The curious case of Rachel Dolezal has put a new twist in the tortured saga of race relations in America. A lot of people say the country needs a discussion of race and Dolezal, the Spokane NAACP leader exposed as a white woman claiming a black identity, has certainly gotten one going.
Dolezal, 37, was outed by her estranged parents. They had been contacted by a newspaper investigating Dolezal’s claims that she had been the recipient of racist hate mail that, oddly, ended up in an NAACP post office box without any postmarks.
"Rachel has wanted to be somebody she's not,” her mother told USA Today. “She's chosen not to just be herself but to represent herself as an African American woman or a biracial person. And that's simply not true.”
Despite what her birth certificate says — that she is the daughter of a man and women of German and Czech descent — and despite high school photos of herself looking very white, blue-eyed and blonde, Dolezal has not stopped asserting a black identity. Tuesday, in an interview with Matt Lauer on NBC’s TODAY show, she said, “It’s a little more complex than me identifying as black or answering a question of, are you black or white?” She told Lauer she hopes that discussions about her situation can get to “the core of definitions of race, ethnicity, culture, self determination, personal agency and, ultimately, empowerment.”
Is it really that complex? Or is Dolezal simply an impostor? What seems to be the case is that she has felt an affinity with black culture for many years. She has four adopted siblings who are black — one of whom she now considers her son. Escaping the rigid, fundamentalist, home-schooled environment in which she grew up, she attended a predominantly black university where, as a white person, she reportedly brought a discrimination suit against the college. She apparently married and later divorced a black man. Rejecting her biological father, she claims an older black man as her “dad.” And, somewhere along the line, her straight blond hair got dramatically curly and dark while her pale, freckled complexion got noticeably tan.
Is that enough for her to claim she is black? Can someone be “transracial” in the same way some people are transgender? That is a hard idea to sell.
The American conception of race is a social construct that, perversely, was largely concocted by white slave owners who measured racial identity down to the smallest hint of non-European blood. Biologically speaking, other than variations in skin color and facial characteristics, we are all the same, a single species: the human race. But, of course, history has been as powerful as biology in shaping identities and cultural affiliations. Being “black” has had real consequences, so race does matter, even as we struggle to make it matter less and less.
We live in an age where personal identities are becoming more fluid and the understanding of what we call “race” is developing deeper nuances. Rachel Dolezal is a manifestation of that new complexity. For her own reasons, she chose to take on a new self and, in effect, a new skin. In that remaking, she became an accepted and admired member of a community of color. There is nothing wrong with that. But, even by today’s multicultural ethic, did she take it a step too far? Did she expropriate an identity that is not hers to own?