Dolezal and the Defense of the Community

Dolezal and the Defense of the Community

Public Seminar

Richard Kaplan

Reflections on the unique difficulties of passing from white to black in America

It strikes me that an incredible amount of media attention and denunciation has focused on a poor, perhaps deluded woman in Spokane, Washington. Rachel Dolezal’s crime was to lie and try and pass as black. While the media have seen fit to celebrate Caitlyn Jenner and her exceedingly forthright bursting of the boundaries dividing male from female, in the Dolezal case, commentators seem intent on reinforcing the walls dividing black from white, creating an effective DMZ one cannot pass. Perhaps Dolezal failed to pay the adequate dues and penance in trespassing the racial boundaries — unlike Jenner she didn’t lay under the bright lights of the surgery chamber and submit to the cuts of the surgeon’s scalpel nor withstand the prolonged glare of prior media dissection.

Nevertheless, it’s remarkable how much media commentary seems to revolve around reinforcing the racial boundary. All the more strange since every commentator at the same time is obliged to note that race has no biological underpinnings but is culturally constructed, as evidenced by the uniquely American rule of racial classification of “one drop.” Unlike the seemingly more biologically based binary of gender, indeed, we should recognize that America’s bizarre rule, where even slightest trace of “African” blood confines you in the black camp, is what allowed the very white Dolezal to pass as a very light-skinned black…

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