Rachel Dolezal’s Harmful Masquerade

Rachel Dolezal’s Harmful Masquerade

The New York Times

Tamara Winfrey Harris

Rachel A. Dolezal, who stepped down Monday as president of the Spokane, Wash., chapter of the N.A.A.C.P., could have been a powerful ally to African-Americans. The participation of white allies has always been important to anti-racism work. By most accounts, she is educated about black cultures and an advocate for black causes. But empathy evolved into impersonation. And Ms. Dolezal’s subterfuge, made easier by the legacy of racism in America, undermines the very people she claims to support.

I identify as black,” Ms. Dolezal told Matt Lauer on the “Today” show this morning. That may be. But actual black people, like me, don’t have the option of choosing…

…Some people have pointed to this strange case as an illustration that race is malleable. I submit that Ms. Dolezal is a reminder that it is not. Racial identity cannot be fluid as long as the definition of whiteness is fixed. And historically, the path to whiteness has been extremely narrow.

The “one-drop rule,” which, for much of American history, legally defined as black anyone with a black ancestor, was used to keep black people from adopting whiteness. Ironically, it has made it easier for Ms. Dolezal to claim blackness without others questioning the assertion. If they are not themselves of a similar hue to Ms. Dolezal, many black people watching her story unfold can recognize in her features a cousin, parent or grandparent. African-Americans vary in appearance from light-skinned to coal black, straight- to curly-haired, keen- to broad-featured, and every possible combination in between.

This diversity is partly a result of this one-drop rule. The original intent of it was to protect racial privilege. Sometimes, if their appearance borrowed enough from white ancestors, black Americans could “pass” in white society. But that social sleight of hand came with many dangers, such as the chance that black lineage would be outed in the skin or hair of one’s progeny. Segregation simply would not work if society was fuzzy on who got the nice drinking fountain, the front seat on the bus and the right to vote…

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