Passing in the Age of Rachel Dolezal, or Is Everyone Catfishing?

Passing in the Age of Rachel Dolezal, or Is Everyone Catfishing?

Response: The Digital Journal of Popular Culture Scholarship
Issue One (November 2016)

Judy Phagan, Associate Professor of English
St. Joseph’s College, New York

Rachel Doležal

It was revealed in the New York Times and on national television in the summer of 2015 that Africana Studies professor and N.A.A.C.P. director of the Spokane chapter, Rachel Dolezal, had possibly falsified her ethnicity. She was subjected to national scrutiny and ridicule after it appeared she fabricated her own racial background. The Times also wondered if Rachel Dolezal would give up her “part-time teaching position in African American Studies at Eastern Washington University.” She did. It is fascinating to me that this little story garnered so much national attention. What ensued was a Swiftian tempest in a teapot in which pundits labeled Dolezal a “liar.” She was living as a black woman while her parents outed her as white. They even went on national television to show Rachel Dolezal’s baby pictures. The combination of white parents and a white little girl added up to one conclusion—that Dolezal was indeed white. It felt like everyone I knew that summer was angry at Dolezal. She seemed to be a white woman “passing” as an African American. Historically, passing was usually performed by African Americans light-skinned enough, often of mixed racial background, to “pass” as white. There are dozens of books on the topic by sociologists, psychologists, and historians. Passing is anything but new, as this paper will discuss. Passing, as a sociological phenomenon, is generally studied in terms of race, class, gender, sexual orientation and/or (dis)ability. Add the 21st century concern for our personal image (think Facebook) and the issue gets even muddier. We see reflected in television and film, Youtube, the blogosphere and the Twitterverse discussions of passing, although we may not immediately recognize it as such. This is no doubt a reflection of our American obsession with race, which has again hit the media (and our hearts) this summer of 2016. This paper will explore many facets of passing as the term is used in 2016 and demonstrate that passing is merely a part of one’s identity formation; it is not a crime…

Read the entire article here.

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