Thoughts on Rachel Dolezal

By now you've probably heard of Rachael Dolezal, the woman exposed for passing as black. She was good at it; in 2014-15 she was actually the president of Spokane, Washington's NAACP chapter. In truth, she lied about having an African-American father and is of Czech, German, and Swedish heritage. Childhood pictures emerged, which showed her with braces, straight hair, and be-freckled pale skin. Her "black" public presence is the product of a good hairdresser and Mystic Tan spray-on.

These revelations led to savaging and shaming; that's what we do in a culture where hard journalism has given way to gotcha pillorying. So now Dolezal, who got a full scholarship to Howard University, passed herself off as an expert on black art, and once taught Africana Studies, is now jobless and, if she is to be believed, soon to be homeless. Plenty of signs indicate she may have issues beyond her rigid Christian homeschooling, including allegations that Dolezal plagiarized some of her art. Who knows? I'm not a psychologist. But my social/historical, perspective leads me to opt out of the public shaming game.

Dolezal now calls herself "transracial." Before you dismiss this as an attempt to divert attention from her lies, there's the inconvenient fact that she's right, even if you conclude that her only true artistry is of the con variety. Strictly speaking, nearly every human being on this planet is a racial mutt. Insofar as can be determined, Homo sapiens originated in Africa and/or Asia, but we don't have to go that far back in history. About 4% of today's Caucasian Americans have some African ancestry; no matter how "white" they (or their Klan robes) appear. If you want to know the true legacy of slavery, consider that 25% of the genomes in the average "black" person in the United States are European. Southern racial "purists" never needed to protect white women from black men; they needed to protect black women from white male rapists. 

Clarence King
Rachel Dolezal reminds us that race is a social fiction, not a biological fact. She identified as black­–as good a reason for being "black" as any. She's not the first to go that route. We hear much about African Americans "passing" for white, but there are cases in which it ran the other way. Look at this picture of Clarence King (1842-1901), who led a double life. As King, he was a famed geologist, author, and lecturer; as James Todd, he married and fathered children with an African-American woman. It was easy to get away with it. He simply proclaimed himself "black." In the prevailing "single drop" views of the day, one's "blood" mattered more than outward appearance. King/Todd was black because he said he was–just like Dolezal.

Now gaze upon Walter Francis White (1893-1955). From 1931-1955, he was he executive secretary of the national NAACP. Though he looks as "white" as his name, he was a "negro" because five of his thirty-two great-great-great grandparents were African American. He flunked the single-drop rule and had to attend a black college in Atlanta. White surely could have "passed" for white, but chose instead to identify as black—again like Dolezal.

Walter F. White

Now let's look at a few more pictures. W. E. B. DuBois always gets the lion's share of credit for founding the NAACP, but he was only a cofounder. Among the other founders were social reformer Lillian Wald and civil rights activist Henry Moskowitz. They were Jews and, in the early 20th century, Jews weren't viewed as entirely "white." 

Lilliian Wald
Henry Moskowitz

Remember: the NAACP stands for National Association for the Advancement of Colored People; the terms "black," "negro," or "African American" are notable by their absence. "Colored" meant anyone not considered "white," the latter term being the ultimate fiction. If you think you are "white," look in the mirror and tell how much you resemble a snowflake. Maybe then you'll come around to the point-of-view of journalist Oscar Garrison Villard or the socialist labor activist William English Walling. Not only do they look white, they passed every test for being white of their day. Yet both were cofounders of the NAACP. Why? Because they thought discrimination was wrong and felt the sooner America stopped inventing "race," it could dispense with racism.

Oscar Villard

William English Walling

So look again at Rachel Dolezal. Is she black? White? I'm not defending lying or self-aggrandizement, but perhaps Dolezal can help us focus on what matters and what doesn't. Hey–maybe she can become a rapper. Apparently that's one area of American culture where it's fine for "white" folks to pretend to be "black" and profit from it. What makes that any better than what Dolezal did? 

No comments: