Rachel Dolezal: How should we respond to a white woman who passed as black?

The case is so bizarre that no one seems to know quite what to feel about it

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The Independent Online

Here’s the perfect fable for our “post-racial” times and no, it’s not the 2004 Wayans brothers comedy White Chicks – although, incredibly, there are some similarities. This week a 37-year-old woman called Rachel Dolezal was “outed” as white by her parents, both of whom describe themselves as Caucasian. For the past few years Dolezal has held a part-time teaching post in the African Studies department at Eastern Washington University and is the local leader of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in Spokane, Washington. Yet, according to her mother, Ruthanne Dolezal, Rachel began to “disguise herself” as black some time around 2006 and, according to Spokane NAACP’s Facebook page, she introduced a black man to her colleagues as her (fake) father earlier this year.

It’s a story so bizarre that no one seems to know quite what to feel about it. An article in online magazine Jezebel called the revelations “both incredibly offensive, yet not at all offensive, as well as hilarious”, while a below-the-line commenter complained: “It was already annoying being mixed and looking white without this ‘tragic faux-latto’ bullshit in the news.”

Why would someone want to pass themselves off as a different race for nearly a decade? And what does it say about the nature of race that this was even possible? Perhaps it’s overly charitable to describe Dolezal as confused about her identity, but then it is confusing, isn’t it?

I know that when I respond truthfully to the question “Where are you from?” the answer (east London) often seems to confuse people. What they really want to know is that I am mixed race, with three white grandparents and one black one. In America even that time-saving simplification wouldn’t suffice. Part of the reason why Dolezal’s deception (if that’s what it is) went unchallenged for so long is because of the “one-drop rule”, which insists that a person must be either black (and enslaved) or white (and free). It is due to this legacy of slavery that someone whose skin looks white can, in fact, be black.

Consequently Dolezal is not the first person to attempt to “pass”. In Allyson Hobbs’s history book A Chosen Exile there are several stories of 19th-century slaves passing as white in order to escape to freedom. Dolezal isn’t even the first “white” person to hold a high-ranking position in the NAACP. From 1931 to 1955, the entire organisation was led by the blue-eyed, blond-haired and aptly named Walter Francis White. Both of White’s parents were born into slavery, he was raised in Atlanta’s segregated black community and his opportunities were limited by segregation. The difference between him and Dolezal is not the colour of their skin, but the nature of their experience.

Yet when Dolezal evaded a reporter’s question about her heritage by saying, “we’re all from the African continent”, she was also expressing an important truth. It’s not just hippy-dippy wishful thinking to say that race categories are a nonsense, it’s a scientific fact. As geneticist Adam Rutherford has written, there is “no essentialist DNA for black people or white people or anyone”. But then, you try explaining that to a racist.

Dolezal’s transgression of racial boundaries would be harmlessly eccentric, if in doing so, she hadn’t also exploited someone else’s historical struggle for her own personal gain. We should be upset about the white woman who passed as black, not because race is real, but because racism is.

High hopes, not heels

Jurassic World is out this weekend and its stars, Chris Pratt and Bryce Dallas Howard, have been discussing running in high heels. That’s not a random choice of subject. The topic arises because several scenes in the film require Howard’s character to flee dinosaurs at high speed while wearing five-inch stilettos. The discussion culminated this week when Pratt donned red heels to run across a talk show studio floor and was roundly praised for his speedy skipping.

Ah high heels! Are they a fun and empowering fashion choice for women? Or tools of our oppressors? Feminism has never definitively settled the matter, which makes running in heels the perfect metaphor for Jurassic World, a film that can’t decide if it’s a champion of strong females – strong female reptiles, that is – or just “Seventies-era sexist”, as director Joss Whedon had it. At some point, someone is bound to fall over.

Perhaps we can at least agree that while footwear is every women’s individual choice, no one, male or female, deserves praise for choosing to run in their heels. That’s just dumb. What do you think Nike, goddess of victory, invented trainers for?

The really rich list

On behalf of the British media, I’m apologising to all arts students for any recent articles that they may have read trumpeting the link between degree subject and wealth. According to salary-ranking site Emolument, if you want to be making big bucks five years after graduation you’re best off studying economics (average salary £45,000) or law (£42,000). Way down the list come English literature, fine arts and design degree-holders, at around £25,000 per annum.

But never mind that. Students of creative subjects find their rewards elsewhere, especially if they’re students at the Rhode Island School of Design in the US, where filmmaker John Waters recently gave the graduation speech. On the true definition of wealth he had this to say: ”I’m rich! I don’t mean money-wise, I mean that I have figured out how to never be around assholes at any time in my personal and professional life. That’s rich.” That’s also not something many economics or law graduates can say.

Fangs can only get better

And if you still find yourself hankering for material wealth as well as spiritual? Remember Christopher Lee, the great screen actor and heavy metal musician (yes, really) who died last week, aged 93. Lee entered the most financially rewarding period of his career not in his twenties (when he was busy fighting in the Second World War), nor in middle age (when he was playing Dracula in Hammer horror flicks) but at the advanced age of 79. That’s when he was  cast as Saruman in the Lord of  the Rings films and, soon after, as Count Dooku in the blockbuster Star Wars prequels. So cheer up, there’s still time.

Twitter: @MsEllenEJones