Friday, June 26, 2015


  The brouhaha precipitated by Rachel Dolezal shows how far we are from having any sensible, not to say constructive, conversation about race.  We cannot discuss race if we cannot agree on what defines race or identifies someone as a member of a race.  The dilemmas posed by Dolezal accentuate our difficulties.

Dolezal was born white but has long represented herself as black; has served as the volunteer president of the Spokane, WA, NAACP chapter; and has taught black studies at Eastern Washington University.  By all prior accounts, she has performed effectively as an activist and a teacher.  She claims to be black or to identify with blacks; her marriage to and children with a black man, and her career in activism in Spokane align with this claim.  The disparity between her “birth-race” and “life-race” has led many people to accuse her of dishonesty, emotional and mental problems, and impossible claims about her race or ethnicity.  Most disregard her good work as a parent, activist, and teacher.

Many accuse Dolezal of dishonesty by lying (and thereby deceiving) others.  To lie, people must state as true what they know to be false; they do not believe what they state.  People who believe what they state, although it is false, do not lie.  If Dolezal believed that she was or had become black, or so identified with and imitated blacks that she could not distinguish herself from them, she was not lying.  Her accusers’ disregard of these truths does not impeach her honesty or sincerity.

Her critics accuse Dolezal of lying without regard to the diversity of lies.  Lies are good or bad; altruistic or selfish; helpful, harmless, or hurtful.  People tell lies of many kinds, at many times, for many reasons.  There are “little white lies,” fishermen’s lies, padded resumes, plagiarized papers, false accusations, perjured testimony, and the lies of patriots who die under torture to save comrades and serve country.  Her accusers have not shown that her lies helped her by hurting others.

Dolezal’s critics’ biggest problem is their difficulty in understanding her motives.  They understand that blacks pass as whites to lose the disabilities of one race and gain the advantages of another race.  But they cannot understand why whites would pass as blacks and become liable to those disabilities.

Their puzzlement leads many, including her parents, to accuse Dolezal of having emotional or mental problems.  The accusation intends or serves to smear someone different and not understood.  In view of the long, troubled, and even toxic, relationship between daughter and parents, their motives must be suspect; their comments, which could not do her any good, do not suggest loving parents.  Like parents, like accusers: they have sought to smear her with psychoanalytical conjectures, not solid evidence.

Dolezal is unclear when she explains her development toward her claimed black identity or affinity, but she does not seem disturbed or confused.  Like true believers, she is intensely and unusually committed to her cause, social, particularly racial, justice.  The dynamics of her inner life provide no basis for discrediting her claims of racial identity or affinity, much less her work as an activist professing to be black and accepted as black.

Those most outraged by Dolezal’s claims are not whites, but blacks, and they focus less on her moral character or psychological condition than on race-related issues.  The lesser issue is that she has the possibility, denied them, of her being able to return to being white and to the presumed benefits thereof.  The more provocative issue is the impossibility of her being black or achieving black authenticity.  They argue that she lacks the biological prerequisites or the background experience of blacks in America; some even allege that her claims disrespect blacks and the black experience, as if imitation does not flatter.  Their outrage indicates that issues of black identity and black authenticity are not academic, denatured issues, but lived, painful ones, expressed with an intensity fueled by uncertainty or insecurity.

  The Dolezal Dilemma focuses on these issues.  What defines or characterizes some people as black or confirms them as authentic?  Having a certain DNA element or sequence?  Having little white blood after some number of generations?  Having some amount of melanin?  Living in public housing in a ghetto or in a backwoods shack without utilities?  Being unemployed or unemployable?  Doing crack, not powder, cocaine?  Having a rap sheet?  Liking hip-hop?  Styling dreadlocks?  Not “acting white” in school by attending regularly and studying hard?  Are “authentic” black men only those who have a poor education or no job, have been jailed, or have fathered children and abandoned families?  Are black women “inauthentic” if they are, in many of these respects, the opposite of such black men, and seek to “marry out” for suitable partners?

For her black accusers, Dolezal’s biological legacy and ethnic background impeach her claims.  They cite the physical evidence of genes and blood.  But this evidence is weak because white and black genes and blood have mingled for generations.  They cite the different historical experiences of whites and blacks in America; to be authentically black is to be, or believe oneself, inescapably scarred by past servitude or damaged by present deprivations in a white society.  But this evidence is no better because anyone who tries can experience it vicariously yet meaningfully, though perhaps imperfectly.  Those halfway there have been dubbed “wiggers”; those like Dolezal who go farther adopt the personal and cultural features—skin color, hairstyle, etc.—and claim a black identity and affinity with black experience.  It may help to think of changes like hers as resulting from a racial conversion, rather like a religious one.

Thus, the Dolezal Dilemma threatens all-or-nothing categories by suggesting the permeability of racial identity and the absorption of ethnic experience.  Black anxiety about what it means to be black and authentically so finds release in anger at Dolezal.  Confusion and discomfort about race issues appear in the tactical back-and-forthing about whether race is a clearly delineated biological taxon, or group, or a social construct, with variations and gradation; or whether identity reflects natural birth or acquired ethnicity with clear standards of authenticity.  The inconsistency, which serves rhetorical convenience in different discussions, reveals that neither a unified definition of blackness nor a uniform standard of authenticity exists.

The Dolezal Dilemma suggests that we are not yet living in a post-racial world.  When blacks and whites talk about race, nothing is black and white, everything is a shade of gray, intellectually difficult and emotionally fraught.  Getting mad and moralistic, imposing stereotypes, or simplifying a complex human problem can only get in the way of addressing and resolving it.  Whether Dolezal is white or black, she, however flawed, and her effort, however unusual, deserve credit for having the right motives and achieving good results.  Who of her critics can claim as much for themselves?

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