The Not So Definitive Rachel Dolezal

Rachel Dolezal the NAACP President in Spokane, Washington now appears to have been passing as a black person though she is white. This is definitely odd. There’s a long history of passing here in America but typically members of marginalized communities are passing as white people. The somewhat novel reversal has led to more than a bit of rubber-necking and head scratching. What it shouldn’t lead to, is facetious arguments attempting to discredit transgender people or claims of “pc culture run amok” coming to it’s logical conclusion.

Comparisons between Caitlyn Jenner and Rachel Dolezal came fast and furious as the story has spread. Part of this is pure serendipity with the Dolezal revelation coming so soon after Caitlyn Jenner’s cover and interview people who were still stewing over the existence of transgender people felt they had an immediate club to seize upon. Trivializing both the experiences of transgender and black people they claim that these situations are identical and the context of history are irrelevant. This falls apart with a cursory second thought.

There is no definitive “black” feeling. To argue that someone can “feel” white or black from birth would ignore the fact that race is a social construct that informed by much more than self-presentation here in the United States. Dolezal embraced a very performative and public “black” life, running for serving as the President of the Spokane NAACP,  creating art installations titled “Kente”, and the like but there is nothing that would have prevented her from doing this as a white person. As a matter of fact she may have been better received if she did these things as a white woman.  If she chose to live as a conservative, who sat home and watched Fox News all day and hated the President, that wouldn’t have been any less black, though a bit less popular in the black community.

Blackness as it’s conceptualized in the United States includes a vast and diverse group of people and opinions. It’s this vastness that Dolezal took advantage of in deceiving the people of Spokane. As a cis person I won’t presume to speak for trans people but  to view their embrace of their identity as a deception is to traffic in a well worn trope used by bigots against transgender people. As we find out more about Mrs. Dolezal let’s make sure to keep our heads about us and avoid simplistic and wrongheaded comparisons.

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