On Tuesday morning, Rachel Dolezal, the now-former Spokane NAACP president whose racial identity became a nationwide controversy when her parents told the media she was a white woman passing for black, finally gave her side of the story to the Today show. Dolezal claimed that her black identity was rooted in something deeper than just skin color or hair, as Vox's Jenée Desmond-Harris wrote:
"This is not some freak Birth of a Nation mockery blackface performance," she said. "I've actually had to go there with the experience. Not just the visual representation but the experience."
Of course, it's much easier to say that you've had to "go there with the [black] experience" than prove you actually have. But the distinction was striking to me because it sounds awfully similar to a point historian Baz Dreisinger made when I spoke with her about the history of white people passing for black.
"I believe in the idea of creating identities. There are legitimate ways to cross-identify culturally," Dreisinger told me. What distinguished more legitimate cases of "white passing" from unacceptable ones, she said, was what she called "character vs. caricature":
When someone is performing a caricatured idea of blackness that's not rooted in any sort of cultural experience with however one defines blackness, that's clearly very different than someone who's perhaps grown up in this community, is rooted in an identification with it that extends beyond just a little phase in their life, that extends a into a deeper affiliation with that culture.
What does that mean? Well, just ask the editor of America's first black daily newspaper, the New Orleans Tribune — who was actually a Belgian immigrant named Jean-Charles Houzeau, but who took advantage of his dark skin and French name to pass himself off as one of New Orleans's many light-skinned black Creoles.
As Dreisinger pointed out during our interview, Houzeau said he "never sought to dispel the rumors" that he was black — which sounds like Dolezal telling Today that "she'd first been described as biracial and black in newspaper accounts and she did not challenge this description." But Houzeau actually went further than that. At one point, he wrote in a letter home to Belgium:
For myself, who knew how to make myself a proletarian in Europe, it had not been difficult to make myself black in the United States. I think and I feel that which a freedman must think and feel. I do not consider things from the point of view of a protector, but as they have told me a hundred times, I really am one of them.
Both Dolezal and Houzeau were working professionally to improve the welfare of black Americans. And as Dreisinger pointed out to me during our interview, it's much harder to dismiss someone like that than it is to dismiss someone "who decides he's black after watching three hours of BET":
(Houzeau's) identification was based on him being an activist, involved in politics, involved in the abolitionist movement, and involved in black rights. Can we differentiate that from the scenario of the kid who's just watching a lot of hip-hop videos? You're identifying based on something that has more substance, that is based on experience and knowledge and intellectual understanding, perhaps a social and cultural understanding.