Why Rachel Dolezal Doesn’t Get to Choose Her Race

I have been obsessing over Rachel Dolezal since I first heard the story of her posing as a light-skinned black woman.

At first, I think I was mostly focussed on the whole appropriation part of the deal. It bothered me that she had potentially taken a scholarship from a black student (though she was obviously white when she attended the school, she applied for Howard and the scholarship with a portfolio of art supposedly from the perspective of a black person). It upset me that her position on a committee that was formed with diversity in mind was gained deceptively and that her position as NAACP president fit into the same category (though it is not necessary to be a person of color to be a part of the NAACP, her race was no doubt considered as part of the bigger picture of who she was as their candidate).

But I’ve read plenty of stories of appropriation (Iggy, I’m talking to you) and moved on. This story, though. I can’t drop it.

Then, I was watching The Women’s FIFA World Cup with my adopted, black daughter tonight and there was a player on the team from Cameroon with her exact current hairstyle. And my daughter commented that it’s a good style for a rough game like soccer, but she hopes that the player got her hair done long enough before the game that her roots would not still be hurting when pulled back. And — stay with me — I started thinking about the experience of the players from Cameroon versus those from Japan and up against the experiences of the audience members from Canada.

I was guessing that none of the white Canadians in the stands were thinking about the amount of time needed between putting in a protective style for coarse, black hair and playing in the World Cup. And why should they? It’s not their experience. Just like my daughter wasn’t wondering how a few of the Japanese players were able to play with such long bangs.

Think of this as a super-microcosm of what it is like to live within a race. In America, the experience of being a young black girl and a black woman is vastly different from being a young white girl and young white woman. I have daughters of each race and, while they share many similarities (because, yes, colorblind crowd, we are all people in the end), there are also many differences. When younger, my white daughter complained about having to brush her hair every single day and about slathering on the sunscreen more frequently than her sister (the child isn’t just white — she is a redhead). My black daughter complained about having to sit for so long to put up a hair style and about needing to slather on moisturizer twice a day.

Super-microcosms, remember? Nothing too deep yet.

By putting on black face and creating a history for herself that never existed, one within a culture not her own, she is claiming a place of experience and understanding that is not hers to claim.

These are experiences that each daughter can explain to the other and even appreciate (or sympathize as the case was with my little complainers) about the other, but they are not experiences that they share.

Likewise (expanding out from super-microcosms), my white daughter cannot understand what it is truly like for her sister to be judged by the color of her skin or to be aged up and objectified as a black girl. Nor will she ever understand the experience of belonging to a culture (Haitian) with a brilliant history of rising out of and overcoming oppression and tragedy. My black daughter? Well, as long as she lives in America, she will never understand what it is like to walk through her world with white privilege always at her back, what it feels like to see her own face reflected everywhere she goes.

This is what bothers me about Rachel Dolezal’s deceit: By putting on black face and creating a history for herself that never existed, one within a culture not her own, she is claiming a place of experience and understanding that is not hers to claim. Though some might argue that she has a right to identify with a race different than the one into which she was born, I disagree.

Look, I have two black children I am accompanying into adulthood. I have a deep respect for their culture. I am disgusted by racism and work to align with people of color in fighting against it. I have extremely curly hair (like the kind that would not require anything special should I decide to start tanning to try and pass for black), a working ability to understand Haitian Kreyòl, and was offered a minority scholarship every year of higher education (because of the aforementioned curly hair and a former last name that sounded “ethnic”). Nevertheless, none of this makes me a black person. None of this gives me a history that fully connects me to the experiences of people of color. None of this changes my history in any way at all.

The implications of Dolezal’s lack of history as a black person on every person in her life and community are tremendous. She has claimed a camaraderie with her black peers and friends, though there is no chance of reciprocity. How many of them shared confidences with her, comforted in the (presumed) shared experiences that (falsely) bound them together? How many trusted her because of this? Had she presented herself truthfully, her friendships might be a bit different, but they would be authentic.

On an educational level, how much time was taken away from black students trying to forge their way in the very challenging field of African-American art? A representative from Howard University told Jezebel that, “All of her time has been controversial here.” How many resources and professor hours were given to her over other students because of her controversial nature? How many scholarship dollars were taken from other students?

And, perhaps even more insidious, how many non-black people looked at her art to try and understand the true experience of a black person in America, walking away instead with a skewed and incomplete impression?

From a professional standpoint, she served in two positions that had specific needs for diversity. How many candidates who could have offered a more authentic perspective did not get to serve in those positions? And though people of any race may serve as presidents of the NAACP, when people heard her speak, they assumed they were hearing the perspective of a person who had grown up black in a very white part of the world (Eastern Washington/Idaho). How many non-black people took what she said at face value because they had to assume that a black woman would know better than they?

Finally, there is this: not only does she lack the experience of growing up black in America, but she can return to being white any time she wants. If the going gets too tough for her, if she decides she cannot handle the vitriol thrown at her (real or fake — in her case, it’s hard to tell), if she misses white privileges, if she decides she prefers hair that she can quickly comb through each day, she can go ahead and be white again. This one thing alone makes her deceit more powerful than any compliment to black culture or good she has done for her community or freedom she deserves to live as she pleases.