Unlike Ray Sprigle and John Howard Griffin, two writers who pretended to be Black for a month or so several decades ago, Rachel Dolezal is determined to be Black forever, and apparently, up to now, only her parents and adopted siblings knew her real racial identity.
Her parents, from whom she has been estranged for years, recently came out with what they feel is the truth, and not the “lot of lies” their daughter has been telling the media.
Monday, Dolezal, 37, resigned as president of the Spokane, Wash., branch of the NAACP. “Please know I will never stop fighting for human rights and will do everything in my power to help and assist, whether it means stepping up or stepping down, because this is not about me,” she said in the statement. “It’s about justice. This is not me quitting; this is a continuum.”
But for Cornell William Brooks, president and CEO of the NAACP, the situation was not about justice or race, he initially charged, but about “credibility.”
In a more official statement released Monday, he said, “The NAACP is not concerned with the racial identity of our leadership, but the institutional integrity of our advocacy. Our focus must be on issues, not individuals. Ms. Rachel Dolezal has decided to resign to ensure that the Spokane branch remains focused on fighting for civil and human rights. This resignation today comes amidst the real work of the NAACP and the real challenges to our democracy.”
Racial identity has never been a concern for the NAACP, which, in 1909, was principally founded by white Americans with only W.E.B. Du Bois as a prominent African-American in the early stages of its development.
According to her parents, Dolezal’s behavior is “irrational.” “I think there’s a demonstration of being irrational and being disconnected from reality,” her mother, Ruthanne, told CNN.
“Many of the things she’s done have been irrational,” said her father, Lawrence. He also refuted her story that as early as 5 years of age she used colored crayons to depict herself. “She’s lying,” her father said. “It was not until 2004 that she began identifying as Black.” Other than European ancestry, the parents said that each had a grandmother with Native American blood.
In 2001, according to one report, Dolezal sued Howard University for discrimination while a graduate student at the school. She charged that Black students were favored over her. The suit was thrown out.
When Dolezal’s situation is placed in historical perspective, it seems a bit counterintuitive in contrast to African-American fiction of the Harlem Renaissance period with a representative number of novels about characters trying to pass for white. Even in James Weldon Johnson’s classic novel “The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man,” the protagonist eventually crossed over to the easier life being white.
Perhaps this is what Dolezal’s parents are referencing when they call her behavior irrational. Her decision to depict herself as Black was clearly an embarrassment to the family, particularly for parents who had adopted four African-American children, Dolezal’s darker siblings.
One of these siblings, Ezra Dolezal, told the media he saw this story coming. His sister, he said, had asked him not “to blow her cover” about the race of her father. “Instead of sticking to a simple story,” he explained to the press, “she’s been trying to make this really complex, and it finally got too big for her to handle.”
At first blush, no pun intended, Dolezal seems intent on being Black, although if what has been reported about her Howard experience is true, there’s an element of opportunism, and she can change her color whenever it’s advantageous.
With so many more important problems, the media is once again feverishly involved in a distraction. Even so, it does have a racial aspect, and that automatically makes it useful fodder in our society.
Even so, the always baffling concept of race, be it social construct and a matter of perception, remains as locked in binary terms as ever.
And as we suggested earlier, the question of racial identity within the ranks of the NAACP is by no means new. Students of the organization are well aware of Walter White, who, unlike Dolezal, was a Black man often passing as white in the fight for equal justice. “Yes, it’s our good fortune/He was born so light,” wrote Langston Hughes in a poetic tribute to White. “Cause it’s swell to have a leader that can pass for white.”
But is it also our good fortune to have a chosen leader who is white and passes for Black? Dolezal’s plight and the media surge has renewed the public discussion about race, something that simmers at the core of the nation’s DNA. Interestingly, she has not said she is Black, but “I identify as Black.”
In effect, she has adopted the Black race, with the obvious intention of being adopted by other Blacks—a kind of transracial appropriation.
For all intents and purposes, she had been successful in this crossover—that is, until her masquerade was exposed by parents who are clearly upset by her “irrational” behavior and the refutation of her white ancestry.