What Rachel Dolezal Reminded Us About Racial Identity

The swirling dust that surrounded Rachel Dolezal has finally settled a bit and, luckily for her, Caitlin Jenner emerged, which gave the media storm a new direction in which to swirl. Although the dust has settled and the media trucks are no longer camped out in front of Rachel’s house, the conversations about race that her story ignited are ongoing. Thanks to the recent article in Allure that features white models with afros along with a tutorial for white women to create their very own afro, we are reminded that this long-standing issue of white people appropriating blackness (or what they believe to be blackness) is still lingering like that awful party guest we wish would just leave. And we still need to keep talking about it, no matter how uncomfortable it may make us (white people).

After the fifth or sixth person asked me in person, via Facebook, and via email “what do you think about this whole Rachel Dolezal thing?” I realized I needed to write my next blog so that I could attempt to answer this very question. To prepare myself for writing this particular blog, I needed to read everything I could get my hands on about Rachel and watch every interview that she gave in order to attempt to understand her better. I also discovered a series of video recordings of an interview that she did with a university student who was doing a thesis project on what it means to be a black woman. I found these videos to be the most fascinating of all my research because it was Rachel just being herself before the media storm erupted. When the story first broke, I can honestly say that I didn’t know how I felt about it—I had so many mixed feelings. The easiest answer was and still is—it’s complicated. The whole thing is complicated. Rachel’s story forced us all to acknowledge the complex, contested, and varied meanings of constructs like race, culture, whiteness, blackness, identity, appropriation, and passing.

Rachel’s identity was not called into question until her estranged white parents contacted the media and “outed” Rachel as a white woman. Thus, the firestorm began. Most of us then saw the video footage of the ambush interview with Rachel where she looked like a deer in headlights when asked if she was African American and if the black man in the picture on her Facebook page, whom she identifies as her father, is actually her father. This left many people wondering, how can she be a black woman if these white people are her biological parents? In her most recent Vanity Fair interview, Rachel still maintains that she identifies as a black woman. The phrase that she uses most often to explain this identification is that she strongly identifies with “the black experience” and has for quite some time.

Let’s begin to unpack some of this. First, we should start by looking more closely at race as a construct, and what it means to use the terms white and black. I argue that race is a system of classification and categorization within an established hierarchy that is constructed socially and ideologically and is influenced by social, historical, and political contexts. Group members are positioned by others based on racial ascriptions, and the social realities and consequences of living within raced bodies are experienced both materially and ideologically. These racial ascriptions are typically attributed based on a combination of skin tone, facial features, and hair and have very real consequences for those living in a racialized society, like the United States. **Note: While I also believe gender to be a social construction that is based upon an established hierarchy and that has real consequences, it is not the same thing as race and has many different social, political, and historical contexts than race. Therefore, I do not believe people should compare Caitlin Jenner’s story and experiences to Rachel Dolezal’s story and experiences. These two situations are apples and oranges and, while they are both fruit, they have too many differences to be compared equally.

The racial classifications of white and black originated and were constructed in the United States and, thus, also have long histories of social, political, and historical consequences in this country. The one-drop rule made it impossible for any person to claim to be white should they have any African ancestry, or “one drop” of African blood. The very creation of this rule reminds us that it was (and still is) a privilege to be considered white and that the label white has been used to include some and exclude others, like a membership. Hence, many journalists, scholars, and cultural commentators wondered, “Why would a white woman change her appearance and attempt to ‘pass’ as a black woman?” I don’t think our focus should center on why she did it, rather, we should focus our attention on what the realities are of someone making a choice like this, why many are outraged by her choice, and what we can learn from her story.

One of the realities of this situation is that we need to have more frank conversations about identity and the policing of others’ identities. One thing I do agree with Rachel on is her argument that identity is fluid and ever changing. If we are the arbiters of our own identity(ies), as I believe we should be, then what are the consequences of other people policing Rachel’s identity? There is no simple answer to this question when race is involved. As I stated earlier, this story calls into question the complexity of constructs like blackness, appropriation, and the black experience. A white person can certainly learn black history, listen to black music, appreciate black art, learn to style black hair, and become an ally in the fight for equal rights… but these very things do not make that white person black, nor do they equate to living the black experience. Rachel has said that she does not see her black identity as a costume that she can just put on and take off. I would have to disagree with her on that point. As a white woman, I do not have any first-hand experience with racial discrimination, subjugation, oppression, and persecution. I have read extensively about these topics, have listened to countless first-person stories of these experiences, have witnessed these things happen to my fiancé and other people whom I love deeply, but yet none of these important facts will EVER allow me to know first-hand how these experiences truly feel.

Rachel did not fully come into her identity as a black woman until her mid-to-late twenties. Up until that time, though she claims she always struggled with her identity, she lived her life as a white baby, a young white girl, a white adolescent, and a white young woman. Our racial identity is ascribed to us every day when people look at us, and when one looks at all of the pictures that have emerged from Rachel’s earlier life, she looks like a white child/girl/young woman. Thus, we can safely assume that people read her as white. Therefore, when Rachel sits in a room full of black women, she cannot honestly and authentically identify with these women as they all tell personal stories of growing up as a black child/adolescent/woman in this country and share their countless experiences of discrimination, oppression, subjugation, and persecution because of their ascribed and avowed identity as a black woman. Those lived experiences unite those women in a way that Rachel could not possibly ever understand in any real way. If she were to decide one day in the near future that she’s tired of being a black woman—she’s tired of dealing with daily discrimination, she’s tired of being excluded from the benefits that come with being white, she’s tired of having to deal with the daily obligations of being a black woman, whatever the case may be—she can change her mind and go back to being a white woman. She can take out the braids she’s put in, she can remove all of the self-tanner/stay out of the sun, she can stop using the vernacular she’s adopted, she can re-acknowledge and show everyone her white parents, and she can re-instate her membership in the exclusive white group. The black women in that room could not make this privileged choice and become white whenever they should choose to do so (and I would go so far as to argue that most wouldn’t, even if they could). That is why I disagree with Rachel’s statement that her black identity is not a costume that she can put on and take off, and is also, in part, why so many have reacted strongly to her story, such as this black woman who grew up in Spokane, Washington.

So what has Rachel’s story taught us/reminded us about racial identity? Namely, that it is so darn complicated. We need to continue to think and talk about what it means to live in a raced body in this country. We need to examine identity politics more closely and have more discussions about the policing of others’ identities. We need to remember that there are very real social, political, and historical consequences to being white and being black in this country **Note: race is clearly not just about white and black—there are far more racial categorizations and identities that are just as important—but this story deals specifically with white and black, hence I only mention these two identities in this blog. While the dust may have settled around Rachel’s story and the media machine has moved on to other sensational and splash-worthy stories, I haven’t stopped thinking about her. Thank you, Rachel Dolezal, for reminding us that we still have so much work to do when it comes to race in this country.