Opinion

farah stockman

Dolezal, Jenner raise fundamental questions about identity

Rachel Dolezal (left) and Caitlyn Jenner.

Today via AP (left); Vanity Fair via AP

Rachel Dolezal (left) and Caitlyn Jenner.

Finally, Rachel Dolezal — the self-identified black daughter of two Caucasian parents — has spoken. And finally, she was asked a question I’ve been wondering for days: When did it start?

“At a very young age,” she replied. “About 5 years old, I was drawing self-portraits with the brown crayon instead of the peach crayon.”

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It’s impossible not to be reminded of how Bruce — now Caitlyn — Jenner answered a similar question: When did you know? Jenner talked about sneaking into her mother’s closet as an 8-year-old boy to dress up in her clothes.

Comparisons between Jenner, who recently appeared on the cover of Vanity Fair as a woman, and Dolezal, who just resigned as a local leader of the NAACP after her parents outed her as white, have spawned a cottage industry of jokes and memes.

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But I have yet to read a real answer to the underlying challenge these two people pose to identity in America today: If we accept that gender is fluid — a reflection of some inexplicable spiritual thing inside of us — why not race? Why do we police the boundaries of blackness more rigorously than we police womanhood?

The general consensus seems to be that as much as we want to do away with racial differences and as deeply as we believe in race as a social construct, we can’t accept Dolezal as a black woman trapped in a spray-tanned blonde’s body.

“Rachel Dolezal . . . may be connected to black communities and feel an affinity with the styles and cultural innovations of black people,” Alicia Walters, a black woman from Spokane wrote in The Guardian. “But the black identity cannot be put on like a pair of shoes.”

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But wait a minute. I thought we just agreed that the female identity can be put on like a red mini-dress by Donna Karan. What gives? How can blackness — with all its shades and incredible diversity — be more immutable than manhood itself?

Maybe it’s because the black identity has been forged through such oppression that those who hold it dear are reluctant to share. What bothers us about Dolezal is not that she’s taken on an identity she wasn’t born with, but that she’s appropriating a victim status she doesn’t seem to deserve. There seems to be an unspoken idea in America that if you’re born pale and blonde, you’ve won the identity lottery. You don’t get to take home the consolation prize as well. That’s just greedy.

And it’s significant that Dolezal didn’t become black. She became a black leader, at the NAACP. That’s like Jenner forgoing the cover of Vanity Fair, and running for a spot on the board of the National Organization for Women.

But just like Jenner’s change raises questions about what it means to be a woman, so too does Dolezal’s declaration raise fundamental questions about what blackness really means. Is it about skin tone? Culture? Family ties? Or is it all in how one is perceived?

If family is what matters, then Dolezal actually does have a claim. She’s raising two black sons: her own child, and her adopted brother, over whom she has parental custody. That’s not a frivolous charade. It’s a life-long commitment.

Centuries ago, there was a special punishment for white women like her, who threw their lot in with blacks. In 1664, Maryland passed a law stating that any white woman who married a slave would be required to serve her husband’s master during her husband’s lifetime and that their children would be slaves. Under a similar law in colonial Virginia, a white woman named Ann Wall was convicted of “keeping company with a Negro.” She was sold into bondage for five years, and her two mulatto children were placed in bondage for 31 years.

Maybe we need a separate category today for white people who are willing to renounce their “white privilege,” who want to be in the same boat as their black spouses and kids.

Whatever you think of Dolezal’s lies — and she seems to have told plenty of them — you can’t deny the larger truth her case reveals: Just as the words “man” and “woman” fail to encompass the full spectrum of human experience, so too do “black” and “white.”

Farah Stockman can be reached at fstockman@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @fstockman.

Watch: Rachel Dolezal on “Today”

Related:

Renee Graham: Rachel Dolezal’s deception inflicts pain on black women

‘I identify as black,’ Rachel Dolezal says of her race

Michael P. Jeffries: A lesson in how racism works

Ward Sutton: Where race relations stand in America

Michael P. Jeffries: Ferguson must force us to face anti-blackness

Derrick Z. Jackson: White America’s racial blinders

Spokane NAACP head Rachel Dolezal steps down

Letter: Perhaps we live in an age where we are all free to self-identify

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