I’m no fan of the “one drop of black blood makes you black” philosophy, nor does one drop of white blood make you white. Dolezal is correct that race is more complicated than that. But she has not one single drop, not a smidgen, not an atom of black heritage.
I have been watching in disbelief as the Rachel Dolezal case has unraveled over the past few days. I can’t stand it anymore, so here’s a special edition from Lila.
My breaking point came with Dolezal’s interview with Matt Lauer on the Today show. Dolezal insists that she “identifies as black.” Okay. Dolezal has black adoptive siblings, married a black man, and has a biracial child. Personally, I think when you are raised and live in a biracial household, it is completely understandable to identify with either race, or both races. But to identify as a particular race, biology is required. I cannot understand a totally plain-vanilla, white-bread, all-European-ancestors, pale, blond, freckly chick with two white parents insisting that she actually is black. It just is not so.
We live in a touchy-feely era of everyone thinking that they can be and do whatever they want. As Camille Gear Rich writes, “Like it or not, we have entered into an era of elective race — a time when people expect that one has a right and dignity to claim the identity of one’s choice.” I disagree. I’m a pale blond freckly chick like Dolezal. As it happens, I am actually more than 25% Spanish, with a smidge of Native American. But I’m white. Plain-vanilla white, and I cannot choose to be anything else because it just ain’t so.
Why can’t people choose? FACTS, that’s why. DNA. Genetics. Phenotype. Oh, and the politics of color. I once asked a biracial acquaintance, “If you’re 50% black and 50% white, then why can’t you just as easily be white?” She thought about it a moment, and answered, “I don’t know.” Enter the politics of color. My biracial acquaintance can’t be white, because our society won’t let her be white. So Dave Chappelle thinks the black community should accept Dolezal as black? I don’t. What if the situation were reversed, and Chappelle claimed to be white? The white community might accept Chappelle as an entertainer, as a thinker, as an equal, as a neighbor, as a friend – but you can bet the white community would not accept him as actually white.
In the days of slavery, there were quite a lot of “black” slaves who were actually white, with vanishingly small traces of black heritage. Consider the famous case of Sally Hemings, a slave described as “mighty near white, with long straight hair down her back,” who bore several children to Thomas Jefferson. These very white children were able to pass into white society only because Jefferson, their father and owner, freed them in his will. If not for that, they and their own children, white though they might be, would have remained “black” and been kept in slavery. “One drop” in those days was pretty much a sentence of life at hard labor.
Dolezal does not even have that “one drop.” She has not a single gene, not one molecule of her body that descends from any traceable African lineage. Her lame plea that “we’re all from the African continent” doesn’t cut it; the issue is not one of paleontological proportions, it is a modern social issue. Whites in America are historically privileged. Blacks in America are historically disadvantaged. Dolezal’s ancestors did not languish in captivity and till the plantations of American slave-owners. However much she has studied the black condition, however much she has worked on behalf of the black community, Dolezal did not grow up suffering the effects of white suspicion or discrimination or the low expectations that blacks often experience from whites.
In fact, the white Dolezal obtained a full scholarship to historically black Howard University, a free ride at an institution whose whole mission was to enable black youth to get a higher education in a world stacked against them. That scholarship was not intended for white youth; it was intended for black youth. And did she identify as black at that time? I think not, since she also sued them for discriminating against her because she was white. On the other hand, she later claimed to be a mix of white, black, and Native American on an official application to the police ombudsman commission in Spokane. Whatever pads your resume, I guess.
And this brings us to the criticism that she is “in blackface.” Oh, not the kind of offensive blackface of Vaudeville performances and such, but still – this is a persona that she puts on, darkening her complexion and changing the appearance of her hair. But she can abandon this, and her claim of being black, anytime it suits her. She can go back to being the fair-skinned, freckled white woman with the straight blond hair.
Actual black people cannot choose. Even my biracial acquaintance, at 50% white, is never viewed as “white” by anyone else. If the 100% white Dolezal is allowed to choose a “transracial” identity, then this is just another white privilege: whites can choose to be something else, while minorities are stuck with what Nature issued them, and with all the baggage that society imposes because of it.