Why Rachel Dolezal Needed To Construct Her Own Black Narrative

Why Rachel Dolezal Needed To Construct Her Own Black Narrative


Adam Serwer, BuzzFeed News National Editor

In order to pass as black, Dolezal took advantage of the black community’s long tradition of inclusion regardless of skin tone.

In 1895, when Justice Henry Billings Brown ruled that Louisiana’s law segregating train cars was constitutional, he didn’t want to get into the messy business of determining whether or not passenger Homer Plessy was actually black. Though only possessing “one eighth African blood,” with “the mixture of colored blood” not “discernible in him,” whether Plessy was black was a matter for the state to decide.

“[T]here is a difference of opinion in the different States, some holding that any visible admixture of black blood stamps the person as belonging to the colored race,” wrote Brown, “others that it depends upon the preponderance of blood; and still others that the predominance of white blood must only be in the proportion of three-fourths.”

Plessy v. Ferguson became the legal cornerstone of Jim Crow even though Homer Plessy was so light-skinned he could probably drive through Ferguson, Missouri, today without getting a ticket. In other words, who is black is a complicated question, one that remains fraught more than a hundred years after Brown’s ruling blessing racial apartheid in a country founded on the premise of equality under the law. But the long tradition of African-American resistance is one that excels in turning efforts to subjugate black Americans into advantages. One of these is the reversal of the infamous “one-drop rule,” which allows anyone who was a descendant of enslaved black Americans to identify as a member of the African-American community, which is why the NAACP’s Walter White used his racial ambiguity to report on lynchings in the South while passing as white. To claim is to be claimed; to love is to be loved in return. It is that very tradition of love and acceptance that Rachel Dolezal, the NAACP leader in Spokane, Washington, who for years passed as a light-skinned black woman, took advantage of by manufacturing a biography that reads like a racial caricature of a dystopian young adult novel.

Dolezal knew it wasn’t enough to perm and dye her hair and do whatever it is she did to her skin, and to tell everyone she was black. She also had to invent a history in which she and her family had borne the scars of racism, one in which she was born in a “tepee in Montana” and went hunting for food with bows and arrows. One in which she and her siblings endured beatings according to skin tone, and were lashed with “baboon whips” that were “pretty similar to what was used as whips during slavery,” to say nothing of the years she spent filing questionable reports with police about hate crimes. With that connection, even someone as light as her could be black.

The irony is that racial barriers in America have always been permeable and ambiguous, even when they have been most violently enforced…

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