Since the head of the NAACP in Spokane, Washington, stepped down in the wake of a revelation that she is not African-American (as she claimed), a national debate has ensued on what it means to be of one racial background, but identify as another. Lake Effect essayist Dasha Kelly has some thoughts on the subject for her first "What I Learned Today" essay series:
I’m an accomplice to breaking the internet. When Rachel Dolezal flooded our lives and timelines last week, I clicked, quoted and reposted with unprecedented fervor. I’m usually oblivious to the viral, TMZ-worthy tales, but this was a bizarre mix of national scandal and social experiment. After the initial explosion of who she was and what she’d done, I was fascinated by our collective stuttering response. Our reflexes to police shootings and public slips of tongue are non conscious at this point. We think what we will think about race. Last week, we didn’t know what to think. What’s more, we didn’t know what to feel.
I couldn’t immediately source how I felt when the news broke either. My first instinct would have been outrage, with all the how-dare-she I might muster, except I had too many questions. We all had questions. Why would this white woman pose as anything other than a white woman? When did she begin her charade and how did she pull it off so completely? Other than the trust of her peers and community, did she violate any other compacts? Where was she getting her hair done? Does it all really matter?
Taking in the comments on that first day, I stumbled across the term “transracial.” Transracial? As in, crossing into a new race the way people cross into a new gender? I stay fairly plugged in to our ongoing dialogues around race and I was surprised to discover that what Dolezal had done was … a thing. I’m very familiar with passing, where fair-skinned people of color made choices to live their lives pretending to be white in order to enjoy its privileges and, mostly, avoid the hardship and discrimination that is inherent and unavoidable for non-white people. But this? Someone passing for black? The question everyone thought and no one could say aloud was, “why would she do that?” As an African American woman who is proud of our rich legacy of resilience, brilliance and beauty, I still wondered why Dolezal would forfeit her golden ticket as a white woman in America to experience the hardship of being a black person in this country.
As the depth of her deceptions and delusions have began to emerge, however, it’s becoming clear that Dolezal was motivated less by The Cause and more by selfish entitlement. I balance this conclusion on her lawsuit against Howard University and the trail of racial harassment claims she’s filed in multiple states. She felt she deserved broader access to an experience she’d come to cherish. There are thousands of white people who are most comfortable among communities of color. There are hundreds of thousands of white allies who soldier bravely to build equity and infrastructure for communities of color and chose to live in concert with the advancement of human rights and racial justice in our country. In fact, the NAACP has white founders. So, more than being unprecedented, the path Dolezal chose was unnecessary.
Which takes me back to transracial. How is that a thing? Before Rachel, were there people reassigning themselves from white to black, Asian to Latino? I watched a documentary on the history of Native Americans in film and learned of an actor of Italian heritage who’d been regularly cast as a Native American in western movies. He’d become so enthralled with the persona and cultures that he, too, began crafting a new genesis story for himself that changed his heritage and childhood memories to ones distinctly Native. He also pleaded with his family not to “blow his cover.”
That is not appropriation. It’s not embracing an affinity. It’s not expanding our ideas on race and ethnicity. It’s fraud, manipulation and megalomania. There. I said it. Rachel Dolezal will be a punch line and a hash tag for a short while longer, but our awareness –at a cellular level—about the importance of authenticity in our discussions around race will persist and evolve long after her faux dreadlocks and spray tan are gone.
Lake Effect essayist Dasha Kelly is a Milwaukee writer and social entrepreneur. She’s also the author of the novel, Almost Crimson.