To Rachel Dolezal, racial lines are por­ous. That’s why she crossed them.

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - RACE RE­VIEW BY BAZ DREISINGER Baz Dreisinger, a pro­fes­sor of English at John Jay Col­lege of Crim­i­nal Jus­tice, is the au­thor of “Near Black: White-to-Black Pass­ing in Amer­i­can Cul­ture” and “In­car­cer­a­tion Na­tions: A Jour­ney to Jus­tice in Prisons Around the

Back in 2015, I was fas­ci­nated by the scan­dal that swirled around Rachel Dolezal, the NAACP and Black Lives Mat­ter ac­tivist who turned out to be a once-blonde white wo­man from Mon­tana pass­ing her­self off as black. Dolezal went fur­ther than that: She said she wasn’t pos­ing as black but ac­tu­ally was black — be­cause she feels black. I made the rounds on the talk shows at the time, hav­ing pub­lished a book about the cul­tural his­tory of such re­verse racial pass­ing, and avidly tried to ex­plain no­tions of tran­sra­cial­ity.

Now Dolezal has pub­lished a me­moir, “In Full Color: Find­ing My Place in a Black and White World.” I hes­i­tated to re­view it. Ex­pend­ing in­tel­lec­tual en­ergy on one wo­man’s racial hoax seems a lux­ury of the pre-Trump era. And Dolezal’s in­creas­ingly bizarre story seems more tabloid fod­der than a sub­ject for se­ri­ous anal­y­sis. But then I read her book, and the ed­u­ca­tor in me felt com­pelled to speak out. Dolezal has writ­ten an im­por­tant book, one that be­longs on syl­labi as a case study in the mech­a­nisms of white lib­eral racism. She has pro­vided a teach­able mo­ment to ex­pose the dodgy ide­olo­gies she may not even re­al­ize she’s es­pous­ing.

Where did Dolezal’s iden­ti­fi­ca­tion with black­ness orig­i­nate? She writes that “the way I saw my­self was in­stinc­tual, com­ing from some place deep in­side of me.” As a child, she “felt Black and saw my­self as Black.” She drew her­self in brown crayon in­stead of peach be­cause “I felt like brown suited me bet­ter and was pret­tier.” Feel­ings of in­nate black­ness gave way to fetishized es­cape fan­tasies in the con­text of a trau­matic home life: “I would pre­tend to be a dark-skinned princess in the Sa­hara Desert or one of the Bantu women liv­ing in the Congo I’d read about in copies of Na­tional Geo­graphic.”

Her child­hood reads like “Lit­tle House on the Prairie: The Night­mare Edi­tion.” She writes that she was raised by Chris­tian ex­trem­ists who listed Je­sus Christ as at­ten­dant on her birth cer­tifi­cate and called her gay un­cle and his part­ner “the Sodomites”; ex­treme pro-lif­ers who be­lieved that she and her brother, born after Roe v. Wade, were sur­vivors of “a silent Holo­caust.” She de­picts her fa­ther as a vi­cious tyrant who beat her, made her eat her own vomit and “treated our home like his own pri­vate nud­ist colony.” She claims that she was sub­ject to sex­ual abuse by her brother and that her four adopted sib­lings were locked in bed­rooms and flogged with a ba­boon whip; one, she writes, was mo­lested for years. Into adult­hood, she says, she en­dured do­mes­tic vi­o­lence, rape and poverty, and was a vic­tim of hate crimes di­rected at her and her chil­dren.

Dolezal’s par­ents and brother, as well as po­lice depart­ment re­ports, dis­pute as­pects of her ac­count, so be­liev­ing her story in­volves a leap of faith. More­over, her story comes from a per­son who ad­mits to be­ing adept at “telling the truth with­out spell­ing out all the de­tails,” who de­scribes her de­pic­tion of her life as “cre­ative nonfiction.”

She dra­mat­i­cally paints her­self as a kind of tragic mu­latto for the mod­ern era. “So­ci­ety has tried to strip me of my iden­tity,” she writes, adding, “if my story can . . . pro­vide some mea­sure of com­fort to those who find them­selves drift­ing some­where be­tween Black and white, or with no cat­e­gory at all, I’ll con­sider the strug­gle I’ve en­dured sim­ply for liv­ing as my true self to be en­tirely worth it.”

But I have trou­ble con­jur­ing up sym­pa­thy in her case, since she is hardly the only one in the glob­al­ized, Obama-era world whose iden­tity cuts across com­plex lines of cul­ture and race. To that end, her ideas about racial iden­tity are stun­ningly sim­plis­tic. “Yes, my par­ents weren’t Black, but that’s hardly the only way to de­fine Black­ness,” she writes. “The cul­ture you grav­i­tate to­ward and the world­view you adopt play equally large roles.” Cul­ture mat­ters: agreed. Yes, race is a so­cial con­struct — but race also has very real im­pli­ca­tions. Yes, you can be born as one thing and iden­tify as an­other; you can look one way and feel an­other. But it’s not an ei­ther-or equa­tion — the com­plex­ity of iden­tity in­volves in­ter­sec­tion­al­ity, some­times from mo­ment to mo­ment. As the critic Eric Liu put it, racial iden­ti­fi­ca­tion is not sim­ply a mat­ter of em­brace or ef­face; as Walt Whit­man phrased it, we are many — we con­tain mul­ti­tudes.

Dolezal dili­gently stud­ied black­ness. She read “Black his­tory” books be­cause she wanted to serve as a “cul­tural trans­la­tor” for her adopted black sib­lings, “help­ing them nav­i­gate the white world safely while try­ing to keep them con­nected to the Black one.” The li­brary was her refuge be­cause, with the ex­cep­tion of a neigh­bor, un­til col­lege she didn’t know any black peo­ple, such that the no­tion of go­ing to the Mil­lion Man March to see them in the flesh thrilled her. She never re­flects, how­ever, on the dis­con­nect of want­ing “to help the Black com­mu­nity re­al­ize eco­nomic and so­cial jus­tice” with­out know­ing any of the ac­tual peo­ple she hoped to help.

Her def­i­ni­tion of black­ness — this thing she para­dox­i­cally felt in­nately but still had to study to em­brace it — is so woe­fully vague as to be mean­ing­less. She var­i­ously de­scribes it as “ac­knowl­edg­ing our com­mon hu­man an­ces­try with roots in Africa” and “fight­ing for free­dom, equal­ity, and jus­tice for peo­ple of African her­itage around the world.” Here is where her white­ness re­ally be­gins to show. In her I hear echoes of to­day’s quin­tes­sence of white­ness: Trump com­pul­sively re­fer­ring to “the African Amer­i­cans” and thereby, in one ex­pres­sion, re­duc­ing man­i­fold, com­plex iden­ti­ties and ex­pe­ri­ences to one easy-to-gen­er­al­ize-about, mono­lithic en­tity.

Just as Trump can­not seem to ut­ter “the African Amer­i­cans” sans “in­ner city,” Dolezal’s con­cep­tion of black­ness is steeped in a fetishiz­ing of strug­gle, pain and op­pres­sion. Opt­ing into the strug­gle is yet an­other place where her white­ness acutely rears its head. The choice to take on a racial man­tle at will is a mark of white priv­i­lege; so, too, is the choice to take it off when it suits. Iron­i­cally, then, in man­i­fest­ing her black­ness she most fla­grantly man­i­fests her white­ness. Dur­ing her early racial tran­si­tion, in col­lege in Mis­sis­sippi, she be­gan to live a “dou­ble life”: stay­ing in white dorms but go­ing to a black church on week­ends. She showed up at one Black Stu­dents As­so­ci­a­tion meet­ing and ran for club his­to­rian; in no time flat she was on the front lines of racial cul­ture, work­ing to in­crease black re­cruit­ment on cam­pus, school­ing her black friend in dance and or­ga­niz­ing a “racial rec­on­cil­i­a­tion” con­fer­ence. How white it is that her tran­si­tion to black­ness in­stantly in­volved au­thor­ity and power. “Tired of see­ing white peo­ple tak­ing cen­ter stage all the time,” she writes of her bud­ding work as a vis­ual artist, “I wanted to use my art skills to of­fer a more eq­ui­table and com­pas­sion­ate treat­ment of black cul­ture.” White per­son, do you not grasp the con­tra­dic­tion here? Do you not see the white priv­i­lege all over this sen­tence?

Fi­nally, there’s her mu­tat­ing phys­i­cal ap­pear­ance. In col­lege, she writes, her look be­came “more Afro­cen­tric” — she sported box braids and dashikis — as an aes­thetic choice. Later on in life, as she be­gan dark­en­ing her skin in tan­ning sa­lons, she claimed it was for her adopted son’s sake, so she’d look more like his mother. Her rea­son­ing grows more and more ab­surd un­til it reads as des­per­ate. She checked Na­tive Amer­i­can on forms be­cause of a great­grand­mother’s an­ces­try; she de­fends check­ing “Black” on a job ap­pli­ca­tion by ar­gu­ing that all of us could fea­si­bly check the same box, “thanks to sci­en­tific ev­i­dence that says mod­ern hu­mans evolved from Africa.”

Dolezal jus­ti­fies claim­ing black­ness by say­ing it was the only way she could be close to black peo­ple: “I no­ticed how much more re­laxed and com­fort­able Black peo­ple who as­sumed I was Black were around me. The minute I cor­rected them, the com­fort level we’d en­joyed just a mo­ment be­fore dis­ap­peared, so I stopped do­ing it and started let­ting them iden­tify me how­ever they wanted to.” But this ut­terly elim­i­nates the pos­si­bil­ity of au­then­tic cross-racial al­liances and friend­ships. Most of all, she ex­hibits a shock­ing in­abil­ity to fathom why her ac­tions might be bizarre or of­fen­sive. She dis­misses black peo­ple who crit­i­cized her, in­sist­ing they were “diss­ing me and in­val­i­dat­ing my Black­ness, [so] they could un­der­score theirs.” And she in­sists that “my hair never dis­com­fited Black peo­ple. Quite the op­po­site.”

This jaw-drop­ping my­opia dis­plays the book’s most acute dose of white priv­i­lege ide­ol­ogy, which es­sen­tially comes down to vi­sion: blind­ness to the in­vis­i­ble knap­sack of ad­van­tages one wears ev­ery day and, more than that, an all-around in­abil­ity to prop­erly see one’s priv­i­leged place in the world. Con­sider it the po­lar op­po­site of the dou­ble con­scious­ness that W.E.B. Du Bois fa­mously de­scribed, whereby African Amer­i­cans must per­sis­tently, si­mul­ta­ne­ously see them­selves while see­ing oth­ers see them. To say Dolezal lacks such dou­ble con­scious­ness is an un­der­state­ment. She is most white in her dra­matic in­abil­ity to see why we can­not call her black.


Rachel Dolezal faced a back­lash when it was re­vealed in 2015 that the NAACP and Black Lives Mat­ter ac­tivist was not black, as she pre­sented her­self to be, but in fact white.

IN FULL COLOR Find­ing My Place in a Black and White World By Rachel Dolezal with Storms Re­back BenBella. 280 pp. $24.95

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