Of the 60 people who co-founded the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in 1909, only seven were, in fact, “colored.” Most of the organization’s founders were white liberals like Mary White Ovington. Its highest honor, the Spingarn Medal, is named for Joel Spingarn, who was Jewish and white.
Point being, white people have been intricately involved in the NAACP struggle for racial justice from day one. So Rachel Dolezal did not need to be black to be president of the organization’s Spokane chapter. That she chose to present herself as such anyway, adopting a frizzy “natural” hairstyle and apparently somehow darkening her skin, has put her in the bull’s-eye of the most irresistible water cooler story of the year. This will be on “Blackish” next season; just wait and see.
As you doubtless know, the 37-year-old Dolezal was outed last week by her estranged parents. In response, they say, to a reporter’s inquiry, they told the world her heritage includes Czech, Swedish and German roots, but not a scintilla of black. In the resulting mushroom cloud of controversy, Dolezal was forced to resign her leadership of the Spokane office. Interviewed Tuesday by Matt Lauer on “Today,” she made an awkward attempt to explain and/or justify herself. “I identify as black,” she said, like she thinks she’s the Caitlyn Jenner of race. It was painful to watch.
Given that Dolezal sued historically black Howard University in 2002 for allegedly discriminating against her because she is white, it’s hard not to see a certain opportunism in her masquerade. Most people who, ahem, “identify as black” don’t have the option of trying on another identity when it’s convenient.
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That said, it’s hard to be too exercised over this. Dolezal doesn’t appear to have done any harm, save to her own dignity and reputation. One suspects there are deep emotional issues at play, meaning the kindest thing we can do is give her space and time to work them out.
Besides, this story’s most pointed moral has less to do with Dolezal and her delusions than with us and ours. Meaning America’s founding myth, the one that tells us race is a fixed and objective fact.
It isn’t. Indeed, in 2000, after mapping the genetic codes of five people — African-American, Caucasian, Asian and Hispanic — researchers announced they could find no difference among them. “The concept of race,” one of them said, “has no scientific basis.” The point isn’t that race is not real; the jobless rate, the mass incarceration phenomenon and the ghosts of murdered boys from Emmett Till to Tamir Rice argue too persuasively otherwise.
Rather, it’s that it’s not real in the way we conceive it in America where, as historian Matt Wray once put it, the average 19-year-old regards it as a “set of facts about who people are, which is somehow tied to blood and biology and ancestry.”
In recent years, Wray and scholars like David Roediger and Nell Irvin Painter have done path-breaking work exploding that view. To read their research is to understand that what we call race is actually a set of cultural likenesses, shared experiences and implicit assumptions, i.e., that white men can’t jump and black ones can’t conjugate.
To try to make it more than that, to posit it as an immutable truth, is to discover that, for all its awesome power to determine quality of life or lack thereof, race is a chimera. There is no there, there. The closer you look, the faster it disappears.
Consider: If race were really what Wray’s average 19-year-old thinks it is, there could never have been a Rachel Dolezal; her lie would have been too immediately transparent. So ultimately, her story is the punchline to a joke most of us don’t yet have ears to hear. After all, this white lady didn’t just try to pass herself off as black.
She got away with it.
Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.