Passing While Black: Rachel Dolezal And The Fight For Racial Justice

Rachel Dolezal

I’ve always felt that one of the key reasons for the persistence of racism in American society is that most white people simply don’t get it, and probably never will. No appeals to reason or presentation of data on racial inequality will help.

Put simply, most white people don’t get it is because they are unable to walk in black people’s shoes.

To use the words of Atticus Finch in Harper Lee’s classic, To Kill a Mockingbird, "You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view … until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”

It is easy for white people to see the world from their vantage point, but it takes a lot of empathic effort to step outside your own interests and needs and into the shoes of black people and see and experience this country as an African American.

Rachel Dolezal – a blond and paled-skinned white woman without a hint of African heritage from Montana – stepped into black shoes, changed her appearance by transforming herself into a black woman, and attempted to “see and experience this country” as a black person.

Her decision to self-identify as African American has set off a firestorm of controversy, launching a national debate about the meaning of racial identity. While some in the black community applaud her passion and commitment to African American causes while pretending to be black, others are highly critical of her deception, see too close a parallel to Blackface, and believe she was motivated by her sense of white privilege rather than a deep commitment to racial justice. 

The national conversation about race and identity has been quite fascinating. Although it has been proven that biological race is an illusion, most people appear to cling to the idea that genetically homogenous populations exist, and intentionally (or unintentionally) defend those boundaries. 

Dolezal has been unapologetic about her decision to catapult across the color line.

When asked by Matt Lauer on NBC’s Today Show, when did she decide to deceive people about her racial identity, she responded, “I do take exception to that because it’s a little more complex than me identifying as black, or answering a question of, ‘Are you black or white?’ ” she said. In a series of interviews later that day, she also described herself as “transracial” and said: “Well, I definitely am not white. Nothing about being white describes who I am.”

Dolezal told Lauer that from an early age, she has “identified as being black.” At the age of 5 she colored her self-portraits in brown rather than peach crayon and gave herself curly black hair, not the straight blonde hair she inherited from her biological parents.

I may be in the minority, but I believe that Dolezal’s identification with the African American community and black culture and her commitment to racial and social justice is genuine. I also think her deception was a calculated risk she took for a reason. I take her at her word when she said to Lauer, "overall, my life has been one of survival, and the decisions that I have made along the way, including my identification, have been to survive."

Given the lack of empathy a majority of whites have for black suffering and the hostility that accompanies even modest attempts to alleviate that suffering if it clashes with white interests and needs, Dolezal’s faced a difficult choice. She decided that her only option was to literally be a race traitor.

The reality is that white people who work closely with black people and become heavily involved in black causes run the risk of being heavily criticized by other whites, and perhaps even ostracized by friends and family.

Dolezal’s family proves my point. Her parents and siblings have not shied away from any opportunity they get to step in front of a TV camera to out her as being “genetically white” and denounce her as a fraud.

But, it is not impossible for whites, as Theologian Reinhold Niebuhr put it to “have eyes to see and heart to feel” what most whites are “too blind and too callous to notice.”

In my experience working alongside white leaders of mostly white social justice organizations (primarily as a member of the board) – in groups such as Connecticut Citizen Action Group (CCAG), Connecticut Center for a New Economy (CCNE) and Common Cause Connecticut (CCCT) - I’ve been impressed with their ability to empathize with the experiences of black people (it is important to say, however, that the work is far from perfect).

But, they are not enough; they are in the minority. We need more people like them going out into white communities, especially Whitopia – a city and county in the U.S. that is whiter than the nation, its respective region, and its state – and organizing whites around racial and social justice.

In many ways, Dolezal took the easy route; she put on a black mask and avoided the really hard work of working within white communities where people like her are most needed today.

Ironically, Dolezal has suffered a fate somewhat similar to that of blacks who crossed the “color line” and passed for white. Many African Americans “light” enough to pass lived in constant fear of being caught. The price paid would often mean a loss of their job and if they lived among whites, being forcefully expelled from the community. For some, it could mean being lynched.

Of course, Dolezal doesn’t face the same risks faced by blacks passing as white in the late 19th and early 20th Century - I’m not aware of any death threats she’s received nor has she described living with the same kind of existential fear of being outed – but she has paid a price for her racial deception. She resigned from her position as president of the Spokane chapter of the NAACP. She lost her teaching job at Eastern Washington University. She has been accused of making false statements to the police about racially motivated harassment and intimidation.

I hope she recovers soon and gets back to work. But this time, as a white women committed to racial justice working to challenge and transform white America's racial attitudes and behaviors.


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