Sorry, Rachel Dolezal, There’s No ‘Trans’ in Front of ‘Racial’
In her seminal Harlem Renaissance novel Passing, Nella Larsen chronicles the story of Clare Kendry, a biracial woman who decides to pass for white after her father’s death. Like some fair-skinned African Americans during the 19th and 20th centuries, Clare assumes a white identity to have greater social mobility, freedom, and economic access.
Her transition into white society was a success, but it came with steep consequences. Like many people of color who have passed for white, Kendry was forced to cut all ties with her past or risk being found out as black—a move that could have meant disaster, financial ruin, imprisonment, or even death.
As society has become more inclusive, the need to pass for white is no longer commonplace among people of color. But the conversation is once again a hot topic after Rachel Dolezal, president of the Spokane, Washington, chapter of the NAACP, was recently outed by her parents as being white.
Dolezal, who is also an adjunct professor of Africana Studies at Eastern Washington University and the chair of Spokane’s Office of Police Ombudsman Commission, has allegedly been pretending to be black for more than a decade. In addition to tanning her skin, wearing ethnic hairstyles like braids and dreadlocks, and attending Howard University, a historically black college and university, Dolezal has also claimed she was the target of hate crimes because she was black, something Spokane police deny.
On Thursday, Dolezal’s parents said their daughter spent more than two decades “assimilating into the African American community” and cut all ties with them because she “doesn’t want us visible in the Spokane area in her circle because we’re Caucasian.”
When a reporter confronted Dolezal with her parents’ accusations and asked if she was African American, Dolezal said she “did not understand the question” and refused to comment further.
Dolezal’s racial maneuver has become the top trending topic on Twitter, with many poking fun at her attempt to pass as black.
I declare February 29th as #RachelDolezal Day because it's generally not a part of Black History Month, but every 4 years it pretends to be.— Mr. Cub 1931-2015 (@JeffOutLoud) June 12, 2015
It is great passing as a black woman #RachelDolezal until you go to a community pool in Texas...— Loni Love (@LoniLove) June 12, 2015
Though Dolezal’s situation has inspired some jokes, she has also sparked an interesting debate: Can someone be transracial?
Actor Mia Farrow posed the question many began asking as soon as Dolezal’s story hit the news. “We accept that a person can identify as transgender. Could ‘trans-ethnic’ be a real thing?” Farrow tweeted.
We accept that a person can identify as transgender. Could 'trans-ethnic' be a real thing? #RachelDolezal— mia farrow (@MiaFarrow) June 12, 2015
Popular radio personality Charlamagne Tha God made a connection to Caitlyn Jenner for his 1.1 million followers.
Hypocrisy is Hilarious. It's ok to say Rachel Dolezal is crazy for identifying as black but say Caitlyn is crazy and you're transphobic.— Charlamagne Tha God (@cthagod) June 12, 2015
So a woman can be born in a man's body but a black person can't be born in white skin? What makes one easier to believe than the other?— Charlamagne Tha God (@cthagod) June 12, 2015
So, Why Should You Care? Blair L.M. Kelley, associate professor of history at North Carolina State University, rejects comparing Dolezal’s decadelong deception to the experiences of trans men and women—not simply because Dolezal hasn’t claimed to be transracial, but also because there’s no historical context to support such an idea.
“People who are transgender, there’s a history there. There’s a history of transgender people committing suicide and suffering and being burdened by the particularities of their circumstance,” she says. “So it’s not helpful to say it’s the same thing, because [Dolezal] is not from a long-standing tradition of people who are white feeling like they are not who they are. For transgender people, this is true. There have been people who are transgender throughout history. Leave them alone.”
Still, on the surface it seems plausible. The biracial population of the U.S. has exploded over the years, with 6.9 percent of adults in the United States now identifying as multiracial, and historically, some people of color have successfully passed as white.
But while Dolezal was able to alter her appearance and successfully pretend to be a light-skinned black woman, darker-skinned people would never be able to make such a transition to become “transracial,” even if they bleached their skin and altered their hair.
“It doesn’t work both ways,” says Kelley. “Our notion of race is grounded in a stigma of blackness. So, you can’t get away from blackness if you have any trace of it. Any discernible trace will throw you back into that category.”
Kelly’s assertion is bolstered by the “one drop” rule, which was instituted in the antebellum South to keep whiteness pure. The rule classifies anyone with one drop of black blood as black, effectively cutting the person off from access to the benefits of whiteness, such as freedom and the ability to self-determine.
Though the laws used to classify those with black ancestry as black have been removed from the books, the one drop rule remains a part of our lives. For instance, like most biracial people, President Obama is expected to identify as black or biracial, not white, despite being raised by his white mother and grandparents. If being transracial, or trans-ethnic, were really a thing, the president could identify as a white man without any objections. However, despite race being a social—not a biological—construct, being accepted as white is off limits to most people of color.
“Race isn’t real, and you can’t see it in my DNA, but it’s real in my walk. It’s real in how I am treated,” says Kelley. “Is it made up? Absolutely. At one point someone decided that an African was fundamentally different than a European or Asian person, but the wealth of nations was built on that social construct. To say something is socially constructed is not to say it doesn’t matter.”
Dolezal’s foray into blackness matters because it further highlights the privilege of whiteness—she is essentially appropriating space reserved for marginalized people.
Unlike passing African Americans who quietly slipped into white society for a chance at a better life (or survival), Dolezal bum-rushed the very limited spaces reserved for black folks and decided to become a spokesperson for the race. She was often the featured speaker on issues relating to black women and was called on to speak up for Spokane’s tiny black community. Her presence took up space reserved for African Americans to share their experience and feelings, granting her the ultimate white privilege—to be hailed as a “strong black woman” while still remaining white.
As Larsen wrote about her character, a biracial woman who passed for white, Clare Kendry “wanted to have her cake and eat it too, wanted to nibble at the cakes of other folk as well.” It seems Dolezal wanted to do the same.