The history of 'passing' and why black Americans have turned on Rachel Dolezal


Rachel Dolezal as she now appears (left) and a young lady (right)

Where to begin with the peculiar case of Rachel Dolezal?

In case you have been living under a rock for the past 48 hours, Rachel Dolezal is a university professor (of Africana studies at Eastern Washington University) and member of the United States most established black civil rights organisation, the NAACP, and very much a public figure when it comes to race issues in the United States. So what? Well, earlier this week her biological parents revealed that actually Ms Dolezal is not African-American or black and has been deceiving everyone (including herself apparently) into believing that she is and is therefore qualified to belong to such an organisation and give lectures and public talks on matters of interest and importance to African-Americans.

The reactions to this revelation have been varied and brought all kinds of interesting debates regarding race and identity to the foreground.

Several people have built the case that Dolezal’s “passing” is comparable to transgender people who present themselves as being of the opposite sex. For me this argument is terribly flawed since race and gender are two very different things. The man who dresses as and identifies as a woman – such a Caitlyn Jenner – may well feel lost and uncomfortable, even tortured, as a man and, therefore, feel that they have no option but to become a woman. That is, to a certain degree, a personal choice for them. If Bruce Jenner did not become Caitlyn he may well have lived a life that he felt was a lie and miserable but others would not have treated him as a lesser human for being Bruce Jenner (in fact they rather liked him and, as a man in what remains a male-dominated society, he would have actually been more entitled than he now is (factoring out her celebrity personnel and how lucrative it has actually been for her)). Racial “passing,” on the other hand, (which has a very dark history) is a phenomenon borne out of necessity – a survival tactic for African-Americans who were desperate to avoid a life of slavery or, later, being right at the very bottom of the social hierarchy and therefore only being able to occupy the worst, dirtiest jobs, obtain the poorest education (if any) and general be treated as sub-humans. Today, for the light-skinned or bi-racial African-American who decides to “pass” as white, it is a decision based upon the fact that they know they will be treated far more favourably if they adopt a white identity in what remains overwhelming a white-dominated, institutionally racist America. In short, the element and degree of personal choice involved in adopting a new identity and the consequences for the individual if they did (or do) not do so, if they remain as their natural selves (i.e. either as a male or African American) mean that comparing the case of Dolezal to transgenderism is largely meaningless – Laverne Cox or any other transgender woman in history would not have been lynched or sold into slavery if they had decided that they wanted to stay as men. I am in no way trying to lessen the extreme personal conflict and suffering experienced by men who wish to transition (I do not know anywhere near enough about it to speculate) but simply pointing out that race and gender should not be conflated in this way. “Passing” is what an African-American must do in order to heighten their chances of not only surviving (I don’t need to tell you about the discrepancies between the percentages of African Americans killed by police compared to white America victims, for example) but succeeding in the United States e.g. to secure a high-powered, high paid job; to not be mistaken for a criminal by a police force that is constantly engaging in racial profiling; to either be a ‘house slave’ and avoid the hardest, dirtiest slave work, or, for a ‘lucky’ few, to escape slavery entirely and merge into white society. (William Faulkner’s Light In August really captures the absolute confusion, sense of isolation, alienation and constant fear that characterised the lives of those African-Americans who “passed” in nineteenth and early twentieth century America.) Of course, the nature of 'passing' has somewhat involved, so now it may be that an African-American woman wears her hair to work artificially straightened - rather in a natural afro or locs - so as to increase her chances of being a) perceived as a professional b) given a job c) offered a promotion if she is doing well in her job. Even in the case of President Obama, think back to his initial campaign and how many times images of him and his white raltives were posted around to (indirectly, but not so subtly) whiten his image in the eyes of the general public.

Then there is the similarly bleak and painful history of minstrelsy, ‘blackface’ and white people ‘blacking up’ to mock black people and depict them through a range of insulting and inaccurate stereotypes (notably as lazy and stupid). But what Rachel Dolezal has done – living permanently in blackface if you like – does not amount minstrelsy. After all, she was not pretending to be black out of jest and for entertainment purposes or to make black people feel terrible about themselves and learn to hate their own skin, quite the opposite, she has worked for a long time as an activist to further the rights and wellbeing of African Americans, even giving a presentation on black being beautiful. Indeed, Essence magazine has posed the poignant question today as to whether Dolezal’s false identity as a black woman should discredit the work she has done as a civil rights activist? But if you think about it, actually Dolezal, arguably to some extent inadvertently, has engaged in a kind of minstrelsy because she has – whether it were her intent to do so or not – made a mockery of the NAACP and the various black organisations and movements she belongs to and supposedly represents. A white woman furthering the rights of black people working for the NAACP is a joke, you’ve got to laugh right? Black activists not realising that one of their leaders and brethren who they have trusted to help further their cause is actually white, hilarious right? No. What Dolezal has done is in fact arguably far worse than straight up minstrelsy because of the sneaky, extreme and prolonged nature of her deception. A white person with black paint on their face and huge red lips drawn on is easily identifiable for what they really are: a white person pretending to be black. Rachel Dolezal, on the other hand, with her carefully applied brown make-up and curled hair was genuinely believed by everyone to be black and – and this is the crucial point, which makes what she has done in some ways far more hurtful than traditional, straight up minstrelsy – gained the confidence and trust of so many African Americans, particularly women, who believed that she shared their very real struggles, struggles borne purely out of the fact that they are African American (and women).

This brings me nicely onto my final point (although I would probably write a book on this case and the endless surrounding debates and questions). Perhaps most insulting of all to me, as a woman who actually looks something like Rachel Dolezal’s ‘black’ self – I am roughly her complexion (when she is made up in make-up which we must now assume is many shades darker than her natural colour) and have similarly tight curls – is that Dolezal’s charade reveals that she genuinely believed that to be ‘black’ she just had to look black. As a mixed-race woman I myself cannot pretend to know the experiences of black women because I am not black, I am mixed-race. If I put on a darker foundation and grew my hair into locs, for example, would I then believe that I had become a black woman and could speak as a black woman? Of course not. Yet this is exactly the faulty logic that Dolezal followed, as if belonging to any race or ethnicity is simply a matter of how you look. As much as I am aware that race is a social construct I also know that it is incredibly powerful one which has evolved into something very real over a long period of time through the shared experiences of a people. For example, being an African American woman entails knowing that your ancestors were slaves, not being able to identify with the image of beauty that you see thrust upon you in magazines and on TV, not being able to find your shade of make-up in the mainstream beauty and cosmetics stores, or receiving odd looks when out with your white partner, and the list goes on. What really troubles me about Dolezal’s deception, in other words, is that she genuinely does not seem to recognise it for what it is: a deception. Dolezal has made herself believe that she really is a black woman and feels and experiences life in the very same way that her black ‘sisters’ do. But then they do say that a really good liar believes their own lies.