Rachel Dolezal is not the First to Pass as Black, so Why do we Care?

It’s a curious story I suppose – with her apparently dysfunctional family “outing” her as white and making her a national story – although I’m not sure she did anything fraudulent or wrong. If she feels black and self-identifies as black, maybe it’s more a cultural thing than a skin color thing (clearly skin color is pretty irrelevant) or a DNA thing (which may be so unknowable as to be irrelevant).

This story in the Times talks about people passing historically, sometimes for questionable purposes. It leaves out other chapters including white jazz musicians who not only adopted black culture but “reverse passed” and claimed to be black.

The question of authenticity is raised in the last graph of the piece:

The drive for authenticity that Dolezal has prompted is bound to raise more questions than answers. The enormous wealth of historical and genealogical information that is currently being digitized, along with the increasing availability and decreasing cost of DNA analysis, is bending our critical lens for viewing race; the secrets that people took to their graves are no match for Ancestry.com. Among other revelations, the records are proving that an enormous percentage of black men — nearly a fifth, according to one recent study — passed as white in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, suggesting that millions of white Americans could conceivably have African-American ancestry. A tan and curls do not make someone black. Nor does a graduate degree from Howard or a leadership position in the N.A.A.C.P. But it’s becoming harder to say what, exactly, does, even as racism remains real and deadly.

But “authenticity” is a pretty malleable idea – is it dictated by blood, or by feeling and self-identification? And this is where we can see a crossover to the gender identification issue so much in the news lately. When whatever your outside says to the world is not what you feel on the inside, isn’t it every individual’s right to proclaim their inner self as their preferred reality?

As comedian Dave Chappelle, creator of some of the edgiest racial comedy of the 21st century has said, “The thing that the media’s gotta be real careful about, that they’re kind of overlooking, is the emotional content of what she means,… she’s just a person…”

That doesn’t mean that everybody is going to see her actions as benign. This writer calls her actions “theft” and quotes one of Dolezal’s adopted black brothers:

Ezra regards what his sister did as “self-hating.” To me, it’s apocalyptic, white privilege on steroids: “Look at me! Look what I can do! I can just take this race and culture because I want it!”

Maybe she invented some shit and is crazy as a bedbug. But she’s still a person. The question remains, who does this hurt?

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