It’s not as though there hasn’t already been enough written about Rachel Dolezal, the White woman from Montana who has been passing for Black for the last decade. Still, I feel I have to add my two cents to the raging controversy over this woman’s actions. Actually, I have more than two cents to add and I don’t really want to say a lot about Rachel, as much as I want to talk about identity politics in general.
Let’s begin by acknowledging that Rachel Dolezal belongs in a Gillian Flynn novel. If Gillian Flynn wants to write a sequel to Gone Girl, where the main character fakes, not her death, but her race, thanks to Rachel, all the lies, trickery and fake hair machinations have already been figured out. And I’m sure Gillian would write a far better ending than the real Rachel has so far, which has been to offer lame excuses for her preposterous lies. The woman claimed she was born in a teepee, was beaten like a slave and that her adopted Black brother was actually her own child. Those are the lies we know for sure. As the saga unfolds, I am sure more lies will surface. And then of course, there’s the big, enormous lie about her being Black. And that’s the big, enormous lie I believe we should discuss.
Coincidentally, the day before #NotBlackRachel-gate erupted, I had just seen the documentary film, Little White Lie. In the movie, filmmaker Lacey Schwartz explains how she grew up believing she was White, despite the fact that she had brown skin and kinky hair, unlike either of her parents. As it turns out, Schwartz’s mother had had an affair with a Black man but never told her daughter, her husband or any of her family members. What makes the film and Lacey’s story so compelling is that despite her obvious Black features, everybody in her family and mostly White community bought into this “little white lie.” When she entered high school in a more diverse community however, Black people immediately caught on that this girl had to be Black, but it still took four more years for Lacey to learn the truth about her heritage.
As I work on my current book, Same Family, Different Colors , I am constantly learning how significant skin color and hair texture can be in determining a person’s identity. One can be too dark to be considered beautiful and Asian. A person can be too light to be authentically Black. And yet, even though simple gradations of skin tone can alter the way a person of color is treated within their own community and by society at large, people like Lacey Schwartz and Rachel Dolezal seem to suggest that skin color is irrelevant when claiming identity. And if not irrelevant, it certainly is not the main determinant in racial categorization.
Lacey Schwartz has brown skin and curly hair, but for 18 years lived as a White person and experienced the privilege that Whiteness confers. Even today, living as a Black woman, she still feels she maintains some of that privilege. Rachel Dolezal changed her hair and darkened her skin but not in an extreme way, but just enough. But I would posit that it wasn’t her external appearance that guaranteed that people would accept her claim to Blackness. It was simply because she claimed she was Black. She said it, she claimed it, so people believed it. Black people come in all shades so why couldn’t she be just a light-skinned Black woman? As Schwartz proved in her film, even if it’s hard to believe, people generally don’t question a person’s stated racial identity. Look at the actress Rashida Jones, the author Lise Funderburg, or hairstylist and entrepreneur Anthony Dickey. They don’t read as Black, but they all have a Black parent. So, why couldn’t Rachel be one more? That’s the world we live in today.
I don’t care to try to get inside of Rachel Dolezal’s head to understand why she did what she did. But I also don’t think it’s very odd for a White person to want to be Black. Everything Black people do is imitated and appropriated by people all over the world. Our hairstyles, fashion, music, language, religious expression, even the narrative of our struggle is co-opted and embraced by others. Despite the fact that we are publicly abused, shamed, demonized, and killed on city streets, there is no other culture in the world more imitated than Black American culture. I get it. I get why someone might feel an affinity to Black culture and want to not only admire it but claim it, be a part of it, be embraced by its members, not just be an ally or a friend. In other words, not be an outsider looking in but a member of the tribe. Who wouldn’t want that? But at the end of the day, as I learned in the first grade, we don’t get to try on different ethnic identities like new fashion trends.
To me, if Rachel Dolezal had a lifetime membership to a tanning salon, permed her hair, married a Black man named Tyrone, sang in the church choir at the local AME church and named her children Jamal and Kenya, that would be fine. It would be clear she felt most comfortable in the Black community but she would still be White. And honestly, some people might assume she was part Black simply because of her actions, and in that way, without lying on any forms or inventing ancestors that don’t exist, Dolezal could have passed for Black as many people do today who either have ambiguous features or because of their lifestyle. But there is a major difference between committing yourself to a community you feel an affinity for and co-opting a culture and living a lie. You can’t invent a history without expecting the truth to come and bite you in the ass one day. Lies are just lies and they destroy families and other people’s lives. Just ask Lacey Schwartz. The “little white lie” her mother told destroyed her nuclear family and the close relationship she had with her father.
At the end of the day, I think Rachel Dolezal is an interesting character who probably has some mental health issues she should take care of. But I do understand a White woman wanting to be Black so badly, she’d lie about it. Personally, I thank God all the time I came wrapped up in this fine brown packaging. But if there is a takeaway from this whole episode, a teachable moment if you will, then it is to ponder the fluidity of racial categorization and identity markers. I’m not saying that we need to find a different way to define Blackness, because in my mind that’s pretty damn clear. You have to be born Black to be Black. And Black is not about the color of your skin, it means you have “recent” ancestors from Africa. That’s scientific. But from a visual standpoint, it is hard to detect Blackness and even though White Westerners have been trying for hundreds of years to qualify it, quantify it, and put us into a box, they still haven’t figured it out yet. Rachel Dolezal thought she’d figured it out, but clearly didn’t get the memo about Blackness requiring real Black people in her family tree.
What do you think dear readers about this whole thing? I’d love to hear your takeaway. Got my pencil so I can take notes.