Human Rights

Rachel Dolezal Tried Really Hard to Be Black—But Why?

Here's why Dolezal's deception matters and who it harms.

By now, you may have heard about Rachel Dolezal, the civil rights activist out of Spokane, Wash., who is generating intense media scrutiny after her parents claimed she has been passing as a black woman for years. 

Dolezal, who is currently president of the Spokane chapter of the NAACP, avoided questions about her ethnicity when contacted by the Spokesman-Review Thursday.

“That question is not as easy as it seems,” she told the newspaper. “There’s a lot of complexities … and I don’t know that everyone would understand that.”

During an interview with a local television reporter, Dolezal walked away after he asked about her ethnicity. Today, she told Sky News that she identifies as black, yet rejects the term African American.

But Lawrence and Ruthanne Dolezal, Rachel’s parents, provided the Washington Post with a copy of her birth certificate, which lists her as their daughter. Both parents are white. They also provided photos of Dolezal as a child with straight, blond hair and say her background is “Czech, German and a few other things.”

Dolezal doesn’t mention any of those “other things” in her public lectures or writings, in which she clearly personalizes the black experience. In a March 11 column for Inlander titled “A Woman’s Worth,” Dolezal consistently used the pronouns “us” and “we” when arguing that the nation needs to focus as much time on black women killed by police as it does on black men.

“So why is it that our lives have consistently been valued less, from the auction block in the 1700s to the media attention when we are kidnapped, assaulted or killed in 2015?” she wrote, continuing:

“Where is the reciprocity, acknowledgement and celebration of black women? We are up to our necks in holidays and monuments celebrating men, but where is the day that the nation takes pause to remember the birth or death of a black woman? We march, petition and live our lives in support and connection with the struggle of our brothers. We make and wear Trayvon hoodies, #BlackLivesMatter apparel and 'I Can't Breathe' shirts, but who will memorialize us when we are gunned down by police, assaulted in our homes or killed in a crossfire? We remember the first and last names of our sons who have been killed — Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Michael Brown — but do we know the names of Ashley Yates, Alexis Templeton and Brittany Ferrell, who started the #BlackLivesMatter movement?”

In a YouTube video dated February 17, Dolezal is seen stylishly dressed in a neatly tailored black suit jacket, form-fitting blue jeans and black high heels delivering a lecture on the politics of black hair. At the one minute and 50 second mark of the video, she speaks about “our hairstyles” and at 3:30, she pulls on a strand of her hair and refers to it as one of several types of black hair: curly.

It is not clear why Dolezel devoted so much time to performing as a black woman. But Tanisha Ford, author of the forthcoming book Liberated Threads: Black Women, Style, and the Global Politics of Soul, told AlterNet that the manner in which Dolezel styles her hair informs the kind of black racial politics she wanted to portray.  

“She’s using these things that we reclaimed during the '60s and '70s as markers of our proud Africanness,” said Ford, who is an assistant professor of women, gender and sexuality studies at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. “She’s using those things to mark herself as a black body, so that she is clearly read as a black body. It’s not just that she has changed her hair color to a darker hair color. It’s that she is wearing hairstyles that we would call natural hair styles. In doing that, she’s definitely participating in a particular kind of hair politics where we would see a grassroots activist, a more radical activist, really being invested in wearing natural hair styles as a black woman. There is this particular sphere that it seems like she is trying to traffic in, even if it’s in the broad sphere of black politics. She is not Michelle Obama or Marilyn Mosby. These are women who wear their hair straight. [Dolezal] is clearly adopting hairstyles that are more on the natural end of things, which not only helps to mark her as a black body but as a more radical, grassroots type of activist/political figure.”   

Another way she may have attempted to adopt a black identity was by enrolling in an MFA program at Howard University, a prestigious historically black college in Washington, DC. William Whitman, a spokesperson for Howard, confirmed for AlterNet that Rachel Dolezal-Moore enrolled at the school in 2000 and earn her MFA on May 11, 2002, but could not provide any more details. (According to the Spokesman-Review, in 2000 she married Kevin Moore, whom she has since divorced.)

Her parents told the Washington Post she attended Howard on a full scholarship based on a portfolio of “exclusively African American portraiture,” and that the university “took her for a black woman.”

Eric Guster, a civil rights attorney based in Birmingham, Ala., told AlterNet that if Dolezal did, in fact, earn a scholarship to Howard that was reserved for a black person, she could face a civil lawsuit for fraud from the people who sponsored it. “If it was earmarked for minorities and she utilized those funds and she is not a minority, that would be a problem,” Guster said.

The city of Spokane is investigating whether Dolezal lied about being black on an application to serve in a volunteer position on the citizen police ombudsman commission, according to the New York Times. Guster says that could be an ethics violation if she lied, but  legally challenging her claims of being black would be difficult.

“I think it would be hard for them to prove otherwise,” he said. “They would have to do a DNA test. You have people walking around saying, I’m half-Irish, I’m half-Scottish, I’m this and I’m that. She says, I’m black. And what does being black mean? You have one black parent, both black parents, you have a black grandparent? What does it truly mean?”

Legalisms aside, people have been debating Dolezal’s passability on Twitter for much of the day, with many arguing that some of her more recent photos remind them of their own black family members. Some say she looks white and couldn’t have ever fooled them. Some users have expressed sympathy for the NAACP president using the hashtag “#transracial,” a term some have equated with being transgender. It is a comparison that Elle Hearns, a black trans woman and central regional coordinator for GetEQUAL, says is dangerous.

“Equating my experience to someone such as Rachel who has only pretended to share my real-life experience is violent erasure,” Hearns told AlterNet in an interview. “It plays into the notion that trans people, especially black trans women, are being deceptive in regards to their experience, which is also how I think we elevate the violence that trans people face as a result of their identity and we don’t allow for space to be reflective of actual oppression that we experience every single day. I think about the fact that Rachel is a white woman. Period. And at any point and time that is convenient for her, she can return to being white. As black people, we do not have that option.”

Yaba Blay, author of (1)ne Drop: Shifting the Lens on Race and an expert on colorism in the black community, says using the one drop rule there are people who look like Dolezal, but are genetically black. Blay added that the problem with the word "transracial," which she is unfamiliar with in any scholarly context, is that it allows white people to embrace a very limited aspect of the black experience. For example, Dolezal is seen in social media posts talking about her natural hair style and baking sweet potato pie, all stereotypical experiences associated with black lifestyles.

“The potential for the danger in this transracial situation is that you then can’t control people’s performance of the race they are taking on,” Blay said. “What is dangerous for me in a white supremacist construct is the ways in which white people in the majority receive and translate blackness. It’s limited. So, if that’s the only way in which you receive blackness and perform it, is that really something that is OK?”

For Sil Lai Abrams, whose father is black and mother is Chinese, there is nothing OK about it. Abrams was raised in a white family by a white man who claimed to be her natural father. In reality, her biological father was black, a fact her family willfully hid from her until she was 14 years old.

“As a young person, I was mercilessly taunted living in the white environment I grew up in because of the color of my skin, because my hair wasn’t the texture of my peers, because my nose wasn’t straight and had a pronounced bridge like my peers, because I couldn’t get a Farrah Fawcett flip,” Abrams, who is the founder of media advocacy organization Truth In Reality, told AlterNet. “So when I found out that I was black at 14, I did pass. At that point, I made the conscious decision [not to reveal that I was black] out of fear of what would happen to me if the white people at the schools I attended and the neighborhood that I lived in actually found out that I had black blood, that I wasn’t wasn’t Hawaiian but that I was actually black. I chose to hide that information until I moved away from Central Florida to New York at 18.

"So it’s incredibly offensive because black people passed for self-preservation. Rachel passed for God knows what reason but it was not for self-preservation. Her passing enabled her to become a leader in a historically marginalized and oppressed group of people who accepted her but she has suffered none of our pain. It is unconscionable to me as a black woman that anyone would be defending what she has done because she does not know our pain.”  

Dolezal has claimed she was a victim of racism in the past. On her staff biography at Eastern Washington University, where she serves as a part-time professor of Africana Studies, Dolezal claims to have been the victim of at least eight hate crimes because of her racial justice work. A recent report from Inlander has questioned some of those claims.

The NAACP national office did not address Dolezal’s ethnicity other than saying, “One’s racial identity is not a qualifying criteria or disqualifying standard for NAACP leadership. The NAACP Alaska-Oregon-Washington State Conference stands behind Ms. Dolezal’s advocacy record.”

But Yaba Blay wonders why Dolezal feels the need to perform as a black woman at all. If she is such a great activist for and supporter of black people, she can do that as a white woman.

“I like my white people white,” she said. “Be you. Just be you. I think your work speaks for itself and you don’t have to do these things.”

Terrell Jermaine Starr is a senior editor at AlterNet. Follow him on Twitter @Russian_Starr.

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