clock menu more-arrow no yes

How to make sense of Rachel Dolezal, the NAACP official accused of passing for black

(YouTube)

Rachel Dolezal is president of the Spokane, Washington, chapter of the NAACP, a Howard University graduate, an adjunct professor of Africana studies at Eastern Washington University, and, according to her application to the policing commission on which she sits, "white, black, and American Indian."

And now the 37-year-old is also an internet sensation. Because despite her racial bona fides — and her recent allegation that she has just become a victim of the ninth racist hate crime committed against her — her parents say she's a white woman.

In light of the questions about her identity, reporters have pieced together her background. Lawrence Dolezal, her father, told the Washington Post that his theory is this: his daughter has long had a diverse group of friends — and black adopted siblings — and ultimately "assimilated" into the culture at the historically black college she chose to attend "so strongly that that's where she transferred her identity."

For her part, Dolezal has accused her parents of physically abusing her and her siblings, reportedly telling the Easterner, a college newspaper — before questions about her background made national news — that "they would punish us by skin color."

Asked in an recent interview with KXLY whether she and her parents were African-American, Dolezal — a curly-haired, blue-eyed woman who looks like plenty of Americans who identify as black, but not much like she did in her straight-haired, much paler childhood pictures — had trouble answering.

The accusation that Dolezal was actually raised as a white woman and formerly self-identified as white but actively tried to deceive people into thinking she was black — curating an entire life to suit this story — has left Americans tickled, intrigued, outraged, and dumbfounded at once.

Dolezal's bizarre story, her apparent success up to this point, and the difficulty with characterizing her conduct (Did she pretend to be black? Did she think she was black? Does it make a difference? Are her parents the ultimate arbiters of her identity? Who decides?) has highlighted the lawless landscape of race in America and the weakness and malleability of the categories we use.

Why this is a spectacle: it highlights the slipperiness of race as a concept

The story has become a national spectacle in part because it's so incredibly unusual. When a black person tries to "pass" for white, it's generally seen as a sobering phenomenon that reinforces how intensely racism can shape people's lives. The idea that a white person would present herself as black has scarcely any cultural, historical, or psychological framework that we can understand.

In an effort to understand why something like this might happen, Dolezal's social media presence has been scrutinized by curious onlookers. November 2013 Facebook selfies from her page are captioned "Going natural as I start my 36th year" — phrasing that alludes to a choice discussed almost exclusively among black women to avoid using heat and chemicals to straighten their hair.

(Rachel Dolezal)

(Facebook: racheldolezal1/via BuzzFeed)

In a 2011 tweet attributed to her, she marked the African-American holiday Kwanzaa by telling followers, "Activate that self-determination, BlackFam." Upon her election to president of the Spokane NAACP in 2012, she told Spokane Faith and Values in an interview, that, in addition to that role and her job as a professor, she was an "ethnic hair stylist" and discussed plans for a local television show focused on diverse families.

Dolezal's life also makes our collective heads spin because to process her account — to articulate her offense, and understand how so many people fell for it — we have to go back to the very basics of what we mean when we say "black" and "white." We have to reexamine our views about what it takes in terms of outward appearance and internal psychology, and life experience, to claim a certain race, and the rules for what makes a person a fraud.

We don't agree on who looks black

We shouldn't be surprised that someone whose parents say she is white was able to present herself as black, with a few little tweaks to her appearance — like her hairstyles and what looks like a fake tan— that served as hints about her identity to people who saw her. (Marcia Dawkins, the author of Clearly Invisible: Racial Passing and the Color of Cultural Identitytold me in a tweet that we should think of her art background combined with her use of cosmetics as "the technology of passing.")

After all, race — the division of people into groups based on general geographical origins of their ancestors or descriptions of the way they look — isn't, contrary to popular opinion, some official, biological fact. It was invented part of a man-made strategy for making sense of treating some people better than others. Because it is an imperfect, messy system that wasn't thought through in great detail in the first place, there's often disagreement about who fits into any particular category, based on the way they look.

There are plenty of people who might have been perceived as black during some periods in history, and not in others. This can even change based on where you are in the world, in the country, or even just based on who's looking. Dolezal appears to be someone who simply chose to manipulate the flexibility that many Americans have.

Because it's often impossible to tell how people identify just by sizing them up physically, we tend to defer to what people tell us. But in cases like this — when we get new information about their family background or lies that they or their parents have told — doing this can leave our heads spinning and remind us of how arbitrary the connection between physical presentation and identity can be for many Americans.

Little White Lie, a film about a woman with a black father and white mother who grew up believing she was just white despite her brown skin and curly hair, is a great example of this. In the trailer for the film, a childhood friend tells her, "I always looked at you like you looked black ...  but not that you were."

We don't agree on how much African ancestry makes you black

In a telephone interview with the CDA Press, Dolezal reportedly insisted that she was African-American.

"They can DNA-test me if they want to," she said. "I would caution you on all of this. This is ridiculous."

The only catch: there's no DNA test for African-American identity.

Now, she could take a DNA test that told her where her ancestors came from, and, sure, finding that even a small percentage of them came from Africa could bolster the case for her black identity in the court of public opinion. But it's hard to say that that would be truly conclusive, given that she's right when she says all humans originated in Africa— and that plenty of self-identified white Americans (about 4 percent) have what Henry Louis Gates Jr., the host of the PBS show Finding Your Roots, has referred to as "hidden African Ancestry."

Here's where, according to a study published in 2014 in The American Journal of Human Genetics, most of them live:

(23 and Me)

(23 and Me)

Comparing ancestry data to how people self-identified, the researchers found that Americans tended to identify as European-American, rather than African-American, when they had less than 28 percent African ancestry.

(23 and Me)

(23 and Me)

But clearly, just like there's no agreement on how black you have to look to be black, there's no agreement about how much African ancestry you have to have to say you're African-American.

Families don't always agree on racial identity

Dolezal's parents told the Washington Post that she is Caucasian.

"There seems to be some question of how Rachel is representing her identity and ethnicity," her father said. "We are definitely her birth parents. We are both of Caucasian and European descent — Czech, German and a few other things."

Reporters' inclination to run to  Dolezal's parents for the final word on her race is a reminder of something else interesting about race in America: it's not uncommon for people to have racial identities that differ from their parents', their siblings, or the labels their families would choose for them.

There are families that share ancestors and looks in which some people call themselves black, some choose white, and others land on "Creole."

Even more dramatic is the story of Lucy and Maria Aylmer, 18-year-olds whose father identifies as white and whose mother is "half-Jamaican" (and, we're to assume, thinks of herself as black). Lucy and Maria are twins who see themselves as members of different racial groups: one black, and one white.

"[U]nfortunately, she is not ethnically by birth African American. She is our daughter by birth. And that's the way it is," Dolezal's parents told the  Post.

Parents' declaration about their child's identity is certainly an important data point, but because of how subjective and personal racial identity is, it's not completely conclusive.

The serious side of an absurd story

What Dolezal is accused of is more than just the basis of a thought exercise about race. Many people are deeply offended by the idea that someone whose family suffered none of the horrifying systemic racism African Americans endure would seem to so gleefully immerse herself in and enjoy the trappings of black culture. And any assertion that she had good intentions but had to fib to attend Howard University or work for the NAACP doesn't hold up: white people can, and do, do both of these things.

But most infuriating to some is the idea that she may be able to retreat comfortably back into a white identity, leaving the racism she claims to have experienced as a black woman behind.

As the story develops, it's possible that we'll get better answers about her motivations and to what extent she was being actively deceptive about how she sees herself. But the issues of race and categorization that provide the context for the entire scandal are never going to be that black and white.

Watch: The myth of race, debunked in 3 minutes

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for The Weeds

Get our essential policy newsletter delivered Fridays.