"Dolezal’s white-to-black “passing” is
unfamiliar to most merely because those
racial boundaries are not policed as strictly
as 'black-to-white.' Moreover, most people,
black or white, cannot fathom why a racially
privileged person would want to pass as a
member of a marginalized group."
trying to make sense of Rachel Dolezal, the self-identified “black”
woman of two white parents, and the thought - provoking queries
now raised about transracialsim and transethnicity Boston Globe
cartoonist Dan Wasserman provided me with an answer:
“How does a confused Caucasian woman come to define the national conversation on race? What Lies Matter!”
According to Dolezal her “transracial dysphoria” (a black woman
trapped in a spray-tanned white blue-eyed blonde’s body) began around
the tender age of 5.
“I was drawing self-portraits with the brown crayon instead of the
peach crayon and the black curly hair. That was how I was portraying
myself,” Dolezal told Matt Lauer, the host of NBC’s “The Today Show"
And in speaking to Savannah Guthrie in an interview for NBC’s “Nightly
News,” Dolezal stated “Nothing about being white describes who I am.”
But to the contrary, EVERYTHING! Dolezal has done to create her
fictive black life narrative speaks resoundingly so, such as the
Black face as performance by darkening her skin, appropriating
fashions and hairstyles associated with black women, taking on black
vernacular and affectations, claiming black on an application for the
Spokane police commission, pretending to be black running the Spokane
chapter of the NAACP, renouncing her white privilege by appropriating a
black victim status with bogus claims of hate crimes, and choosing when
to come out as black.
In 2002 Dolezal sued her alma matter, Howard University, one of the
oldest historically black colleges in the country, for discriminating
against her for being white. In 2007, according to Dolezal’s mother,
she began coming out and identifying with the black community.
In avoiding the public’s questions how she masterfully duped
Spokane’s African American community while heading its NAACP
chapter being “incog-Negro” Dolezal deflected attention away from
herself by exploiting the troubling construction of race as her answer.
"While challenging the construct of race is at the core of evolving
human consciousness, we can NOT afford to lose sight of the [broader
social issues] that affect millions, often with a life or death
outcome,” wrote Dolezal, 37. “This is not about me. It’s about justice.”
People of color “passing” as white is part of the America’s troubling
race legacy. It was done to advance a person’s lot in life
for better jobs, housing, and education, and to remove one’s self for
the day-to-day dehumanizing discrimination confronted as “other.”
In Jim Crow America it was a common practice for many white-skinned
Caucasian-looking people of color to transgress our country’s policed
racial borders by “passing.” Phillip Roth’s novel “The Human Stain”
brilliantly depicts an African American classics professor at an elite
New England college passing as Jewish. Many have speculated that Roth,
albeit he denies it, fashioned his protagonist on the life of Anatole
Broyard, the late editor and columnist for the New York Times book
review. Broyard died in 1990 in Cambridge not telling his children he
was passing as a white man.
Dolezal’s white-to-black “passing” is unfamiliar to most merely because
those racial boundaries are not policed as strictly as
“black-to-white.” Moreover, most people, black or white, cannot fathom
why a racially privileged person would want to pass as a member of a
marginalized group. But Clarence King, a prominent scientist in the
late 19th C. was one of many untold whites who did. Martha Sandweiss’s
book “Passing Strange” depicts the double life of King. Married to a
black woman in Harlem when anti- miscegenation laws prohibited such
unions King was known among blacks as James Todd, a Pullman porter, and
among his white colleagues as Clarence King, a brilliant geologist.
Dolezal’s white-to-black “passing” is the complication of both white quilt and white rage in an era of Affrimative Action.
With many whites still believing that Affrimative Action bereft them of
jobs, college placements, and scholarships they have fought back suing
on the grounds of “reverse discrimination.” Dolezal’s law
suit against Howard was that she was denied a teaching post and
scholarship aid because of her gender, pregnancy, family
responsibilities and race.
It’s not uncommon now for whites to claim their ethnic card of “otherness.”
African American feminist cultural critic bell hooks sums this ploy
among whites as this: “Why waste time being at the bottom of a lengthy
hierarchy of white women when you can be fast tracked to the top of the
hierarchy of black women.”
Senator Elizabeth Warren used the ethnic card in her race against Scott
Brown for the senate seat in 2012 when she announced she was 1/32nd
Cherokee. Did Warren think it would give her more of an advantage with
How and when Warren used her purported Native American status raised
questions, especially since Warren attested she didn’t use it to
advance her career.
But, according to the Association of American Law Schools (AALS) desk
book, a directory of law professors, Warren listed herself as a
minority for nearly a decade from 1986 through 1995 - the same year she
left the Republican party to join the Democratic party, and also the
same year she was hired at Harvard.
In 1998, the year that Harvard Law School finally tenured its first
African American female, Lani Guiner, the Harvard Crimson wrote that
“Although the conventional wisdom among students and faculty is that
the Law School faculty includes no minority women...Elizabeth Warren is
While many of us will now ponder what being transracial means in light
of Dolezal’s coming out as one, it should not be compared to Caitlyn
Jenner’s coming out as transexual. A transgender identity is not rooted
in deception; it’s not an active choice; and it’s not pursued for
financial or political gains. A transgender person is someone from
birth being assigned a gender inconsistent with his or her inner
experiences of gender.
Moreover, I’ve always understood the term “trans racial” referring to
adoptions, where children, like the four African American children
Dolezal was reared with as her siblings, are of a different race and
ethnicity of their adopted parents.
Dolezal does not have to be “incog-Negro” to deconstruct and to
challenge white privilege. But by being so, her white privilege goes
BlackCommentator.com Editorial Board member and Columnist, The Rev. Irene Monroe, is a religion columnist, theologian, and public speaker. She is the Coordinator of the African-American Roundtable of the Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies in Religion and Ministry (CLGS) at the Pacific School of Religion. A
native of Brooklyn, Rev. Monroe is a graduate from Wellesley College
and Union Theological Seminary at Columbia University, and served as a
pastor at an African-American church before coming to Harvard Divinity
School for her doctorate as a Ford Fellow. She was recently named to
MSNBC’s list of 10 Black Women You Should Know. Reverend Monroe is the author of Let Your Light Shine Like a Rainbow Always: Meditations on Bible Prayers for Not’So’Everyday Moments. As an African-American feminist theologian, she speaks for a sector of society that is frequently invisible. Her website is irenemonroe.com. Contact the Rev. Monroe and BC.
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David A. Love, JD
Nancy Littlefield, MBA