The Rachel Dolezal story has sparked an important national conversation about race, identity, integrity and cultural appropriation.
A week ago, most of the country hadn’t heard of Rachel Dolezal, then the leader of Spokane’s NAACP chapter and an Africana Studies instructor at Eastern Washington University.
After her parents told the world she is white, she has become the face of a national conversation about race, identity, integrity and cultural appropriation.
Much is being said about her case: When and why did this blue-eyed blonde start considering herself black? How could someone sue a historically black university, saying it discriminated against her for being white, and then later tell her own university student she looked too white to participate in a class activity on discrimination?
Despite the spectacle, the Rachel Dolezal story has elicited some thoughtful conversation and analysis about big societal issues and whether someone can latch onto a race or ethnicity they were not, apparently, born to. Here are some samples:
Black like her (The New Yorker)
Jelani Cobb points to what Norman Mailer called “white Negroes:” white people from Elvis to Iggy Azalea who found success via black culture but who still enjoy the day-to-day privileges of being white:
“The black suspicion of whites thus steeped in black culture wasn’t bigotry; it was a cultural tariff — an abiding sense that, if they knew all that came with the category, they would be far less eager to enlist.”
Cobb goes on to say that ancestry isn’t the only thing that makes a person black, and then to question what that means for the black community.
“Rachel Dolezal is not black — by lineage or lifelong experience — yet I find her deceptions less troubling than the vexed criteria being used to exclude her.”
Black like who? Rachel Dolezal’s harmful masquerade (The New York Times opinion pages)
Tamara Winfrey Harris writes that although Dolezal worked for a worthy cause, she undermined that cause by imitating the very people she hoped to uplift. Harris explores the “one-drop rule” and what “blackness” and “whiteness” have meant in America over time:
“Some people have pointed to this strange case as an illustration that race is malleable. I submit that Ms. Dolezal is a reminder that it is not. Racial identity cannot be fluid as long as the definition of whiteness is fixed. And historically, the path to whiteness has been extremely narrow.”
On Rachel and the nature of blackness (Eastern Washington University student blog)
One of Rachel Dolezal’s students at Eastern Washington University takes on the question of “what is black,” noting that “people considered Black 50 years ago would be thought of as white today.” Jaclyn Archer credits Dolezal with helping her come into her own as a black woman:
“Nothing — not her ethnicity, her dishonesty, the problematic nature of her activist narrative, her dubious background, the revelation thereof or any of the subsequent fallout — can change that.”
Jamelle Bouie outlines two ways to be black — racially and culturally — and what each means for a person’s experience in society. He writes that Dolezal has some connections to the black community, “even if her connections were manufactured,” but it is “an à la carte blackness, in which you take the best parts, and leave the pain aside”:
“To belong to the black community is to inherit a rich and important culture; to be racially black is to face discrimination and violence.”
What Rachel Dolezal doesn’t understand: being black is about more than just how you look (The Washington Post)
Osamudia James, a University of Miami School of Law professor, writes that Dolezal used a “black woman costume” of braids, nails and jewelry to gain status in a community that is not hers.
“[Blacks’ resilience] results in a lived, day-to-day racial experience that enriches our lives and informs the world; an experience to which Dolezal may not fraudulently lay claim…”
Rachel Dolezal and the history of passing for black (The Atlantic)
In a Q&A, Baz Dreisinger, a professor and author of “Near Black: White-to-Black Passing in American Culture,” explains that “passing for black” has a history. The professor notes that “the concept of white passing is actually born more out of anxiety than fantasy,” while “[in] the cultural domain, it certainly can be advantageous to pass as black.”
“All of the work she did as a ‘black woman,’ she could have done as a white woman. And in some ways, maybe that would be more radical, because it’d be a statement that, ‘I don’t have to be it, to be of it.'”
Spokane woman is a race chameleon of a different stripe (The Washington Post)
Lonnae O’Neal talks of blacks, including a cousin, “passing” for white, and whites “who have so much heart for black culture they get honorary status.” But, O’Neal adds, they don’t “check black on applications, or, you know, lie to people.”
“As a white woman, the minute she called herself black on paper, she was in a different kind of race place, fueled by a special kind of appropriation. It’s one that, for all her heart and good works, still smacks of privilege.”
Have you read something particularly compelling? Share links and your own thoughts in the comments below.