Friday, 19 January 2018

Rachel Dolezal

Here is a question. Is a person's identity something they choose for themselves? Or is it something which is imposed upon them by society? Is it a bit of both? Or is it neither, but somewhere in between?

I do not have an answer to it, but I do believe that a consideration of Rachel Dolezal* is pertinent to the discussion.

Rachel Dolezal as an adult
First, a brief bit of background. Born in the United States in 1977, Dolezal attended Howard University, a historically-black university in Washington, DC, and obtained a Master of Fine Arts degree in 2002. She taught part-time in Africana at the Eastern Washington University. In 2014, Dolezal was elected the president of the Spokane chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. By all accounts, she fulfilled her duties with energy and enthusiasm.

But in June 2015, things hit a real snag. I need to pause now to make a few further points. I don't live in the US, although I have spent some time there. I don't pretend to understand much about race relations in the US, although I have read about it to some extent. But the simplistic bottom line is that, up until this point, nearly everyone thought Rachel Dolezal was a black woman.

In June 2015, Dolezal's parents publicly announced that Dolezal wasn't black. They themselves are European Americans, of Czech, Swedish and German descent. And they released photographs and even a birth certificate to prove it. "She’s clearly our birth daughter, and we’re clearly Caucasian", they said. Dolezal had been estranged from her parents for some time prior.

Not actually black? Dolezal as a teenager
There followed an explosion of interest in Dolezal. She was immediately scrutinised from all quarters, and came under an enormous barrage of criticism. She stated:
Dolezal: I acknowledge that I was biologically born white to white parents, but I identify as black. (...) I don’t, as some of the critics have said, put on blackface as a performance.
She was forced to resign from her post in the NAACP, and was later dismissed from her post at the Eastern Washington University. Later there was some confusion when Dolezal seemed to use terms such as transracial to describe herself; this term was already employed to describe children adopted and raised by a different race.

In a detailed interview with the Guardian, Dolezal "rejects the idea that she is a black person in a white person’s body – and spurns the concept of transracial. (...) Dolezal has made a point of describing herself as black, not African American, a distinction derided by Vanity Fair, but one that black Africans in the US would recognise. She describes African American as a particular historical experience. To be black is broader, unbound by dates or borders."

Let's steer clear of any further terminological confusion, and get right into some of the criticisms.

Guardian writer Syreeta McFadden writes:
McFadden: Dolezal’s messy theft and fiction of a black American identity uses the currency of a subculture of privilege that is rooted in white supremacy too. If anything, to believe that one can transfer one’s identity in this way is a privilege – maybe even the highest manifestation of white privilege. The ability to accept marginalization, to take on the identity of blackness without living the burdens of it and always knowing you could, on a whim, escape it, is not a transition to blackness; to use it to further your career or social aspirations is not to become black.
Meanwhile, across the pond, Denene Millner writes that Dolezal's chosen (African-derived) name represents "doubling down on her insistence" of her black identity in response to the controversy:
Millner: The woman formerly known as Dolezal is still a white lady with fussy hair and a bad tan, trying to make fetch happen. Snatching two words from two separate African languages and claiming them as a reflection of her connection with blackness cannot — and will not ever — earn her the soul of black folk.

Blackness is a bright and shiny diamond, and here in America, everyone wants to wear it like a Rockafella chain around their neck. (...) Like diamonds, blackness is created under extreme pressure and high temperature, deep down in the recesses of one's core.

And it is the ultimate in white privilege, really, for a white woman to see that diamond, all shiny and hard and unbreakable, and pluck it for her own, like it's a gift from Tiffany's, with seemingly zero regard for the pressure, the heat, the pain it went through — that we went through — to earn that shine.
And Britain's Dominic Lawson writes:
Lawson: Rachel Dolezal is merely the most spectacular example of the growing phenomenon of people posing as victims — itself the consequence of a culture which portrays victimhood as a form of moral superiority.
I was being me: Rachel Dolezal
Criticism was not confined to Dolezal herself. An article supportive of her entitled "In Defense of Transracialism" and published in April 2017 in peer-reviewed feminist philosophy journal Hypatia, provoked a storm of protest on social media, culminating in an open letter to the editorial board demanding that the article be retracted, and a subsequent (unauthorised) apology from some of the associate editors. The Editor-in-Chief and the Board of Directors have stood by the article, and have refused to take it down. The Wikipedia article offers a good summary and is well worth a read.

The author of the article, Rebecca Tuvel, pointed out that in 2015 Caitlyn Jenner came out as trans, and was widely praised and accepted, appearing on the cover of Vanity Fair and being named one of Glamour's Women of the Year 2015. In contrast, Rachel Dolezal was widely vilified and lost her job and status. I think Tuvel has a very good point in highlighting the significant contrast there.

So where is the damage?

Until I started to write this article, the above was all I knew of Rachel Dolezal, and it prompted me to consider several points.

First, until her parents outed her, Rachel Dolezal was accepted to be black by everyone around her: her employers, her friends, her students, and the wider community. Nobody seemed to notice. Nobody seemed to point at her and say "Hey, you know, you don't seem very black to me?" Nobody seemed to think she was doing harm. Nobody seemed to think she couldn't do her job, and it certainly doesn't seem as if she was breaking any laws. What, I wonder, was she doing wrong up until this point? Where was the damage?

The Guardian quoted NAACP president Cornell William Brooks, who said that the NAACP is “not concerned with the racial identity of our leadership”, and went on: “Our focus must be on issues, not individuals.” And her colleague at NAACP, Cedric Bradley, spoke up in favour of Dolezal's positive work in social justice. Some of her other colleagues and friends have spoken in support of her.

Rachel Dolezal's biological family, with her four adopted brothers
My next question was: why was she outed in the first place? And that's where the story takes a darker turn. Dolezal seems to have been very creative with her own life story. She has stated that she was born in a teepee and that her parents hunted for food with a bow and arrow. She told people that several different black men, most commonly a friend called Albert Wilkerson, were her father, (while her biological father was only her stepfather); and that her adoptive brother Izaiah was her son. She described herself on some websites as a professor, without ever having been one.

Worse, Dolezal complained to police on several occasions that she had been a victim of hate crime, presumably race-related. Police investigations revealed no evidence of crime, but did reveal strong suggestions that Dolezal had fabricated racially-motivated threats against herself. It was as part of the wider investigations into Dolezal's background which turned up her true biological parentage.

So now the question of where the damage is can be answered. Dolezal's fabrications have wasted police time and resources investigating crimes which never took place, invented for the purposes of attracting sympathy and validating Dolezal's own identity and sense of victimhood. There was a deception there. One can argue about whether it was malicious or not, but it was deliberate and indisputable.

A bright and shiny diamond?

Dolezal's birth certificate
So the next question becomes: why did all this arise? Dolezal's upbringing in rural Montana was pretty tough. In the 2015 Guardian interview, journalist Chris McGreal writes "Life was dictated by the couple’s strict interpretation of the Bible, including a strong belief in creationism and a puritan-like commitment to simple living and harsh punishment". Even the identity of the medic who delivered her as a baby is recorded, on her birth certificate, as "Jesus Christ". Perhaps he works for the State of Montana.

She grew up with her natural brother Joshua, and they were home-schooled. Her parents adopted four further children when she was a teenager; three African-American boys and a Haitian boy. Dolezal accuses her parents of frequent beatings, and these accounts are corroborated to some extent by her brothers. It certainly seems pretty likely that her childhood was unhappy, and probably pretty miserable and cruel at times. The Guardian reports that she used to imagine herself as really an Egyptian princess who had been kidnapped by her parents.

We can only speculate on where the idea of associating herself with black identity came from. Was it distancing herself from her parents' culture? Or attempting to pursue a new identity (Denene Millner's bright and shiny diamond)? Some people have accused her of mental illness, which seems to me unduly harsh. She told the Guardian:
Dolezal: As long as I can remember, I saw myself as black. I was socially conditioned to discard that. It was an all-white town. I was very unhappy. I felt like I was constantly self-sabotaging in order to conform to religion, culture dynamics. I was censoring myself. I was shutting down inside.
Given some of Dolezal's other porkies, I think it's reasonable to take some of this with a grain of salt, although I accept her point that she felt stifled and unhappy by her strict parenting, and I feel reasonably sure that Dolezal's attempt to switch race has been triggered by her difficult and painful childhood.

Let's set aside, for a moment, what Dolezal's motivations are, and accept at face value her comments that she identifies with being black; she feels black (and always has); and that she wants to continue to be black. Let's also set aside the lies she told to get into her jobs, and the indisputible hurt and anger she has caused to lots of people by pretending to be black.

Let's just consider this one point. Consider a white woman, born to white parents and raised accordingly, who describes herself as black. She has adopted brothers who are black. She was married to a black man between 2000 and 2004, and the first child she bore is thereby of mixed race (therefore black). She went to a formerly black university; taught African studies; and worked for a group to further black rights. I have no doubt that she affects mannerisms of speech, posture, gesture, dress and custom which would be considered "black". Not least, she was accepted and taken to be black by hundreds of people over many years. Is that enough for her to be accepted as black? And, if the answer is yes, is that OK?

Establishing race and identity

Black and white: not as simple as that
How much of "you" has to be black, for you to "be" black? Is it enough if you are one half? One quarter? One eighth? Is it a matter of inheritance of genetic material at all? Is it a matter of exactly what tone your skin is? Is it a matter of your upbringing, your culture? Is it (as Denene Millner writes) a matter of shared experiences? Is it a matter (as Touré Neblett insists) that the one thing all black people share is experience of racism? Or is it something intangible, something indefinable?

Bliss Broyard writes an excellent piece exploring what it means to be black, having first discovered that her father was of mixed race, literally as he lay dying. This revelation had a subtle but far-reaching impact on her image of herself and how others related to her. Broyard's article points out that, since 1970, Americans are allowed to "self-identify" their race on the Federal census. Nobody checks up on which box you tick, and the results form national statistics guiding official policies. Since 2000, Americans have been allowed to tick more than one box to identify their race.

And her piece was linked to this article by Steven Thrasher (my italics for emphasis).
Thrasher: I have zero personal insight into why Dolezal chose to perform race as she did. But the reason that her story is so fascinating to me and to the rest of the world is that it exposes in a disquieting way that our race is performance – that, despite the stark differences in how our races are perceived and privileged (or not) by others, they are all predicated on a myth that the differences are intrinsic and intrinsically perceptible. (...) Like it or not, she’s exposed how shaky and ridiculous the whole centuries-old construct of individual “race” is.
This certainly feeds into my own thoughts, which I touched on five years ago on this blog, writing about Jaye Davidson, who is considered "Black British" by virtue of his Ghanian father, even though he doesn't look black. Does blackness "trump" other aspects of your ethnicity? And it brings me back to the essence of this article. Is your identity something which you choose for yourself? Or is it something which is imposed upon you by others?

Dolezal: Black like me
Rebecca Tuvel's article considers four questions about Dolezal's purported black identity. The first is the necessity of cultural experience, including the experience of racism (as per TourĂ© Neblett's article). Dolezal seems to have been so determined to experience this that she concocted it for herself. The second is the question of ancestry; the truth is that we are all mixtures of various races and ethnic groups, and Bliss Broyard has had her DNA tested four times with four different results.

The third is the idea that the black community could be harmed when a white individual seeks to enter. For me, it seems plain that nobody seems to have complained that Rachel Dolezal harmed the black community, until she was revealed to be white.

And the fourth question is an extremely sensitive one: the idea that Dolezal is wrongfully exerting white privilege. As touched upon by Syreeta McFadden, this would mean appropriating black identity without accepting any of its burdens, and with the luxury of being able to leave it at any time. Tuvel quotes the writer Tamara Winfrey Harris: "I will accept Ms. Dolezal as black like me only when society can accept me as white like her". My point is that Dolezal seems to not have changed her mind in response to some extremely negative experiences, and (in the words of Denene Millner) "doubled down" on her identity. If she could retreat, wouldn't she do it?

Tuvel considers these questions and argues against them all, drawing parallels with gender reassignment, and coming to the conclusion that Dolezal should be accepted to be black. It is this conclusion which led to the outburst of protest against her paper. I am pleased with the decision by Hypatia to let the paper stand. As I have written elsewhere, protesters should not be allowed to silence considered, peer-reviewed publications, just because they get upset about them.

Wrapping it all up

So let's try to wrap this all up. As always, there are many layers of complexity to consider.

We don't know why Rachel Dolezal chose to attempt to switch races, and we will never know. I think it's likely she will say whatever casts her in the best possible light, so I don't think her own personal accounts of her motivations are completely reliable. The best we can do is to accept her statements that "I wasn't identifying as black to upset people. I was being me."

It's clear that, along the way, she fooled a lot of people, to her own advantage. In other countries, I suspect people would be much less bothered about what Dolezal's purported race was, but this was the United States, where a lot of people take race identity extremely seriously, and she must certainly have known that, and how upset they would be if they knew the truth. As a result, her deception was harmful, and deliberately so. In addition, there was the issue with fabricating the hate crimes, and a further issue around legal action against Howard University. (This article is already too long to go into this!)

Nonetheless, I have some sympathy for Rachel Dolezal. I don't know if it would be possible for her to try to live her desired black lifestyle without an element of deception. At first, she seems to have achieved a sense of belonging, only to have it torn painfully away when her deceptions were revealed. Ironically, if she hadn't cooked up her stories of experiencing hate crime (which presumably she did to validate her identity), she might never have been outed. In any case, it will now be extremely difficult for her to escape from the shadow of what has happened. She has written a book about her experiences, entitled In Full Color. Although I disagree with her wrongdoing, I cannot find it in me to condemn her for wanting to live and identify, and be accepted, in the way she chooses.

It certainly seems to me, as per Steven Thrasher's article, that the notion of race is very vague. Nobody can quite agree on how it can be defined, or determined empirically. It clearly isn't based just on what you look like. It's a phenomenon which comedian Sasha Baron Cohen has deliberately satirised in his Ali G persona. ("Is it because me is black?") I will not be convinced that blackness is something indefinable, intangible; something I couldn't possibly understand because I am white.

Is he really black?
Are there others like Dolezal? Living "stealth" in different races or cultures? Should we be asking ourselves, when we meet a black person: is this person really black? Or are they an impostor? There are, as Bliss Broyard points out, many people of black ancestry who are pale enough to pass for white, getting by and wisely keeping their mouths shut. Before today, the only person I know of who was even remotely similar to Rachel Dolezal was the writer John Howard Griffin, who passed as a black man in the Deep South in 1959, and wrote the book Black Like Me about his experiences of racism from the opposite side. Griffin's project also necessitated deception, of course, but this deception was not to Griffin's personal advantage, and Griffin resolved not to hide either his name or his true identity if confronted. His book is well worth a read.

And then today, I learned of the existence of Martina Big. She is a white German woman who has taken medication in order to darken her skin, seemingly with considerable success. She also has gargantuan breast implants. Deary, deary me.

But that aside, I wonder about what happens in other countries. India, for example, has a rigid and elaborate caste system, which prescribes rigid social codes for people at every level. Nonetheless, it must be the case that people purport to be in a different caste, from time to time, and I bet you can't always tell by looking who is whom.

Race and gender

And of course I need to consider this aspect of the discussion. There are so many parallels between Rachel Dolezal and trans people that I don't know where to begin. And there are comments from across the board (which are hard to refute): if someone is born and raised as a boy, how can that person become a woman (and legally recognised as such)? And if we accept that this is possible, how can we refuse to allow a similar change of identity for Rachel Dolezal? Some of the statements made by Dolezal sound very like the statements made by trans people. And some of the criticisms aimed at Dolezal sound very like the criticisms aimed at trans people, including the one that a transwoman in a female-only environment is merely trying to enact male privilege.

There is certainly a very blurry area between the two conceptual boxes labelled "male" and "female". Likewise, there is a very blurry area between the two races labelled "black" and "white". There are some people who are incredibly uncomfortable about these blurry areas; and some people seem to be fine with one but not with the other.

For their part, many trans people seem to be falling over themselves to distance themselves from Dolezal, when in fact I think the parallels are clear, and certainly worthy of exploration and discussion. This distancing seems understandable, given the amount of ire which Dolezal has provoked. On the other hand, not all of it is objectively demonstrable. Statements like "I am a woman, while Rachel Dolezal is only pretending to be black," just aren't persuasive enough for me. And statements like "Transgender brains are different; it's medically proven," are just not convincing enough for this neuroscientist to accept. And the idea that, while gender and race are both social constructs, there exist fundamental differences between them, seems unsupportable to me.

I think a discussion of Rachel Dolezal is very pertinent to a discussion about gender. I think there are many more similarities than differences, and writers like Rebecca Tuvel are right to consider them and debate them in the scientific literature. I think that ultimately, even if a person asserts a particular identity, there are always going to be other members of society who will reject that identity, if it doesn't fit their own world view.

The last words will go to Tuvel and Dolezal.
Tuvel: I wrote this piece from a place of support for those with non-normative identities, and frustration about the ways individuals who inhabit them are so often excoriated, body-shamed, and silenced. (...) My article is an effort to extend our thinking alongside transgender theories to other non-normative possibilities.
Rachel Dolezal told the Guardian: “The discussion’s really about what it is to be human."

* Although her birth name is Rachel Anne Dolezal, she legally changed her name to Nkechi Amare Diallo in 2016. For clarity I have stuck with her original name, since that's where most of the information out there on the Internet is to be found.


  1. I think it's quite a complicated subject, and I'm conscious that various people have some very strong views on the matter.

    Thanks for digging through into her background and including those elements.

    I do remember the media commentary, and dare I say that I have empathy for both sides of the argument? Yes, there's elements of fabrication around backstory, and yes, for many, they may feel their race is very much a part of who they are.

    Yet, I - perhaps like you - couldn't help draw similarlies between stating "but I feel my race is X", and "but I feel my gender is blah".

    Is this the next turn in human social change, as technology makes it easier to be who we feel we truly are?

    1. Hi Lynn.

      Thanks for posting your reply.

      For me, one of the most telling points is when people say "You can't possibly know what it's like to be black, when you haven't had X, Y or Z experiences". I am certain there are black people who haven't had all those experiences (Denene Millner's article practically gives a shopping list).

      Likewise, some people say "You can't be a real woman (or you can't know what it's like to be a real woman) because you haven't had periods, and you haven't got a uterus, and you can't bear children," when in fact there are demonstrably people whose womanhood is beyond reproach who could tick one or more of those boxes.

      That is definitely a problem for the splitters (rather than the lumpers). It's impossible to draw a perfect line between the people you want to include, and the people you want to exclude.