It may never be fully known why Rachel Dolezal, a white woman who resigned Monday as president of the Spokane, Wash., chapter of the NAACP, decided to live her life as a black woman.
It’s a secret she kept hidden from the public until her parents outed her last week, sparking a firestorm of controversy.
But for some actual black women, who have historically struggled for respect, Dolezal’s deception was a slap in the face.
“This is real for us. This isn’t play-play,” said Chonie Sharper, a Kennesaw-based financial strategist. “We can’t white-wash ourselves, because black people would come down on us and whites would not accept us. So as black women, why should we accept an impostor putting on blackface?”
Tarshia Stanley, who writes about the black female image, said she has been fielding questions all week about Dolezal from people mostly asking if they should be upset about it.
Not really, said Stanley, chairman of the English department at Spelman College, “because we are so used to black culture being appropriated.”
“From what I have read, what distinguishes her is that she didn’t appropriate blackness for personal gain,” Stanley said. “Perhaps she thought it would help her do her work better. ‘Blackface’ was used to appropriate a culture for personal gain and exploitation reasons. Now, if she was brokering a deal for a book or reality television show, it would be different.”
‘False narrative of blackness’ frustrating
The Dolezal controversy hit last week just as America was focused on a pool party in McKinney, Texas, where a white police officer pulled his gun on a group of black teens after body-slamming a bikini-clad 14-year-old black girl.
Dolezal “presented a false narrative of her blackness,” said David Wall Rice, chairman of the psychology department at Morehouse College. “The thing that strikes me is I am thinking about this little girl in McKinney in this bikini. (Dolezal) didn’t go through that. Certainly, to be black female within an American society is one hell of a rock to push up the proverbial hill, and for her to suggest that she is a part of that is frustrating.”
Last week, Dolezal’s parents told the world that the kinky-haired woman seen in news footage was in fact their daughter, a straight-haired blonde from Montana who was simply passing for black. They re-emphasized that point Monday morning on The Today Show.
Dolezal, a graduate of historically black Howard University and a former part-time instructor of African studies at Eastern Washington University, had in fact assumed the persona of a black person. In addition to changing her hairstyle — sometimes to long blonde braids — she identified a black man as her father and an adopted black brother as her son.
“It only matters to the extent that she lied about it,” said Rice. “There is no problem with being an activist or teaching the diaspora. But when you claim you are part of that diaspora and you are not, that becomes a problem.”
The national NAACP publicly supported her. The Georgia Chapter of the NAACP affirmed that support with a letter on Friday.
Dolezal’s name has become a hashtag and her face a meme. Everyone from Al Sharpton to Sarah Palin to Dave Chappelle to Whoppi Goldberg has chimed in. On Monday, Dolezal was scheduled to address the situation fully at an NAACP press conference. But by early afternoon, Dolezal had resigned.
“In the eye of this current storm, I can see that a separation of family and organizational outcomes is in the best interest of the NAACP,” Dolezal wrote in a Facebook message, although she never fully addressed why she attempted to pass for black. “It is with complete allegiance to the cause of racial and social justice and the NAACP that I step aside from the presidency.”
Racial passing has long history in U.S.
“Passing” from one race to another is hardly new in America, although it was mostly done by light-skinned blacks posing as white. But prior to Dolezal, there were a handful of known instances of whites passing for black.
White jazz musician Mezz Mezzrow did it to become more accepted in the 1940s and ’50s. White journalist John Howard Griffin wrote about his experiences living as a black man in the South in his 1961 book, “Black Like Me.”
Allyson Hobbs, a Stanford University historian, touched on much of that in her latest book, “A Chosen Exile: A History of Racial Passing in American Life.”
“During the era of slavery, to pass as white was to escape, not necessary from blackness, but from slavery. Often with the intention of recovering precious relationships under the more secure conditions of freedom,” Hobbs said at a recent lecture at the Atlanta History Center.
“During Jim Crow, passing meant striking out on one’s own and leaving behind a family and a people,” Hobbs said. “Without a doubt, benefits accrued to these new white identities. But a more complete understanding of this practice requires a reckoning with the loss, alienation and isolation that accompanied and often outweighed its rewards.”
Passing is also something not foreign to the NAACP, which includes whites among its founders.
One of the organization’s largest figures was the racially ambiguous Walter White, an Atlanta University graduate who served as the NAACP’s executive director from 1931 to 1955 and wrote in his autobiography, “I am a Negro. My skin is white, my eyes are blue, my hair is blond. The traits of my race are nowhere visible upon me.”
As an NAACP investigator, White often traveled through the South under the guise of being Caucasian. On one famous occasion in Little Rock, Ark., when White thought he was still successfully undercover, he was approached by a black man who warned him to get out of town because the Ku Klux Klan was eager to lynch the black man in town “passing for white.”
Racial identifiers not just skin-deep
“Whiteness was not based solely on appearance, but by dress, behavior and mannerisms,” Hobbs said. “Indeed, skin color and physical appearance were the least reliable factors. Racially ambiguous slaves drew on highly sophisticated understandings of racial, social and gender norms to enact whiteness. And in doing so many successfully passed to freedom.”
It could be argued that Dolezal used a sophisticated understanding of racial norms to enact blackness. But she also carried the burden of hiding who she was and abandoning her former life.
Indeed, her adopted brother, Ezra Dolezal, told the news media that three years ago, his sister asked him “not to blow her cover.”
To Sharper, the Kennesaw-based financial strategist, “That is the lowest of the low. A mockery. … She may have meant well, but she is delusional.”
Spelman’s Stanley said what Dolezal did also smacks of white privilege, “because she ultimately has the ability to move back and forth. So privilege is wrapped up in it.”
“It would be great if it would open up deeper conversations about black women and how they should move within America,” Stanley said. “If it could help us get back to those conversations, then something will come out of all of this.”