Dressing up in a Black woman’s costume does not a Black woman make. Rachel Dolezal has effectively managed to gain all of our collective attention by sewing in stereotypical Black hair, slathering herself in self-tanner and living her life as a Black woman. She made it to the presidency of the NAACP in Spokane, WA, but has now been “exposed” as a White woman.
While I may have rolled my eyes at Dolezal’s self-proclaimed Blackness, I understand that Rachel’s story is more than racial. It’s about the desire to be what you want to be, rather than what was given to you. Her dramedy of errors has opened up an interesting subject matter that we’re all familiar with, but now has a new name: transracial.
Come on, right!? Transracial! Where do we draw the line on changing who we are?
What does the term mean anyway? It’s like “passing,” which began as early as the 18th century and still finds its way into our society today. The idea is that a person is classified or born as a member of one race, but has the physical features to be a part of another racial group and therefore pretends to be a different race. Typically attributed to mixed-race people, “passing” has been prevalent in the United States among those for whom it afforded an escape from segregation and discrimination. In other words, this was something our ancestors did in order to survive in the face of brutal racism.
Rachel’s choice had nothing to do with survival, even though she’ll tell you otherwise.
“My life has been one of survival,” Dolezal said on The Today Show. “The decisions I made have ultimately been ones of survival.” What exactly is she surviving–running away from her White parents and keeping the lie alive? Is she surviving being the first transracial person getting shine in the media? That time Howard wouldn’t give her a job, so she had to eat oatmeal because that’s all she could afford?
Transracial has yet to be defined by society’s standard, but you can call it passing 2.0. Furthermore, the prefix “trans” has automatically generated a comparison to the transgender struggle.
Critics have included transgendered people into the conversation, claiming that transracial and transgender are comparable. I agree. You were born something, but identify as something else, so you make the necessary changes so that you can continue living the life you want. Caitlyn Jenner and Rachel Dolezal are not the same women, but they shoot at the same basket. Both were born in ways they didn’t identify with. Both made changes to themselves to be who they want to be. The biggest difference here is that Rachel intended to deceive people into believing that she was born Black, has Black children and is currently still Black.
I won’t dare excuse the insensitivity it takes to pretend to be someone else, but there has to be a root to it. The origin is likely in her childhood, when her parents adopted Black children into their “diverse” family.
According to court documents obtained by CNN, Rachel Dolezal’s adopted brother, Izaiah — who is Black — sought emancipation from Rachel’s parents Ruthanne and Lawrence Dolezal in 2010. Izaiah, who is now 21, claims that the Dolezals used “physical forms of punishment” and sent his brother and sister away to group homes because they didn’t cooperate with the couple’s religion and rules. Something in that Dolezal home wasn’t right and it has clearly taken a toll on Rachel’s identity.
I can certainly understand her want to escape from her own reality. I remember in 6th grade, I would look around my middle school classroom and put together the perfect girl based on the attributes of my female classmates. My eyes danced around and landed on Takia, she had long, flowing, curly hair. That’s the hair I wanted. Then I looked over at one of her best friends, with a rhyming name, Shakeya. She was fair-skinned; I wanted her skin tone. Then there was Jackie. She had the thick and athletic body that every boy lusted over; I wanted that physique. So I created a girl and I named her Jordynne. I always wanted a boy’s name. I thought it would make me cooler.
I started writing short stories about Jordynne, creating everyday scenarios that reflected a life that I thought I was supposed to be living. Jordynne had an endless supply of clothes that weren’t from the Salvation Army. She could put her hair up in a bun and take it down by just shaking her head. She walked without her shorts disappearing between her thighs. Jordynne had a boyfriend who adored her and everyone in school knew they were a couple. Jordynne was my escape because living my own Black, fat, outsider life wasn’t enough for me. I didn’t want to be me.
I would also talk “White,” according to my family members. My best friends Ashley, Lauren and Melissa all lived in the suburbs and I begged almost every weekend to spend the night at one of their houses. I not only wanted to spend time with my friends, but I wanted to escape from my ghetto neighborhood and spend enough time at their houses (complete with an upstairs!) so that I could pretend I actually lived there.
One night, I sat up in the kitchen on the phone with Ashley. “OMG Ashley!” I cackled.
My mom walked in the kitchen and started pretending to toss her hair over her shoulder and mouthed, “OMG Ashley!”
Once I hung up the phone, my mom said, “Why do you talk so White when you’re on the phone?”
I didn’t have an answer. I just knew that I identified with what I deemed to be White attributes.
That being said, I would never get a straight blonde wig (even though I wear a curly brown one now), get blue contacts or lighten my skin in order to fully carry out my desire. For one, I didn’t have the courage. Rachel’s actions beg the question: Is she courageous for taking her Black identification to the next level by being it? Yes, but it’s also the dumbest idea since Iggy Azalea’s (who is probably giving us all the side eye) rap career.
I’m all about anyone choosing to be who they believe they are and doing what it takes to create that, but not with hurtful lies that end up challenging Blackness. Rachel can identify as Black until she’s blue in the face, but it won’t make her Black. And I am judging her on an unspoken standard of Blackness.
She wasn’t born Black, so she can’t be Black.
Her skin tone is White, so she can’t be Black.
She doesn’t understand Black struggle, so she can’t be Black.
Rachel Dolezal lied about being Black, so she can’t be Black.
Rachel tried to construct her Blackness based on every (dare I say it) positive stereotype she could find. She went to college in Jackson, MS, grad school at Howard University, found time to do every protective hairstyle there is and ended up being president of an NAACP Chapter. That’s all super Black, but it didn’t stop the truth from coming out.
You can love, appreciate and even empathize with Black people when you’re not one of them, but when Rachel decided to put a new race on like a costume, she was immediately wrong. Dolezal could have been herself and still been a champion for Black people. The NAACP was built by more than Black people; Blackness isn’t a prerequisite for joining the organization. Imagine the impact she would have had being White and educating the masses on the racial divide.
It’s clear that Rachel is obsessed with Blackness and, even now, refuses to admit that she is not Black. An attempt to label her actions as those of someone who is “transracial” merely masks the fact that she is a White woman obsessed with being conveniently Black.
The root of my White obsession came from hating my poor upbringing and seeing that all of my White friends had their own bedroom, food was always in their refrigerator and their parents were together, so that’s what I’d always exalted. Pretending to be a White girl allowed me to escape all the things I didn’t have.
I would imagine that Rachel pretending to be a Black girl helped her live the life she thought she should have. It was wrong and we may never fully understand it, but we can’t deny that she’s not alone in not wanting to be the person that she feels she is.