Rachel/Racial Theory: Reverse Passing in the Curious Case of Rachel Dolezal

by Damon Sajnani AKA ProfessorD.us

Rachel Dolezal has done more than break the internet and fuel Black twitter and emcee cyphers with innumerable punchlines. She has provided the first high-profile contemporary case of racial passing from white to Black.[i]

The vast majority of responses on mainstream and social media, even those claiming attention to nuance, pretty much accept—without justification or interrogation—that her parents’ version of the story is right and that she is wrong. Specifically, both her critics and most of her sympathizers accept the following as a “fact”: Rachel was pretending to be Black when she was really white all along. My aim here is not to defend or to condemn her, but to show that this one simple “fact” is neither simple nor self-evident.

Race is a social construct. It is a social reality, not a biological one. This fact is widely acknowledged by academics but many of them misunderstand it. Often, people who claim to know that race is a social construct make statements exposing that they really do not recognize it as such.

In “The Passing of Anatole Broyard,” Henry Louis Gates Jr. recounts the details of how “Broyard was born black and became white” (181-2).[ii] Throughout American history untold numbers of light skinned Blacks assumed white identities. This phenomenon became known as “passing” in the 1920s. Some did so temporarily, as for a job open only to whites. Sometimes they were white during the work day and Black when they returned to their families in the evening. But in many other cases, such as Broyard’s, people cut themselves off from their families completely, marrying white and raising white children oblivious to their Black ancestry. If we think of race as biological, as we have been taught, then these people were living a deception their whole lives and their children were not really white. But when we understand race as a social construct, we understand that they actually became white. There is nothing more to being, or not being, a given race than the social acceptance and societal ascription of a race to a person.

It is easy to dismiss Dolezal as having “mental problems,” or for what appears to be morally reprehensible chronic deception. However, if whiteness, at its core, is a fallacious belief in the superiority of whites over nonwhites, then isn’t it the case that whiteness involves a peculiar kind of mental illness anyway? James Baldwin would say so. Similarly, as Jeffrey Ogbar notes,[iii] if we are going to analyze this as an instance of racial passing, we’ll need to move beyond the banal fact that passing involves lying or, as Henry Louis Gates Jr. put it with respect to Broyard, “distance and denials and half-denials and cunning half-truths …ambiguity and equivocation[.]” As Ogbar has pointed out, the visceral reactions among many Black critics are rooted in collective trauma and a history of exploitative appropriation. He argues that these feelings are understandable but should not provoke false equivalences. For instance, reducing Rachel’s “performance” to Black-face minstrelsy does ourselves the disservice of failing to recognize and grapple with the novelty of this case.

These dismissals are short-cuts satisfying our mental need to make the unfamiliar familiar. But when we are too quick to reduce new phenomena to old frames we risk failing to learn anything new. We can critique Rachel in many ways, but we do ourselves a disservice if our critique is really motivated by our need to fit her into a box, and get her out of our minds, so that we can continue to think about race in the contradictory ways we always have. In other words, the worst thing about these swift dismissals is that they help us avoid grappling with the important question: Did she actually become Black? If not, why not? If so, what does that mean?

On June 12, 2015, Anderson Cooper hosted a discussion on CNN with guests Marc Lamont Hill and Michaela Angela Davis to discuss Dolezal.[iv] Hill opened by saying:  

“I’m puzzled by this Anderson. People historically have lied about their race in order to get more stuff. Right? They’ve lied in order to avoid Jim Crow, they’ve lied in order to get access to jobs, they’ve lied in order to be safe from lynching. Very few people choose Black as an identity unless they have to. Blackness is something people have historically tried to get out of—which is also problematic. So, this is a puzzling choice for this woman.

Hill is right to situate this discussion in the context of racial passing, and to note that the previous history of passing is the history of Blacks passing for white in order to circumvent the evils of racism. Further, he pinpoints one of the most curious aspects of this novel instance of passing: rather than moving from the oppressed race to join the ranks of the oppressors, she did the opposite. This is where the conversation needs to start. As Dreadsen Owen commented on Facebook:

I never thought I'd see the day where a White woman made a deliberate decision to take several steps back in privilege and assume the life of a Black woman. Historically it has been common for some black people who can pass for a white person to claim they are white… so they can reap the social and economic benefits of being white in society, prompting the "one drop rule" …It's not like she's someone benefiting from the positive things people celebrate from black culture while not having to deal with the oppression. She was getting the full package. (We can talk about skin shades but that's another discussion). …I can understand why people would be upset if a Black person was passing for being White. But White passing for Black? This lady went to College for African American studies and even Teaches African American studies. How dare she give up her privileges and take on layers of oppression for her life. I'm having a hard time casting judgment on this one.

Owen has trouble passing judgement for the same reason that Hill is “puzzled.” Unfortunately, rather than try to solve the puzzle, Hill throws the pieces into a different box. He reduces this rarely seen phenomenon of a white person passing as Black to the all too familiar case of white appropriation of Black culture:

On some level it speaks to the way we think about race right now, which is that it’s an individual choice, that it’s a social construct, all this fluid stuff, but on the other hand I think it speaks to a very dangerous practice of trying on someone’s identity. Of trying on a marginalized—notion of race whenever you want to. To me it’s the ultimate exercise of white privilege to say “I’m going to be Black for a little while.”

There is no question that Rachel has appropriated Black culture. We may agree in the end that she has done so unethically. But before reaching this conclusion we need to recognize what is different about her case. After all, not all appropriation is qualitatively equal,[v] and she most definitely is not your run-of-the-mill case. Hill stretches the credible boundaries of the term “a little while” when suggesting she was “trying on” a Black identity. We don’t condemn white appropriation of Black culture because whites are unwelcome to participate. Rather, we condemn it because the history of cultural appropriation by whites is part and parcel of racial domination in which whites exploit Black culture, reap its rewards, and take those rewards back to the socio-economic white world. But, Dolezal was not taking it back to the white world. As in the historical instances of passing where Blacks assimilated into the white world permanently, Dolezal appears to have necessarily estranged herself from her white family. She appears to have been living her life as a Black person, living and working within the Black community, and there is no reason to believe she had any intention of reverting. This cultural appropriation is qualitatively distinct from all the instances we know so well, from Minstrelsy to Presley and beyond. In other words, Dolezal is more Anatole Broyard than Elvis Presley.

Some have been quick to liken Dolezal to Vijay Chokal-Ingam, a second generation south-Asian who was accepted to medical school by pretending to be Black. Chokal-Ingam is an interesting case but very different from Dolezal. He was unabashedly motivated by self-interest and really "undercover" the whole time--giving no indication that he intended to live his life as a Black person. He's more like a less-altruistic version of John Howard Griffin. Rachel may be problematic on many levels, but she does not appear to have been what Stevie Wonder would call a "part-time lover."

One of the biggest misconceptions about the social construction of race is that it entails racial voluntarism. It does not. Race is an ideological structure created for the purpose of global European domination. It is designed to be fixed and permanent; to reify the contingent relations of colonial subjugation into immutable identities. The fact that race is a social construct does not mean that anyone gets to pick whatever race they want to be. It means, among other things, that one’s race is not a function of one’s physical or ancestral properties (as racial doctrine would have you believe) but a function of how one is perceived to fit within society’s existing racial typology. Further, it means that understanding race requires interrogations, not of individuals and their characteristics, but the social forces that create race in accordance with the dominant cultural, political, and economic structures of society.

A principal and visceral objection to Rachel’s claim to Blackness is that, if we accept Rachel as Black, if we indulge the “foolishness of transracial identity”,[vi] then we are authorizing wholesale access to the continued plunder of Blackness by whites. Many of my friends have raised the objection that since Blacks can’t become white at will, we cannot authorize whites to do so. Fine. However, this piece is not about authorizing or condemning what Dolezal did but understanding what happened when she did it. Racial passing has never been authorized and it has never been something most Blacks could do. But where and when it was accomplished, it was usually done by Blacks. It was never the case that most Blacks could pull it off even if they wanted to, and it is certainly not the case today that most whites could either. Racial categories are designed to be fixed, and passing, from Broyard to Dolezal, requires extreme and unscrupulous measures.

It is a historical fact that Anatole Broyard succeeded in passing for white, but the philosophical question is whether he became white. As a teaching assistant for Charles Mills’ class on “Philosophy, Race, and Racism,” I found it interesting how deeply our students were predisposed to thinking he was Black all along, just as we are all predisposed to think of Rachel as having been white all along. But that is precisely because the immutability of race has been programmed into us. It permeates our language about race, for example the fact that we say “passing” rather than “becoming.” We routinely fail to recognize that race is a social imposition of perception, rather than a property of individuals or groups. Mills identifies as Black and is read as such in the US. But when he returns to his home of Jamaica, he is not read as Black, but rather as “brown.”

Dolezal’s deceitfulness, as blameworthy as it might be, does not prove in-and-of-itself that she was not Black. In truth, people often “become” what they want through deception and manipulation, witness the wildly popular handbook to sociopathic behavior, The 48 Laws of Power. While developing her latest book, Physics of Blackness, Michelle M. Wright has been asking us to shift the question from “what is Black?” to “when is Black?” Understanding the social construction of race forces us to recognize that one’s race is an imposition of perception by others, and this perception can be different from one social context to another.

The real question is not what “is” Rachel now that we know she is not Black, but what was Rachel when we did not know? To her parents, she was and remains “Caucasian”—a ridiculous euphemism for “white” that continues to circulate in mainstream discourse regardless of the fact that virtually no whites in the US have any traceable lineage to actual “Caucasians.”[vii] But in the life she had established by hook or by crook, Blacks, whites and—let’s say for the sake of argument—even she “believed” she was Black. Within this social context, if we want to say she was not Black, we need an explanation as to why not. The fact that she lied? So did everyone who passed throughout history. Some of their descendants are people you consider white today. Genetic lineage? Irrelevant, unless you subscribe to the discredited pseudo-science of race as a biological category. The fact that she did not “grow up” with the Black experience? Many people who come to the US from all over the world—including “colored” South Africans, and “brown” Jamaicans—are surprised to find that they are Black when they get here. If they stay, they are Black regardless of not having grown up with the Black experience. At the moment, and in the world, where she was accepted and perceived as Black, what was the “truth”? Here, Gates’ musings on Broyard are informative:

What was that truth? Broyard was a critic—a critic who specialized in European and American fiction. And what was race but a European and American fiction? If he was passing for white, perhaps he understood that the alternative was passing for black. "But if some people are light enough to live like white, mother, why should there be such a fuss?" a girl asks her mother in "Near-White," a 1931 story by the Harlem Renaissance author Claude McKay. "Why should they live colored when they could be happier living white?" Why, indeed? One could concede that the passing of Anatole Broyard involved dishonesty; but is it so very clear that the dishonesty was mostly Broyard's?

The reason Dolezal broke the internet and flooded our timelines is because she does not fit what we “know” about race. To mitigate the resulting cognitive dissonance, we try to find ways to neatly put her back in the box she popped out of, so we can have our timelines back and continue to think about race in the way we always have—by not thinking about it.

When we affirm or imply the self-evidentiary nature of the “fact” that Dolezal is, was, and could only ever be white, we demonstrate our failure to understand race as a social construct. This is a significant failure, and one we must overcome. It does not mean that we must approve of Dolezal’s deception, it does not mean we should heroine-ize her, but it does mean that we should use this teachable moment to interrogate the holes in the way that we think about race, and challenge ourselves and each other to come up with a definition of race that suits our interests—the people’s interests—rather than continuing, in confusion, to re-deploy definitions which have been crafted and modified over time by our oppressors in accordance with their agenda. For Black people, this means coming up with criteria for Blackness that serves the collective Black interest.

Damon Sajnani (AKA ProfessorD.us)  is Professor of African Cultural Studies at the University of Wisconsin, Madison and a Nasir Jones Hip Hop Fellow at the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute, Harvard University. D@DopePoets.com



[i] For historical considerations of the rare phenomenon of reverse passing, see Dreisinger, Baz. Near Black: White-to-Black Passing in American Culture. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2008, and Sandweiss, Martha A. Passing Strange: A Gilded Age Tale of Love and Deception Across the Color Line. Reprint edition. New York, NY: Penguin Books, 2010.

[ii] Gates, Henry Louis Jr., “The Passing of Anatole Broyard,” in 13 Ways of Looking at a Black Man. Vintage Books: New York, 1998.

[iii] All unattributed references herein refer to social media commentary by friends of the author from June 12 and 13th, 2015. 

[iv] The CNN interview is available here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?t=99&v=VHEN251kTL4

[v] As the field of cultural studies have established, there is no such thing as a “pure culture” and all cultures exist by and through continual borrowings from others.

[vi] In a longer article I intend to address the transgender verses transracial comparison. In the interim, I refer the reader to the following two excellent essays on the topic which are both in line with my thinking: Kai M. Green’s ““Race and gender are not the same!” is not a Good Response to the “Transracial”/Transgender Question” and Adolph Reed Jr.’s “From Jenner to Dolezal: One Trans Good, the Other Not So Much.”

[vii] For example, during the interview cited herein, Anderson Cooper uses the term “ethnicity” and later “Caucasian” in a way that suggests Caucasian is an ethnicity and a perfectly reasonable synonym for “white.” Caucasian is in fact an ethnic identity, but only for those who actually live in the Caucasus or maintain a cultural connection to the area and way of line (yes, they really do exist!). However, in the US, the word “Caucasian” does not refer to any identifiable ethnicity, but to a racial category. Worse, it’s is rooted in foundational categories of scientific racism, specifically those proposed by Johann Friedrich Blumenbach in the late 18th century. For those in the know, when Anderson Cooper (or anyone else uses the word) “Caucasian,” he sounds so ignorant that he may as well use Blumenbach’s term “Ethiopian” to refer to all Blacks while he’s at it (See Bruce Baum’s The Rise and Fall of the Caucasian Race, 2008).



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