Several weeks ago, the American media was transfixed by a story of racial “passing.” Now the story has been pushed off the front pages by the true tragedy of the massacre of nine African American congregants in a church in Charleston, South Carolina. The media saturation bombing of Rachel Dolezal, the former president of the Spokane NAACP, looks increasingly trivial. In a country where black folk are seemingly eternally subject to violence, the story of Dolezal now seems trite. But why was the nation briefly so focused on her story? Ms. Dolezal, born “white,” was accused of disguising herself as “black.” She had become a community activist and had married a black man. In addition, she had adopted black children. Her parents “outed” her as white. They stoutly maintain that they are “Caucasian” (but one assumes not in the same way as condemned Boston bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev). I find the jumbled facts of the case insufficient to explain the national furor. She and ISIS appeared on the front page of the New York Times on the same day. Dolezal may be personally mendacious and manipulative, but her construction of herself, however contrived, struck a raw nerve in the American psyche. The “white” woman turned ‘black” is even more transgressive than transgenders. Her professed bisexuality attracts less attention than her racial identification.

Americans have a rather peculiar construction of race. In 1930, after intense lobbying by groups like the Anglo-Saxon Clubs, the federal census declared that any African ancestry made one a “Negro.” Because of this “One Drop Rule,” only in America can you look “white” and be “black” simultaneously. Indeed, one can be blond, blue-eyed, and black, as was Walter White, longtime executive secretary of the NAACP. Perhaps from the social-psychological point of view, this imposes intolerable insecurity. (Psychoanalyst Carl Jung said that all Americans were, at some level, “Negroes”). Along comes Rachel Dolezal and bizarre American race-making begins to implode under its own contradictions. Since there is no physical test for being “black,” Dolezal could enter the African American community from the outside as an attractive cafe-au-lait activist. What if other “whites” followed suit and robbed the African American community of its cohesion and hard-won entitlements? Some African Americans opined that Dolezal had, indeed, stolen a black narrative of pain. Part of the intense displeasure with her is that she partook in one of the benefits of black culture without paying the dues of membership. However, few within the community acknowledged that these dues are never evenly distributed. Issues of intraracial class and color bubble just beneath the surface. In 2007-2008, many made the same accusation of inauthenticity against Barack Obama. Unless we find out that Ms. Dolezal embezzled from the local NAACP, we have little evidence that she actively sabotaged the African American community.

The Dolezal case is not the first of its kind. Americans have been crossing racial boundaries since the first European settlements. The 1930′s jazz singer Mildred Bailey hailed from Keoka ,Washington, close to Spokane. Famous for her swinging tunes (including “Harlem Lullaby”), Mildred went back and forth across the color line. She was “colored” when hanging with African American musicians and “Indian” with white big bands. Did Mildred deceive African Americans just to make money? Or was she an overly enthusiastic wannabe (like Dolezal)? Bailey had a male counterpart in Mezz Mezzrow, a Jewish-born jazz musician who became a “voluntary Negro,” even to the point of insisting that he be put in the black section of a segregated prison. At the present, we have Senator Elizabeth Warren who began to claim “Native American” status at the age of 37.

When it comes to other people’s bodies and identities, we should keep our hands off. Identities can be fluid, overlapping and even incongruous. Several Sundays ago, I marched in the Boston Gay Pride with my church. Before the parade commenced we had an interfaith service, where I observed a young woman with a hijab (Muslim head covering), who then changed her appearance radically as she left the sanctuary and marched proudly through the streets as a member of the LGBTQ community. But she also participates in another community. The activist is identified by most friends as black and self-identifies as such. Yet, according to the U.S. census and the Immigration and Naturalization Service, neither of her parents is black. Many in her paternal community would do her harm if they knew of her racial boundary crossings. I strongly support her in her right to be herself — her multiple racial, ethnic, sexual and religious selves.

We must expect the boundaries of race, like the boundaries of gender and sexuality, to become increasingly porous. Obviously, many are uneasy with this fluidity. However, uneasiness is no reason for hysteria, as in the case of Ms. Dolezal. Seventy-five years ago, W.E.B. Du Bois, looking at the absurdity of race construction in America, said “This race talk is, of course, a joke, and frequently it has driven me insane and probably will permanently in the future…” The Spokane episode shows the durability of his prediction. Hopefully we shall begin to look beyond the hoary racial constructs of the past to the functioning of class, color and gender in the present. This is the true lesson of Ms. Dolezal’s “fifteen minutes of fame.”

Ibrahim Sundiata is the Spector Emeritus Professor of History and Afro-American Studies at Brandeis University. Sundiata is a certified lay servant at Union Methodist Church, a welcoming and affirming religious community in Boston as well as the author of four books. He is currently working on his fifth book entitled Not Out of Dixie: A Post-Mortem of Identity in Obama’s America.


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