Who Are You? Rachel Dolezal and the Politics of Identity

Who Are You? Rachel Dolezal and the Politics of Identity

We don’t normally hear a lot about civic leaders in Spokane, Washington . . . unless we live in Spokane. But that changed earlier this month.

The attention was generated by a rather odd allegation: Rachel Dolezal, at the time the president of the Spokane chapter of the NAACP, was accused of misrepresenting her ethnicity.  Specifically, she has been accused of what might be called “passing” for African-American or black, not just in subtle ways (e.g., if her hairstyle, complexion and style of dress prompt some to invoke a stereotype and call her “black,” that’s their problem) but in overt ways (e.g., the Spokane NAACP Facebook page allegedly had an image of an African-American male identified as her father, a claim she confirmed to a reporter, but the man, reportedly, is not her father).

“Passing” was and is a strategy for overcoming or subverting stereotypes by managing appearances and behaving in ways that prompt others to believe one is a member of some group of which one “actually” (I use the term advisedly, for reasons that will become more clear later this week) is not a member. I once knew a young man who paraded around in a military uniform, complete with medals, which suggested he was a Marine (though he was an underage teenager). That’s “passing,” too, though not what we usually think of as “passing.”

Some kinds of “passing” are illegal. Try to “pass” as a police officer or a neurosurgeon (or a decorated veteran, as this teen did) and you’ll find yourself in a whole lot of trouble . . . assuming you get caught.

Once upon a time in this country, trying to “pass” as one race when one was of another race also could get you in a whole lot of trouble, particularly if one was of African-American ancestry and was trying to “pass” as white. Those laws, we are grateful, are in our past . . . if not some of the attitudes that supported them.

The story of Rachel Dolezal, at least as presented in the press, would seem to flip those traditional “passing” practices on their heads.

Rather than seeking to be seen as a member of the culturally, socially and economically dominant group (in this case, whites or Caucasians), Dolezal is accused of cultivating the perception that she is of a group traditionally identified as disadvantaged: African-Americans or blacks.

Why would anyone do that?

A sympathetic account might suggest that, having been raised with adopted younger siblings who are African-American, having been exposed both to racial prejudice in this personal way and to opportunities to work against it side-by-side with other committed advocates of racial harmony and reconciliation (many of them African-American), Dolezal may have come to do more than empathize with the struggles of African-Americans. Following a well-documented psychological and social course anthropologists have wrestled with ever since they began to immerse themselves in other cultures, she may have assimilated herself into an African-American cultural identity. She may have come, in other words, to identify herself as a member of the African-American community, rather than as someone working with the African-American community. Live as someone “other” long enough, and one may come to believe that the “other” someone actually is one’s identity.

A more cynical account might propose that these simply were strategic maneuvers to achieve a certain kind of success. Such a view might imagine that being seen as black opened a pathway for her civic leadership in Spokane.

However, as the NAACP makes clear, one need not be black to be a leader in the NAACP.

I doubt that we ever will get a completely accurate picture of Rachel Dolezal’s journey to this fall from grace. I’m not at all certain we are entitled to one, either.

This story’s illustrative power, however, transcends questions about birth certificates and families of origin, about which box gets checked on an application form and whether one’s hair naturally is dark and curly (what are reported to be family photos from Dolezal’s childhood show her as a blond with pale skin and freckles).

It may be all about political maneuvering and a novel path to success. The cynics may be right.

Or it may be about something much more complicated: the meaning of “identity” itself.