Legendary comedian Paul Mooney once famously quipped, “Everybody wanna be a nigga, but nobody wanna be a nigga.” Mooney, who is black, was describing whites’ fascination with blackness, their penchant for consuming and performing black culture, and the notion that the fantasy would be far less appealing if whites actually suffered the violence and discrimination of racism. The bizarre story of Rachel Dolezal, the NAACP administrator who considers herself black despite white biological parents, adds a twist to Mooney’s prophecy. Unlike most impersonators, Dolezal seems wholeheartedly committed to living as a black person. Her failed reinvention is a lesson about racism, privilege, and identity as choice.
Scholars and cultural critics have long noted that because white culture is viewed as either nonexistent or boring, whites consume and adopt nonwhite styles and practices to build hip and exotic identities. And since whites can “wear” blackness without the threat of being harassed or murdered by police for no reason, the thrill of performing blackness is far less risky than real life as a black person. Moreover, whites can stop the performance whenever they like and return to being racially unmarked.
What is so striking about Dolezal’s case however, is her persistence. Even after being exposed, she has no plans to stop calling herself black. We have little reason to doubt that the blackness she performs is not simply enjoyable, but personally and politically meaningful. According to Dolezal’s biological mother, Rachel first began to disguise herself after her parents adopted African-American children. In her role with the NAACP and as an adjunct professor of Africana Studies, Dolezal understands herself as an advocate for black people and a member of black communities. Dolezal’s investment in her story is attached to the love she has for her family and her understanding of justice. She does not acknowledge her biological parents as her mother and father. She believes those who question her identity do not understand how race works, and that her self-definition, bolstered by her chosen family and profession, is the only definition that matters.
But that’s not how racial identity and racism work. The racial categories inherent to institutional racism are the product of law and social custom, but they are not randomly generated or freely chosen. They are informed by and inscribed in our legislative history, and they are violently policed by civilians and stewards of the state such that white people benefit at nonwhites’ expense.
These benefits are manifold. White households have far more wealth than black and Hispanic households, as economic class privilege has been generated, passed down, and protected through slavery, Jim Crow, and continued discrimination in housing, banking, and the labor market. Whites are presumed innocent and nonthreatening, and are allowed to assemble freely and move through all sorts of public spaces without being labeled deviants or “thugs.” Racial identity is always linked to privilege.
So the problem is not simply that Dolezal lied. Her choice to give up whiteness was a privilege enabled by a racial logic that allows for the possibility of a light-skinned black person, as centuries of racist legislation mandated that “one drop” of nonwhite blood resulted in racial categorization in the lower status group. This same enduring racial logic categorically denies the possibility of a brown-skinned white person, and it does so in order to restrict and protect whiteness as exclusive, “pure,” and the basis for full citizenship and respect.
In addition, Dolezal’s transformation was not unconditional; it was commensurate with benefits received for posing as a black person and speaking on black people’s behalf. She profited both personally and professionally from passing as black. She applied to Howard University, was understood as black by the admissions office, and given a scholarship. She rose to a position of power in the NAACP, and she serves as chair of a police/community relations commission in her city. In her statements since the story broke, she has endeavored to protect her power, refused to admit that she has misrepresented herself, and cast herself as a chief authority on the matter of who is and is not black.
Predictably, responses to Dolezal’s exposure have been one part outrage and one part mockery. For the reasons above, I understand the outrage. The mockery saddens me. Her actions should be condemned, but rather than delighting in Dolezal’s vilification and embarrassment, we should focus on the larger lessons we can learn from her case.
Dolezal’s transformation shines a light on the social distance between blacks and whites, as well as her inability to address her own white privilege. Dolezal chose a spectacular racial renovation over living her life as a white woman who not only loves black people, but understands that her love and commitment does not eradicate the white privilege she enjoys. To be clear, I am not arguing that Dolezal should have simply been honest about her background because cross-racial intimacy is a magical solution for racism. It isn’t. The point is that it was more appealing to Dolezal to completely reinvent herself and erase her history than to live in margins of whiteness. She was more comfortable appropriating black efforts to dismantle racism than acting as an ally.
Finally, it is troubling that so many of us now know the name and story of Rachel Dolezal, a white woman who passed as black advocate, rather than the names of countless black women who occupy the front lines in the war against racism. Dolezal is a national phenomenon, but Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi, the activists who started the Black Lives Matter campaign, are scarcely recognized. Dolezal’s peculiar and sensational fall from grace have made her more recognizable than Rekia Boyd and Natasha McKenna, two black women among many who were killed by police with little national attention. Uncovering the truth about Dolezal is no substitute for speaking the names and telling the stories of true martyrs and warriors in the battle for social justice.
Michael P. Jeffries is an associate professor of American studies at Wellesley College and author of “Paint the White House Black: Barack Obama and the Meaning of Race in America.”