Rachel Dolezal, 37, the head of the Spokane, Washington, branch of the NAACP, has represented herself as an African-American woman and has built a career as a vocal advocate and academic expert on issues related to race and police brutality. Moreover, she and her husband adopted four black children. However, her white parents outed her as a white woman, providing her birth certificate as proof.
Dolezal has received support in social media, with some using the hashtag #Transracial to compare her to Caitlyn Jenner, 65, the reality show star and Olympic athlete formerly known as Bruce Jenner who recently came out as a transgender woman and appeared in Vanity Fair. If Dolezal identifies as black, just as Jenner identifies as a woman, they argue, should she not be accepted in that way?
“Who cares. If you can change your gender and identify as the opposite sex…why can’t someone identify as another race?” one Facebook commenter said.
“If she is helping and fighting for our rights, I don’t see what the issue is?” added another poster on theGrio’s Facebook page. “She’s probably done and is doing more for black people than our ‘black leaders’ care to do.”
There are those who disagree. For example, some voices argue that if Dolezal wanted to help, she should have done so with her own skin. One social media commenter said it was deceptive for Dolezal to represent herself as African-American: “I don’t take issue with her being a white NAACP leader. It’s the conscious decision and the audacity it took to be that dishonest. It’s pretty disturbing.”
Another argued that “you should also consider that much of our struggle has been tied to the fact that many of us lack pride in being black. Rachel no doubt understood this, which makes her actions somewhat hypocritical. We are an accepting people. She could have fought just as vigorously for issues that affect black people without denying her own racial identity.
The diversity of opinions on the subject reflect the complexities of race and gender. After all, while there is a genetic or hereditary component to race — as well as shared experiences, culture and perhaps a legacy of oppression — race is a social construct, determined by people. For example, the U.S. once had a “one drop rule” that defined blackness as someone with the smallest degree of black ancestry. Moreover, it is likely that millions of white Americans have black ancestry and don’t even know it, with an estimated 4 percent of whites having at least 1 percent African DNA. According to Harvard Prof. Henry Louis Gates, based on the one drop rule, nearly 8 million whites would be classified as black. And in parts of the South, as many as 12 percent of whites are part black.
Watch Rachel Dolezal discuss her race here
Further, just as many blacks were able to “pass for white” and were absorbed by the white community, the black community always has adopted whites into their families and into the movement. However, the case of a white woman who felt the need to pass for black could send the message that one has to be black in order to fight for African-American issues, which is not the case. One example is Tim Wise, an anti-racism essayist and educator that Cornel West called “A vanilla brother in the tradition of (abolitionist) John Brown.” Another example is the white Southern man whose video analysis of racism, white supremacy and white fear of black vengeance went viral.
Veronica Agard, a program associate at Humanity in Action and a transnational-black feminist who has written about black women and police violence, is torn about Rachel Dolezal. “My first thought was that she was practicing Blackface in an organization that is for and by people of color and the fact that happened is troublesome,” Agard told theGrio. “However, I’m also cautious of labelling her as ‘troubled’ or ‘delusional’ as mental illness should never be used to explain away people’s behaviors. I want to know not only why she thought that this was okay, but why her parents only JUST said something if they chose to out her.”
Agard also raised the issue of Dolezal and white privilege. “I don’t agree with what she did, but her privilege as a white woman to CHOOSE to be another race is something that only white people can do. The same way that they can claim Native-American ancestry and be validated by each other. However, the one-drop rhetoric and mindset still applies when discussing blackness and black identity,” she added.
Meanwhile, some black trans voices argue there is no comparison between gender and racial identity. “Equating racial identity to gender identity is black trans erasure. The longer we talk about Rachel Dolezal and Caitlin Jenner, the more we contribute to the systems of violence that oppress black people and especially black, trans people,” Elle Hearns, Central Region Field Coordinator at GetEQUAL told theGrio.
Hearns, who is a black trans woman, called the Dolezal affair a disappointing moment: “White supremacy goes so deep that in order to talk about race we must center the portrayal of blackness by a white woman to engage in conversation at all. This is systemic racism in action and we should be talking about LGBTQ liberation and uplifting stories of black trans people committed to surviving.”
Follow David A. Love on Twitter at @davidalove