In trying to make sense of Rachel Dolezal, the self-identified “Black” woman of two White parents, and the thought-provoking queries now raised about transracialsim and transethnicity, Boston Globe cartoonist Dan Wasserman provided me with an answer:
“How does a confused Caucasian woman come to define the national conversation on race? What lies matter?”
According to Dolezal, her “transracial dysphoria” (a Black woman trapped in a spray-tanned White, blue-eyed blonde’s body) began around the tender age of five. “I was drawing self-portraits with the brown crayon instead of the peach crayon and the Black curly hair. That was how I was portraying myself,” Dolezal told Matt Lauer, the host of NBC’s The Today Show.
And in speaking to Savannah Guthrie in an interview for NBC’s Nightly News, Dolezal stated “Nothing about being White describes who I am.” But to the contrary, everything Dolezal has done to create her fictive Black life narrative speaks resoundingly so, such as the following: doing Black face as performance by darkening her skin, appropriating fashions and hairstyles associated with Black women, taking on Black vernacular and affectations, claiming Black on an application for the Spokane police commission, pretending to be Black running the Spokane chapter of the NAACP, renouncing her White privilege by appropriating a Black victim status with bogus claims of hate crimes, and choosing when to come out as Black.
In 2002 Dolezal sued her alma matter, Howard University, one of the oldest historically Black colleges in the country, for discriminating against her for being White. In 2007, according to Dolezal’s mother, she began coming out and identifying with the Black community.
In avoiding the public’s questions, how she masterfully duped Spokane’s African American community while heading its NAACP chapter being “incog-Negro,” Dolezal deflected attention away from herself by exploiting the troubling construction of race as her answer.
“While challenging the construct of race is at the core of evolving human consciousness, we can NOT afford to lose sight of the [broader social issues] that affect millions, often with a life or death outcome,” wrote Dolezal, 37. “This is not about me. It’s about justice.”
People of color “passing” as White is part of America’s troubling race legacy. It was done to advance a person’s lot in life for better jobs, housing, and education, and to remove one’s self from the day-to-day dehumanizing discrimination confronted as “other.”
In Jim Crow America it was a common practice for many White-skinned, Caucasian-looking people of color to transgress our country’s policed racial borders by “passing.” Phillip Roth’s novel The Human Stain brilliantly depicts an African American classics professor at an elite New England college passing as Jewish.
Many have speculated that Roth, although he denies it, fashioned his protagonist on the life of Anatole Broyard, the late editor and columnist for the New York Times book review. Broyard died in 1990 in Cambridge, not telling his children he was passing as a White man.
Dolezal’s White-to-Black “passing” is unfamilar to most merely because those racial boundaries are not policed as strictly as “Black-to-White.” Moreover, most people ― Black or White ― cannot fathom why a racially privileged person would want to pass as a member of a marginalized group. But Clarence King, a prominent scientist in the late 19th century was one of many untold Whites who did.
Martha Sandweiss’s book Passing Strange depicts the double life of King. Married to a Black woman in Harlem when anti-miscegenation laws prohibited such unions, King was known among Blacks as James Todd, a Pullman porter, and among his White colleagues as Clarence King, a brilliant geologist. Dolezal’s White-to-Black “passing” is the complication of both White guilt and White rage in an era of affrimative action.
With many Whites still believing that affrimative action bereft them of jobs, college placements, and scholarships, they have fought back, suing on the grounds of “reverse discrimination.” Dolezal’s law suit against Howard was that she was denied a teaching post and scholarship aid because of her gender, pregnancy, family responsibilities and race. It’s not uncommon now for Whites to claim their ethnic card of “otherness.”
African American feminist cultural critic bell hooks sums this ploy among Whites as this: “Why waste time being at the bottom of a lengthy hierarchy of White women when you can be fast tracked to the top of the hierarchy of Black women.”
While many of us will now ponder what being transracial means in light of Dolezal’s coming out as one, it should not be compared to Caitlyn Jenner’s coming out as transexual. A transgender identity is not rooted in deception. It’s not an active choice and it’s not pursued for financial or political gains. A transgender person is someone from birth being assigned a gender inconsistent with his or her inner experiences of gender.
Moreover, I’ve always understood the term “trans racial” referring to adoptions, where children, like the four African American children Dolezal was reared with as her siblings are of a different race and ethnicity of their adopted parents.
Dolezal does not have to be “incog-Negro” to deconstruct and to challenge White privilege, but by being so her White privilege goes unchecked.
Rev. Irene Monroe is a Huffington Post blogger and freelance journalist.