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“Rachel Dolezal’s ‘Passing’ Isn’t So Unusual”: A Product of Our Own Contradictory Moment

Why do we care so much about Rachel Dolezal, the head of the Spokane, Wash., chapter of the N.A.A.C.P. who apparently misrepresented herself as African-American when, according to her parents, she is Czech, Swedish and German, with some remote Native American ancestry?

In one sense, it’s not at all surprising. Stories of white Americans “passing” as members of other racial and ethnic groups have often captivated the American public — though the cases that have most fascinated us have usually turned on the malicious hypocrisy of the protagonists. In 1965, The Times famously reported that Dan Burros, the Ku Klux Klan’s Grand Dragon in New York State and the former national secretary of the American Nazi Party, was once a Jew who not only was a “star” bar mitzvah student at his shul in Queens but also brought knishes to white-supremacist gatherings. In 1991, an Emory University professor drew headlines by unmasking Forrest Carter, the author of a best-selling Native American “memoir,” as Asa Earl Carter, an Alabama Klansman and a speechwriter for George Wallace, the state’s segregationist governor.

But nowhere in the details that reporters and Internet sleuths have uncovered about Dolezal is there any inkling of personal commitment to white supremacy; her work with the N.A.A.C.P., now finished, and as a professor of Africana studies suggests quite the opposite. Her story spins at a far lower orbit of oddity than the trajectories of Burros and Carter, yet she is attracting a similar level of attention. More puzzling still, her case has gone viral at a moment when we are learning that Rachel Dolezals have been much more common in this country’s history than we once might have thought.

The history of people breaching social divides and fashioning identities for themselves is as old as America. These stories were never exclusively about blacks who “passed” for white or Jews who, as my grandparents would say, “got over it” and found their way to the Episcopalian side of the ledger — people who felt compelled to shed their birth identities to reap the full rewards of white privilege. From the beginning of the American experience, the color line bent and broke in many directions, and for many reasons.

In 17th-century Virginia, as the genealogist Paul Heinegg has documented, most of the first free families of color descended from white women who had children with slaves or free black men. Because a 1662 Virginia law classified people as “bond or free only according to the condition of the mother,” the status of these families depended on the women’s affirming their whiteness as an official matter. But in everyday life, white mothers of black children were creating new ways for their families and themselves to parse slavery, freedom and race, akin to James McBride’s account in his memoir, “The Color of Water,” of how his mother described her own identity while raising 12 African-American children. When McBride asked her about her parents, she would respond, “God made me.” When he asked if she was white, her answer was, “I’m light-skinned.”

Over time, as racial categories ossified and state legislatures criminalized interracial sex and marriage — an idea that was ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in the 1960s — people continued to define themselves outside the law’s oppressive reach. White people who fell in love with African-Americans could avoid sanction if they asserted that they, too, were black. In 1819, a Scottish immigrant named James Flint described witnessing a black man’s attempt to marry a white woman near Jeffersonville, Ind., just across the Ohio River from Louisville, Ky. The local justice of the peace refused to marry them, citing a legal prohibition, but then had second thoughts, suggesting, Flint wrote, “that if the woman could be qualified to swear that there was black blood in her, the law would not apply.” In a scene anticipating “Showboat” by a hundred years, the groom promptly took a lancet to his arm, and according to Flint, “the loving bride drank the blood, made the necessary oath and his honour joined their hands” and married them.

White people have claimed African-American identity across time, region and class. The historian Martha Sandweiss has documented the case of Clarence King, a celebrated explorer from an elite Newport, R.I., family who could trace his ancestry back to three signers of the Magna Carta. At the end of the 19th century, he led a double life as James Todd, a black Pullman porter whose wife was born a slave. It is not hard to find other examples, all the way up to the present.

This kind of “reverse passing” could occur because the gap between America’s rigid insistence on racial purity and the reality of pervasive mixing left a conceptual blur instead of any defensible boundary between black and white. American history is a history of dark-skinned white people and light-skinned black people. Innumerable men and women explained away their complexions with stories of Spanish, Portuguese, Italian and, in an 1874 Tennessee court case, Carthaginian ancestry. More whites have claimed Cherokee grandmothers than is demographically possible.

Conversely, for John Hope, the first African-American president of Morehouse College and Atlanta University; John Ladeveze, who helped bring the first challenge to segregated education after Plessy v. Ferguson; Charles Chesnutt, the acclaimed early twentieth-century African-American novelist; or the longtime N.A.A.C.P. head Walter White, it was a routine part of life to insist that you were black despite all indications to the contrary. In 1871, Charles Sauvinet, sheriff of Orleans Parish during Reconstruction, sued the owner of a bar for refusing him service because of his race. In court, Sauvinet’s fair complexion prompted a lawyer to ask on cross-examination something very similar to a Spokane TV news reporter’s question — “Are you African-American?” — that so flustered Dolezal. Sauvinet’s answer speaks volumes about the complexity of American racial experience. “Whether I am a colored man or not is a matter that I do not know myself,” Sauvinet said. “But I am, and was legally, for this reason: that . . . you had always refused me, though born and raised here, the rights of citizenship.”

In a sense, the controversy surrounding Dolezal is a product of our own contradictory moment, when Americans are at once far more open to racial boundary-crossing and as preoccupied with those same boundaries as ever. Part of what’s striking about Dolezal’s self-constructed identity is how anachronistic it appears in 2015 — more the stuff of fiction, as in the over-the-top plot conceit of Nell Zink’s “Mislaid,’’ than reality. There seems to be little reason that Dolezal would have needed to identify as black to live the life she has led. After all, white people can form meaningful relationships with African-Americans, study, teach and celebrate black history and culture and fight discrimination without claiming to be African-American themselves. Dolezal was pale with straight blond hair when she earned her master of fine arts degree from the historically black Howard University. She is hardly the first white woman to take an interest in ‘‘the Black Woman’s Struggle,’’ one course she taught at Eastern Washington University.

But Dolezal’s exposure also comes at a time when racial categories have never seemed more salient. The same social media that is shaming Dolezal has also aggregated the distressingly numerous killings of African-Americans by the police into a singular statement on racism and inequality. In this moment, when blackness means something very specific — asserting that black lives matter — it follows for many people that categorical clarity has to matter, too.

The drive for authenticity that Dolezal has prompted is bound to raise more questions than answers. The enormous wealth of historical and genealogical information that is currently being digitized, along with the increasing availability and decreasing cost of DNA analysis, is bending our critical lens for viewing race; the secrets that people took to their graves are no match for Ancestry.com. Among other revelations, the records are proving that an enormous percentage of black men — nearly a fifth, according to one recent study — passed as white in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, suggesting that millions of white Americans could conceivably have African-American ancestry. A tan and curls do not make someone black. Nor does a graduate degree from Howard or a leadership position in the N.A.A.C.P. But it’s becoming harder to say what, exactly, does, even as racism remains real and deadly.

 

By:  June 16, 2015

June 19, 2015 Posted by | Race and Ethnicity, Rachel Dolezal, White Americans | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“It’s Hard To Be Too Exercised Over This”: Rachel Dolezal Proves Race Not A Fixed Or Objective Fact

Of the 60 people who co-founded the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in 1909, only seven were, in fact, “colored.” Most of the organization’s founders were white liberals like Mary White Ovington. Its highest honor, the Spingarn Medal, is named for Joel Spingarn, who was Jewish and white.

Point being, white people have been intricately involved in the NAACP struggle for racial justice from day one. So Rachel Dolezal did not need to be black to be president of the organization’s Spokane chapter. That she chose to present herself as such anyway, adopting a frizzy “natural” hairstyle and apparently somehow darkening her skin, has put her at the bullseye of the most irresistible watercooler story of the year. This will be on Blackish next season; just wait and see.

As you doubtless know, the 37-year-old Dolezal was outed last week by her estranged parents. In response, they say, to a reporter’s inquiry, they told the world her heritage includes Czech, Swedish, and German roots, but not a scintilla of black. In the resulting mushroom cloud of controversy, Dolezal was forced to resign her leadership of the Spokane office. Interviewed Tuesday by Matt Lauer on Today, she made an awkward attempt to explain and/or justify herself. “I identify as black,” she said, like she thinks she’s the Caitlyn Jenner of race. It was painful to watch.

Given that Dolezal sued historically black Howard University in 2002 for allegedly discriminating against her because she is white, it’s hard not to see a certain opportunism in her masquerade. Most people who, ahem, “identify as black” don’t have the option of trying on another identity when it’s convenient.

That said, it’s hard to be too exercised over this. Dolezal doesn’t appear to have done any harm, save to her own dignity and reputation. One suspects there are deep emotional issues at play, meaning the kindest thing we can do is give her space and time to work them out.

Besides, this story’s most pointed moral has less to do with Dolezal and her delusions than with us and ours. Meaning America’s founding myth, the one that tells us race is a fixed and objective fact.

It isn’t. Indeed, in 2000, after mapping the genetic codes of five people — African-American, Caucasian, Asian, and Hispanic — researchers announced they could find no difference among them. “The concept of race,” one of them said, “has no scientific basis.” The point isn’t that race is not real; the jobless rate, the mass incarceration phenomenon, and the ghosts of murdered boys from Emmett Till to Tamir Rice argue too persuasively otherwise.

Rather, it’s that it’s not real in the way we conceive it in America where, as historian Matt Wray once put it, the average 19-year-old regards it as a “set of facts about who people are, which is somehow tied to blood and biology and ancestry.” In recent years, Wray and scholars like David Roediger and Nell Irvin Painter have done path-breaking work exploding that view. To read their research is to understand that what we call race is actually a set of cultural likenesses, shared experiences and implicit assumptions, i.e., that white men can’t jump and black ones can’t conjugate.

To try to make it more than that, to posit it as an immutable truth, is to discover that, for all its awesome power to determine quality of life or lack thereof, race is a chimera. There is no there, there. The closer you look, the faster it disappears.

Consider: If race were really what Wray’s average 19-year-old thinks it is, there could never have been a Rachel Dolezal; her lie would have been too immediately transparent. So ultimately, her story is the punchline to a joke most of us don’t yet have ears to hear. After all, this white lady didn’t just try to pass herself off as black.

She got away with it.

 

By: Leonard Pitts, Jr., Columnist for The Miami Herald; The National Memo, June 17, 2015

June 17, 2015 Posted by | NAACP, Race and Ethnicity, Rachel Dolezal | , , , , , | Leave a comment

   

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