Black Like Her

Black Like Her

The New Yorker

Jelani Cobb, Associate Professor of History
University of Connecticut

Rachel Dolezal is a white woman who has for some years identified as black. She wasn’t lying about who she is. She was lying about a lie.

On June 7th, Elinor Burkett published an Op-Ed in the Times expressing what she portrayed as a feminist’s reluctant skepticism about aspects of the transgender movement. She argued, in part, that the notion of men simply transitioning into women was equivalent to a white person darkening his or her skin and professing to be black. The example was meant as a reductio ad absurdum—but, less than a week later, Rachel Dolezal, the president of the Spokane, Washington, chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and a professor of Africana studies, was unveiled as a white woman who has for some years presented herself and identified as black. On Monday, Dolezal resigned, in a statement that didn’t answer questions about what she referred to as “my personal identity,” though it did refer obliquely to “challenging the construct of race.” That answer is clearly inadequate; many people have challenged the construct of race without lying about their lives. But there is something more worth discussing here.

The easy presumption about Dolezal, who has two white parents and light skin and eyes—and hair that has ranged from blond to brown, though she has worn it in ways that are culturally associated with black women—is that this is an instance in which someone finally pointed out the obvious: the emperor is naked. But, in truth, Dolezal has been dressed precisely as we all are, in a fictive garb of race whose determinations are as arbitrary as they are damaging. This doesn’t mean that Dolezal wasn’t lying about who she is. It means that she was lying about a lie…

…The spectrum of shades and colorings that constitute “black” identity in the United States, and the equal claim to black identity that someone who looks like White or Wright (or, for that matter, Dolezal) can have, is a direct product of bloodlines that attest to institutionalized rape during and after slavery. Nearly all of us who identify as African-American in this country, apart from some more recent immigrants, have at least some white ancestry. My own white great-grandparent is as inconsequential as the color of my palms in terms of my status as a black person in the United States. My grandparents had four children: my father and his brother, both almond-brown, with black hair and dark eyes, and two girls with reddish hair, fair skin, freckles, and gray eyes. All of them were equally black because they were equal heirs to the quirks of chance determining whether their ancestry from Europe or Africa was most apparent. Dolezal’s primary offense lies not in the silly proffering of a false biography but in knowing this ugly history and taking advantage of the reasons that she would, at least among black people, be taken at her word regarding her identity…

Read the entire article here.

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