On Monday June 15, CNN announced that Rachel Dolezal resigned, according to a letter that was posted on the NAACP Facebook page. Perhaps that’s for the better until this whole mess is sorted out.
I was very confused when I first heard about the story of Rachel Dolezal, the president of the NAACP chapter in Spokane, Washington, claiming to be (part) African American, while her birth parents are both Caucasian from European descent.
Why would she do that and how has this never surfaced before? After all, she began identifying more with the African American community since 2007, according to her birth parents and in a phone interview with the Washington Post, her adopted (African American) son shared that Rachel had asked him 3 years ago “not to blow her cover”.
If you look at her current pictures and video footage, she could very well pass for African American. This begs the question whether we should accept this, since she acts and identifies as an African American person. Martin Luther King said, that we should not be judged by the color of our skin, hence race and ethnicity are not supposed to be an issue, so what is wrong with this picture?
The problem with this is that race and ethnicity are an issue. According to Rachel’s own words: “many issues face us now” such as “police brutality, biased curriculum in schools, economic disenfranchisement, health inequities, and a lack of pro-justice political representation …”
For the NAACP, race was never a factor in selecting Dolezal as president of the local NAACP chapter — more reason for her not to pretend to be of African American descent. She left NAACP members disillusioned. The president of the national NAACP, Cornell William Brooks said: “Our members who looked up to her, appreciated her leadership, are pained, very disappointed,” A Tweet following the news of her resignation reads: “She would have been more honorable if she had just been herself and worked with NAACP.”
Others have stated that this is a modern version of blackface. Stemming from theatre, where actors depict African Americans by painting their faces black thereby emphasizing stereo types. I do not necessarily agree with this comparison, since Rachel is not doing it to mock the African American community, but is sincerely fighting the good fight.
The question still remains, why? She did not have to do it to be elected president of the local NAACP chapter. I also don’t think she had to do it, to be accepted or seen as legitimate by the African American community in general as someone who can address civil rights issues concerning race and ethnicity. Many Caucasians have addressed inequality and although it comes with its own challenges, there is no reason here to adopt a different skin color.
In her interview with the Today Show on Tuesday, June 16, she finally comes forward with an explanation and claims to be transracial. Might that be the case? Similar to someone who is born a man, but is actually a woman? If Caitlyn can transition into a woman, then why can’t Rachel transition into a black woman? I was toiling with this idea for a bit, but something does not feel right about it.
Both race and gender are social constructs so why is there a difference here? A black transsexual woman on everydayfeminist.com gives some insight. One difference is that race is passed on biologically whereas gender is not. I can transition from male to female and still be true to my heritage. If I would change from Caucasian to African American, I would have to deny my parents, my brother, my sister, etc.
Another difference is that for transgender people it is not a choice. They are born in the wrong body and to rectify that, they have to go through a whole lot of trouble, judgments, and are completely thrown off course. Rachel Dolezal was not thrown off course when she decided to be black. She did it because she identifies with the black cause, not because she is in fact inherently black.
How could she be? She does not know what it is to live from a history of oppression, slavery, and inequality that continues on into how our current day society is structured and where systemic racism is still a fact. You could say the same for a man transitioning to a woman, since being female also comes with an entire historical context of injustice. But whereas being female in a male body or vice versa is in fact about genitals being mixed up, this is not the case with race. Being Black is not just about skin color, it is more about the historical context that comes with it.
Also, one has to know that Rachel Dolezal actually miss-uses the meaning of transracial. Transracial refers to children who are raised in homes that are ethnically or racially and culturally different from their birth. Rachel’s adoptive son could be considered transracial, because he was raised by a white woman. But Rachel pro-claiming to be African American does not fall under the definition of transracial.
What is so sad about this whole episode, is that Ms. Dolezal’s actions seem like a very disturbing example of white privilege. Her transitioning did not come with struggle, but it came with actual benefits. As an African American, she was able to get paid for teaching classes on what it is like to be Black.
Why couldn’t she just have been true to herself? I bet she actually did a whole lot of great work for the NAACP and there is also strength in white people addressing issues of race and ethnicity. The more she is in the news, the more upset I feel about this. Perhaps the comparison with blackface is not such a bad one after all. By pretending to be Black, she mocks African Americans by feigning what it is like to authentically deal with inequality from the day you were born.