Rachel Dolezal is Black: Passing and the Social Construction of Race in U.S. Society
By Hettie V. Williams
This essay is not written to defend Rachel Dolezal’s apparent deception regarding her birth “race” (and other matters) or the issues concerning her estrangement with her family; nor is it concerned with the larger subject of cultural appropriation including Dolezal’s fetishization of blackness which is highly problematical on several levels. Rather, this essay is an abbreviated discussion on passing and the social construction of race in relation to the Dolezal incident. However deceptive her performance of race might be viewed, it can still be used to interrogate the construction of race in U.S. society.
Rachel Dolezal is black. Dolezal, now former Director of the Spokane National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (N.A.A.C.P.), has for some years proclaimed an African American identity. By attending a historically black college (Howard University), teaching courses in African American Studies, donning Afrocentric hairstyles, changing her diction, and darkening her skin, Dolezal has on multiple occasions passed as black. Perhaps she is as black as the blue-eyed blonde N.A.A.C.P. Executive Director Walter White who ran the organization from 1931 to 1955 and was considered black during the early decades of the twentieth century. Or, is she as white as our current president Barack Obama?
What does all of this mean? In contrast to Dolezal, Obama was raised primarily by his white mother and white grandparents in Hawaii. He is a man with a biracial ancestry who according to his biracial Indonesian-white sister Maya Sotero-Ng has "named himself" black despite having been raised in “white” culture for most of his life. Obama’s sister Maya identifies as "hybrid" or half white, half Asian.
Nicole Richie named herself black in season one/episode one of her web series "Candidly Nicole" just as Dolezal has chosen to name herself black. Richie was reared by two African American parents: Lionel and Brenda Richie. Riche’s biological mother is white (Karen Moss) and her biological father is of Mexican descent (percussionist Peter Michael Escovedo III). How can this be? Certainly, both Obama and Richie might be classified as biracial but both have chosen to name themselves black.
If race is a social construction, and it is, race then is about culture not biology. Further, race is an unstable social category that changes over time and space. Consider the racial categories that exist in places such as Brazil that do not exist in the United States (U.S.). Color has social meaning and real social consequences; but, there is only a human race; and, at the molecular level, everyone has trace elements of ancient African DNA as geneticist Spencer Wells has demonstrated in his human family tree project. Countless anthropologists have long agreed that Africa is the homeland of humanity. The international community, through organizations such as UNESCO, has long denounced the race concept as biology since 1951. In fact, an international contingent of social scientists signed onto the four UNESCO statements that were published from 1951 to 1967 that define the concept as a socio-cultural and historical phenomenon.
This is also evident in the American Anthropological Association’s (AAA) statement on race and this is further articulated in "RACE: Are We So Different?" a major initiative of the AAA that seeks to educate the public about race as a social construction. Racially, Dolezal is human. Culturally, she identifies as black. More interestingly, if we are going to cling to the myth that race is defined by biology then as one scholar has said “we are all African under the skin” including Dolezal.
White's biography is as interesting as Dolezal’s when it comes to the question of racial passing. He was considered an “octoroon” (one who is considered one-eighth black), who came from a family of blue-eyed blondes, yet he is considered one of the most powerful black civil rights leaders of the twentieth century. Kenneth Robert Janken has argued that White often passed for self-benefit in his text entitled White: The Biography of Walter White, Mr. NAACP. This was a time when the one-drop-rule was in effect and anyone with “one drop” of black blood was considered black by law and social custom. White also passed as a white man to record incidents of lynching in the American South.
Today, most Americans would likely categorize “Mr. N.A.A.C.P.,” as he is described by Janken, as a white man given that the one-drop-rule is now considered an anachronism. Currently, race is understood as culture by many scholars and increasingly a matter of personal self-identity though the vast majority of the lay public are still “seeing” race as biology, as the media attempts to impose a white identity upon a person who has chosen to name herself black. Let us all pass for what we think we are and kill the myth of race as biology.