So, is Rachel Dolezal transracial or not?

William E. Artis, Untitled
(Idealized Head of a Woman).

(Photo by Jerry Dohnal. Original here. Used under Creative Commons license.)

First of all, please stop using the word “transracial” when talking about Rachel Dolezal, because it doesn’t mean what you think it means. “Transracial” already exists, but to describe children, usually of color, adopted into a family of a different race, usually white. These children are transplanted from the race, culture, and heritage of their birth into a completely different one, but that doesn’t mean they somehow stop being African-American, Ethiopian, Chinese, Vietnamese, or Salvadoran.

In fact, the true meaning of transracial reveals the impossibility of Dolezal’s claim to racial transformation. Many transracial adoptees experience, in essence, a white childhood, surrounded by white family in a white neighborhood and growing up in white schools. Yet they still carry their “otherness” with them at all times — their skin, their eyes, their hair. They grow up moving through the world as people of color, and the people around them will still interact with them as such, no matter how “white” their upbringing.

Dolezal passed for black for a number of years, but she cannot undo her past. She was born into a white family, grew up as a white child, attended Howard University as a white woman. She can’t erase — or re-race — all those years that she experienced the world as a white girl and woman.

Additionally, a lot of black folks would (and do) argue that her appropriation of the black experience is one of the whitest things about her.

Well, some black people have passed as white and severed ties with their black families. Isn’t that the same thing?

The short answer is: No, because privilege.

We know for a fact that race is a social construction, not a biological division. In 1972, a Harvard geneticist published a paper showing that the majority of genetic variation appeared within “races” rather than between them. That is, most genetic variation happens at the individual level, not at the level of groups.

But race still matters, because as a social construction, it has ordered social and economic hierarchies that consistently place whiteness at the top and blackness at the bottom. Race has been deployed for centuries to enforce social divisions to justify the exploitation of those considered “lesser” for the benefit of those considered “greater.” Whether we are talking about Africans cutting sugarcane to enrich plantation owners, or Chinese laying down track to enrich railway barons, or Italians working assembly lines to enrich industrial bosses, the dynamic (if not the scale) is the same. (Irish, Italians, Filipinos, South Asians, and many other nationalities have been labeled “black” at different points in history, although that has not changed the fact that people of African origins have always been consigned the bottom of the racial hierarchy.)

When someone of a “lesser” race with light skin, “good” hair, and “fine” features has taken the leap to pass as white, it has been to access privileges that would be difficult, if not impossible, to attain with a non-white identity. Moreover, passing in this case carries the risk of discovery and, along with it, blackmail, beating, rape, or death.

Dolezal could not simply reverse the path of passing. That would mean that she gave up privileges to live in a “lesser” position.

On the contrary, Dolezal’s passing allowed her to take positions of leadership and authority, as a professor of Africana Studies and the president of the Spokane NAACP. She ended up gaining privileges by passing — just as African Americans who crossed over to whiteness have — and she took scant privileges from a community that has few privileges to offer.

This doesn’t reverse or challenge the existing power structures, it reproduces them.

Doesn’t all the work Dolezal did for the African-American community justify her passing?

I’m not sure anyone is up for trying to quantify the “good” that Dolezal accomplished for African Americans and balance it against the fact that she took paying jobs that most likely would have gone to honest-to-goodness black women. With one hand she (presumably) gaveth, but with the other she tooketh away from people she ostensibly wanted to “help.”

(The revelation that she filed suit against Howard University for discriminating against her as a white woman, claiming that Howard was “permeated with discriminatory intimidation, ridicule, and insult” pretty much undercuts the “good work” defense of Dolezal.)

Furthermore, if the work was truly important to her, she easily could have done it as a white woman. White professors of Africana Studies exist. White members of the NAACP exist. Dolezal didn’t need to pass to help African Americans.

Arguably, Dolezal could have been more effective as a white ally. What’s galling to African American communities and to white allies is that, by disguising herself as black, Dolezal took an easy path to black activism. White allies must unlearn racism. They must sit back and listen to voices of color. They must play supporting roles while people of color take center stage. They must prove, constantly, that they are down for the struggle. It’s hard work, and it’s emotionally challenging. But Dolezal decided to take a short cut. By making herself black, she no longer had to provide ally bona fides.

She basically did what every anti-Affirmative Action right-winger fears that real people of color do: She played a [fake] race card to jump ahead.

How can we celebrate Caitlyn Jenner yet condemn Rachel Dolezal? Both of them changed a socially constructed identity — gender and race respectively. Isn’t that hypocritical?

Please reflect with me for a moment about the children we have seen in recent years who have come out as transgender, John Jolie-Pitt being the most famous.

Many transgender children begin to form — or, at least, verbalize — their gender identities as toddlers or young children, long before they have a full understanding of how gender identity is constructed.

Moreover, trans kids either struggle with conforming to their assigned gender under pressure to be “normal,” or they express their true gender identities in the face of intense societal condemnation. Trans* children and adults face bullying, violence, and even death in order to simply be their true selves in the world.

Dolezal was an adult before she began to talk about her supposed identification with African Americans, long after she learned how racial identities are assigned and constructed, and with full knowledge of how disguising her race would allow her to move more freely within black spaces. After “changing” (i.e., hiding and lying about) her race, she then went on to exploit her new “identity,” earning both money and cultural capital from her racial masking.

Although “becoming black” (if such a thing were possible) could certainly come with severe consequences, as a “light-skinned African American,” Dolezal retained color privilege, and it’s unclear whether she has suffered at all from her switch to “blackness.” Even the racist hate mail she claims to have received may have been fabricated.

And as I said above, Dolezal’s move across the color line was a dodge to avoid the hard work of being a white ally.

People who are trans struggle to live as their authentic selves. They are brave.

Dolezal cheated the system for her personal gain. She is a coward.

(Update: Dolezal asserted that she “felt a spiritual, visceral, instinctual connection with…the black experience” “from a very young age.” I say, You don’t get to sue Howard from the position of a white woman, then turn around and claim that you have “felt black” since kindergarten. You don’t get to take whatever positionality suits you, or works best for you at the time. Moreover, the luxury of passing is exactly that: a luxury. Most of us in brown and black bodies don’t have it and never will.)

What about that hair? How did she do it?

I hope that some African American journalist, somewhere, is trying to find Dolezal’s hairdresser. Right now, the main guess is wigs ’n’ weaves. In her gobsmacking interview in the college newspaper, The Easterner, Dolezal claims that she was diagnosed with cervical cancer in 2006, and she turned her long blonde dreadlocks into a wig. This is also the year she started to claim an African American racial identity, which seems awfully convenient. (Update: It’s a weave.)

What important news is this Rachel Dolezal mess distracting me from?

The Dominican Republic is at it again, poised to deport hundreds of thousands of Dominicans of Haitian heritage. A white cop holding down a black girl in a bikini is just one facet of how state power oppresses women and girls. Migrants continue to pour into Europe via Italy from Libya, and if the EU cannot come to an agreement with Italy, Italy is threatening to stop receiving the refugees, which could bring the death toll from the dangerous crossing back up.

Further reading (H/T to Kiese Laymon, whose Facebook posts on this issue are crucial reading; Sasha Harris-Cronin; and Jason Sperber):

Lisa Marie Rollins, Transracial Lives Matter: Rachel Dolezal and the Privilege of Racial Manipulation

Rebecca Carroll, I Am Black. Rachel Dolezal Is Not.

Awesomely Luvvie, About Rachel Dolezal the Undercover Sista and Performing Blackness

Tiq Milan, White Women Taking Up Space. Theoretical or Otherwise.

Ali Michael, Rachel Dolezal Syndrome

Adam Serwer, Why Rachel Dolezal Needed to Construct Her Own Black Narrative

Kat Blaque, Why Rachel Dolezal’s Fake “Transracial” Identity Is Nothing Like Being Transgender — Take It From a Black Trans Woman Who Knows (I take issue with the way Blaque tries to distinguish race from gender, but the rest of the video is right on.

Lisa, How Rachel Dolezal Just Made Things Harder for Those of Us Who Don’t “Look Black”

A good summary of the scientific non-existence of race and the real social construction of it: American Scientist, “Race Finished,” a book review by Jan Sapp

A basic case study of African Americans passing: “A Chosen Exile: Black People Passing in White America.” (From NPR’s Code Switch)

I can’t vouch for all the facts in this article, but it does include a decent summary of the phenomenon of evangelical transracial adoption, which could place the Dolezal household into context: Rachel Dolezal’s Creationist Parents. (From Reverb Press)

Originally published on ArañaMama on June 16, 2015.

Writer, activist, inclusion and equity consultant. Parenting, immigration, LGBTQ+, racial justice. Pub list: