Erika D. Smith

Rachel Dolezal case shows identity isn’t as simple as it seems

Rachel Dolezal resigned as president of the Spokane chapter of the NAACP.
Rachel Dolezal resigned as president of the Spokane chapter of the NAACP. AP

Part of me had hoped that Rachel Dolezal would just go away. That with her blondish, frizzy hair and overly tanned skin, she would just admit that she’s white, not black, and has been lying for almost a decade.

No such luck.

The president of the NAACP chapter in Spokane, Wash., stepped down Monday, sticking to her guns and even talking about the Black Liberation Movement in her resignation on Facebook. She’s “black” and she’s not going back – or something.

The whole case, which has spawned hashtags for days on social media, is as fascinating as it is infuriating. It has the ingredients for funky conversation about the meaning of identity, especially here in California where we celebrate subgenres of identities.

What I find most interesting is that Dolezal, 37, chose to forgo the societal privilege of being white to become a minority. And not just any minority, but a black woman. Usually, it’s the other way around.

After all, black women have been disproportionately affected by rising income inequality and, as of 2013, had a median income of just $25,000. And black women are often so ignored that a group of them felt they had to get naked in the streets of San Francisco last month just to make a point about the number of unarmed black women who get shot by police.

Who wants to be a black woman?

Me and millions of other black women. We do because that’s what the mirror says and that’s what we’ve been told we are from birth. And because we’ve learned, despite the barrage of European expectations of beauty, to love our coarse hair, wide noses and curves.

I could have passed as biracial or, so I’m told, Dominican or even Persian. But the thought never occurred to me.

So what’s Rachel Dolezal’s excuse?

Her parents say that she grew up with adopted black siblings and had mostly black friends. Also, that she married and then divorced a black man. That’s when they say she started portraying herself as black.

My guess is she found some sort of acceptance with black people that she couldn’t find elsewhere, that she joined my race like some people join a club, dating black men and dressing like her black female friends.

Still, Dolezal seems to be a woman in search of an identity, not someone who has found one.

In her Facebook post Monday, she wrote that “challenging the construct of race is at the core of evolving human consciousness.”

For black people who have fought long and hard to craft – and constantly recraft – an identity in the face of cultural appropriation, commoditization, stereotyping and eventually, demonization by broader American society, that’s insulting. The sentence smacks of an authority that Dolezal no longer has, and apparently never had.

But here’s the rub: As whacked out as her story is, she’s actually got a point.

I’m not ready to jump on the “transracial” bandwagon or compare what Dolezal feels about being black to what someone feels about their true gender identity. Comparing her to Caitlyn Jenner, the transgender Olympian formerly known as Bruce, is just silly. We’re talking deception vs. biology here.

But to her larger point, I do believe in challenging the construct of identity, especially because, as a country, we have so much baggage and so many laws tied to it.

Identity isn’t just about what someone knows or thinks of himself or herself. It’s not just internal. It’s also shaped by the way that person is treated by others. For example, a big part of being a black woman is being seen and treated as a black woman by everyone I meet. My identity isn’t just something in my head. I live it every day. Experiences can’t be replicated.

But does living life as a black person, even 24/7 for a decade, make a person black?

I’m not ready to go that far, but it’s an interesting question. Perhaps it’s why the Dolezal case has received so much attention and why the conversation she helped spark will continue long after the #AskRachel hashtag fades from the Twittersphere.

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