Getting a clearer view of a white woman's black deception

Rachel Dolezal may have had the style right, but the substance was wrong. Seriously wrong

I can't help but pity Rachel Dolezal, the white woman whose masquerade in modern-day blackface has been entertaining us since last week.

Dolezal, who headed the Spokane, Wash., chapter of the NAACP until she resigned Monday, was expected to address the controversy but instead posted a message on Facebook about "challenging the construct of race" — as if her years of role-playing were just some high-minded intellectual exercise.

Watch Sandy lead a video discussion: What defines race?

Since being publicly outed by her white parents, Dolezal has been pilloried and ridiculed for trying to co-opt black "sister-girl" status with a dark tan and kinky perm.

Yet for years the charade worked.

That's what makes this more than a sideshow spectacle. Dolezal's success in sliding from white to black raises questions about the nature of racial identity: what accounts for it, how much it matters and who gets to decide.

The "colorblind" crowd says this scenario shows how insignificant race should be.

Race scholars — yes, that's an academic specialty — say the episode may herald a new era of racial fluidity.

"People have become more assertive and comfortable about demanding public recognition of their racial identity," said USC Gould School of Law professor Camille Gear Rich, who coined the term "elective race" because it's rooted in personal choice.

Dolezal "may have taken it a bit too far," she said. Most people who label switch are multi-racial. "She's making these claims without any biological basis.... People find that offensive."

Particularly actual black people, who see Dolezal as an impostor turning cultural touchstones into trite commodities. Someone who wants the benefits, but none of the burdens, of being black.

I'm not offended by Dolezal's desire to stake a claim to black identity. That sort of cultural appropriation is irritating, but commonplace: Look at Kylie Jenner's newly full lips. Listen to Iggy Azalea rap.

But I am insulted that so many people find it so hard to believe that a white person would want to be black.

More often than not, it's actually quite nice on this side of the color line.

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Until Dolezal publicly explains, we can't know how or why her subterfuge began. That hasn't stopped armchair shrinks from trying to explain it:

She's acting out some kind of weird emotional family drama. She's trying to boost a flagging career with affirmative action points. She's elevating her status from ordinary blond white woman to stunning light-skinned sister with blue eyes and good hair.

In California, we're accustomed to racial ambiguity. But in Spokane, the exotic Dolezal was like a celebrity. I'd be surprised if anyone ever asked outright if she was black.

It's a touchy prospect, trying to discern a stranger's pedigree. I know because I've fumbled through it over the years.

I've been on the receiving end of that quintessential California question — "Where're you from?" — that teeters between compliment and insult, depending on the setting and tone of voice.

And I've interrogated my children about the heritage of their friends. "She's pretty. What is she?" I used to casually ask, after I'd met another olive-skinned, curly-haired girl. "She's a human being" was the usual response I'd get.

I was asking because I worried that my daughters didn't have enough black friends at their suburban high school. Race meant more to me than it did to them.

Dolezal's background suggests she came of age in a racially observant household too.

She grew up in Montana, with parents who adopted four black children when she was in her teens. She went to a Christian college in Mississippi and volunteered with its "racial reconciliation" ministry. She earned a master's degree at historically black Howard University. She married a black man, and they had a son before they divorced.

She considers herself an activist. She led the Human Rights Education Institute in Idaho, taught in the Africana studies program at Eastern Washington University and guided the Spokane NAACP through a profitable and productive resurgence.

None of that required Dolezal to be black. In fact, civil rights battles benefit from the support of white allies.

When I was in high school, my black history teacher was a white woman who pushed us to dispatch propaganda and seek truth. We learned that skin color wasn't a measure of commitment. She was so in tune with her students — on a campus where almost every student was black — that her lack of melanin never mattered.

Her honesty did.

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The long-running lie is the most craven part of Dolezal's charade. That's what fueled the sense of betrayal that lighted up #blacktwitter and dominated Facebook news feeds.

"It is no different," one Facebook post read, "from someone claiming to be a war veteran and joining the VFW, when they never served a day in their life."

Dolezal had the style right, but the substance was wrong. Seriously wrong.

I realized that as I poked around online, researching her past. I came across a series of video interviews conducted by a young white student relying on professor Dolezal to deconstruct black women.

According to Dolezal — speaking as one of us — we're always worrying about our hair. And how we dress. And how we talk. And whether to use our EBT cards to buy groceries when white customers are around.

Sometimes we want to be free to not care about our appearance, she said. But we don't want whites to think "those people have a lower standard of hygiene."

This is all a "fairly universal experience for black women in a majority white area," she insisted as the camera rolled.

She was being asked to describe the lives of "normal" black women; to translate our lives for her students. And instead of illuminating the range of circumstances, she perpetuated tired and insulting stereotypes.

The subject of race is tricky enough to navigate without a phony expert throwing stink bombs on the path.

sandy.banks@latimes.com

Twitter: @SandyBanksLAT

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