Rachel Dolezal’s actions have generated lively and meaningful discussions of racial construct.
RACHEL Dolezal could be my sister.
I mean she could be my sister purely by our looks — I refer here to her most recent and popularized appearance. I know of no overlaps in our family tree. Our ancestors seemed to have traveled in different parts of the country and the world.
People in my personal and professional lives have recognized the similarity. A good friend observed I had been almost scientifically engineered to provide commentary on Dolezal in her final days as president of the NAACP Spokane chapter — not just because I manage a regional news service with a bureau near Spokane and have covered the topic of racial passing and identity as a journalist.
It’s because I’m a biracial woman who grew up in the Northwest.
I was born and raised in Seattle and my roots are in Eastern Washington. My black father grew up in Pasco; my white mother grew up in the tiny wheat farming and ranching town of Prescott. I spent summers of my childhood in that town 20 miles north of Walla Walla. The diaspora of both sides of my family dots the American West, and in Washington it’s a pointillist painting.
Like Dolezal, I would be considered “light-skinned” by anyone who regards me as black. I have Dolezal’s big curls, though not coifed so expertly as hers. I have other big assets, too, and I’ve had them since puberty: lips, forehead and other features. I am identifiable as black to other black and biracial people.
For a while, Dolezal was, too. I learned this week that I’ve met folks who had been aware of her having “passed for black” for years. The moment they confirmed this to their satisfaction they clammed up, moved on and kept their distance. They did not benefit from her passing. I do not expect them to identify themselves in the media.
Racial passing has been part of American society and culture for decades. What we’ve historically called passing was a remedy for injustice. In the Jim Crow era, blacks with light-colored skin, hair and eyes left family, friends and lives to start over among whites — to pass for one of them. The gamble was to bet it all, to give up everything, in hopes of greater freedom and safety. Those who went undetected were able to do so only with the silence of their closest supporters — and sometimes, even, of strangers.
Many blacks (and others) have called Dolezal’s path a “reverse pass.” Her presumed goal, although nobody can truly know, was a position of prominence in revitalizing the civil-rights movement of the Inland Northwest.
Dolezal’s actions have generated the most lively and meaningful discussions of racial construct I’ve been exposed to — including many zingers. A favorite of mine from Seattle writer and solo performing artist Chad Goller-Sojourner referred to his having to “see the papers” of his light-skinned brothers and sisters from now on.
Pains and crimes endured by the person subjecting me to this social vetting may have been rooted in racism...”
I’ve understood the “show your papers” moments in my own life for what they were: investigations of loyalty. Pains and crimes endured by the person subjecting me to this social vetting may have been rooted in racism and committed by people whose skin tone I’d match in a lineup. I’ve been asked about everything from my grandparents to my cooking abilities. Many tests I’ve surely failed; some I know I’ve passed.
When Dolezal failed the tests in her life, she may not have known because the proctors responded with silence. To me, that silence is a distant cousin of the tacit protection blacks granted each other when they let each other “pass.” Some may view this as having let Dolezal off the hook; I see it as telling trouble: “Not today.”