresentation but gender identity. Hence, conservative folks are using Dolezal's unmasking to yet again mock Caitlyn Jenner, the 1976 Olympic decathlon champion and reality TV star formerly known as Bruce." I agree but I also think it overstates the case to say that "There is no comparison between transgender people and Rachel Dolezal", as does the title to a Guardian article by Meredith Talusan.

Talusan, who is transgender, claims:
The fundamental difference between Dolezal's actions and trans people's is that her decision to identify as black was an active choice, whereas transgender people's decision to transition is almost always involuntary. Transitioning is the product of a fundamental aspect of our humanity – gender – being foisted upon us over and over again from the time of our birth in a manner inconsistent with our own experience of our genders. Doctors don't announce our race or color when we are born; they announce our gender. People who are alienated from their presumed gender and define themselves according to another gender have existed since earliest recorded history; race is a medieval European invention. Thus, Dolezal identified as black, but I am a woman, and other trans people are the gender they feel themselves to be.
I wonder how fully Dolezal experiences/ed her decision to pass as Black as voluntary. And "our race or color" is frequently determined when we are born by our parents or a bureaucrat via a birth certificate. Talusan's insistence that she is different from Dolezal because "I am a woman" strikes me as a case of protesting too much. Mind you, I'm not disputing her claim to being a woman, it's her vehemence in the service of criticizing another that I find troubling.

I suppose I am more, though not fully, in agreement with Camille Gear Rich, who, in "Rachel Dolezal has a right to be black", writes: "The central issue that separates Jenner's and Dolezal's choices is deception. Jenner chose carefully how and when she would disclose herself as actually female." In Dolezal's case I think the problem with the deception is that it was active rather than passive and she hitched that deception to her status as a Black community leader.

If Bruce Jenner had long ago ceased to have been a recognizable celebrity would Caitlyn Jenner then have any blanket obligation to out herself as transgender to anyone? No, but I think she would have an ethical obligation not to deliberately mislead people into thinking she'd had a girlhood or the lived social and biological experience of a typical natal female, except when her safety or well-being was at stake. To be clear, in light of the violence and discrimination faced by transgender people when I speak of deliberate deception I'm talking about steps akin to what Dolezal did—inventing a fake father, presenting her adopted siblings as her own children, and, possibly, falsifying hate crimes.

Camille Gear Rich writes: "People allow Caitlyn Jenner to change because she has some biological basis for believing she is female. But is this all identity is? Are we prepared to accept the implications of this view?" She raises a good point but I would go further, I've never been fully convinced by the science suggesting that biology is behind transgender (or LGB) identity.

Mostly, the studies I've read (admittedly quite a few years ago now) fail to address the question of causality: Are you transgender because your biology is different from a non-trans person's or is your biology different because you're transgender? Often, due to small sample sizes and ambiguous findings, they also fail to convincingly show that there actually is a biological difference. In any case, while I'm willing to go wherever the evidence leads, I also think it should be kept in mind that biological explanations are potentially dangerous.

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Meredith here. Thanks for this; I really enjoyed your assessment of the situation. I think the headline for my piece (which I didn't write) conditioned this and other readings. By "no comparison" I imagine the closest to my meaning would be "compare and find severely lacking" rather than "no basis for comparison." I tried to be careful not to impugn motives on Dolezal though I did that most strongly in the article you quoted. Had I not been on deadline and had a bit of time to parse these arguments out, I would have probably framed it more squarely in terms of likelihood rather than framing her unequivocally as making an active choice. My point is that while I don't discount the possibility of transracial identification, I think gender is a much more embedded form of social construction so transrace would be much less likely, and also much more open to abuse, so we need to be really careful in examining Dolezal and what she represents, both in and of herself and how her case correlates with transgender.
Meredith, you're welcome. Congratulations on your thoughtful, passionate op-ed in the Guardian. I've re-worded my post slightly to distance you, I hope, a bit from the title the Guardian assigned. Thanks for taking time to clarify your thoughts here in your comment.
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