Rachel Dolezal: The Grey Area of Racial Identity

Amidst the media flurry around transgendered people and race-based hate crimes, the spotlight was already on identity and discrimination before it hit Rachel Dolezal. With many questions and few answers, the recent issues have opened a new avenue of thought: how fluid is the notion of race?

An outspoken advocate for American civil rights, Dolezal was the former president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and only recently resigned from the post in light of the controversy surrounding her racial identity. Dolezal’s parents revealed to the public in an interview that their daughter was not African American, neither full nor in part, as she claims to be. Her lineage comprises of German, Czech, and Native American roots; however, according to her parents, Dolezal only identified herself as Black from 2007 onwards, transforming her appearance to fit into her belief more accurately and comfortably. Contrary to her parents’ statements, Dolezal continues to assert her statement that she does consider herself to be black, and has listed herself as such on numerous accounts.

With the discussion of Bruce Jenner’s transition to Caitlyn Jenner still making news, Dolezal’s actions have brought into question the mutability of race. While she does not specifically consider herself to be transracial—a term traditionally used in the form of “transracial adoption,” which is the act of placing a child of one racial or ethnic group with adoptive parents of another racial or ethnic group—new meaning is being given to the term as its usage becomes more prevalent in the discussion of Dolezal’s situation. Another term that is perhaps more accurate is “racial passing,” which occurs when a person regarded as a member of one racial group is accepted as a member of a different racial group. There have been many cases in the past, particularly during more severe moments in America’s history of racial discrimination, where people of a minority group chose to falsely identify themselves in order to avoid racism.

While much less common, passing to a minority group is also not new to America. Blackface, particularly, has been well documented, though its history primarily consists of appearing black for entertainment and/or research purposes. Certain experts have suggested that by assuming this role for so many years, Dolezal may truly believe she is of Black heritage, making this a case different from most of the previous incidents, though it does ring similar to the case of Ward Churchill, a professor and activist for Native American rights who claimed to be Cherokee-Muscogee Creek. The discussion around Churchill eventually faded away as it became clear that despite what race he may or may not be, it did not take away from the work he had done in support for Native American rights, and was accepted by the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians as an “honorary member” very much like the NAACP has stood by Dolezal’s advocacy and former presidency.

On the other hand, as grief and shock turn to analysis and outrage over the shooting of nine in Charleston, South Carolina, Dolezal’s “transracial” issue has also brought the concept of white privilege to the forefront. Rachel Dolezal, as a white woman, could choose to take on the Black persona without the burden of racial discrimination, and then, theoretically, choose to go back whenever she wants. Questions have been raised by the media as to whether this was an act of intentional deceit for the purpose of career advancement and the appropriation of black history and culture, or a demonstration of transracial identity. Ironic in this dilemma is that as a black woman Dolezal received respect, power, and praise, but now, as a presumed white woman, she has suffered a lot of backlash with accusations of deceit and popularity stunts.

Rachel Dolezal’s revealed old identity highlights many points to consider in the subject of identity. How is race determined? Can we choose our race? Do we have the right to assume the race of another? In a public statement issued on June 15, 2015, Dolezal said that “challenging the construct of race is at the core of evolving human consciousness.” In the same way that transgendered people feel the need to change their gender in an outward alteration of identity in order to fully embrace who they are, Dolezal’s modification of her appearance from the blonde, blue-eyed teenager that she was to the darker skinned, mixed-race appearing woman she is today could quite simply be a show of her identity, and nothing more. Whether this was the motivation for or the result of her actions still remains unclear.

Image Source: The Independent

This piece was originally published in Affairs Today (June 2015).

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