What exactly do liberals think about Rachel Dolezal, the white former president of the Spokane chapter of the NAACP who pretended to be black for years?
Some, like University of Miami law professor Osamudia James, have condemned Dolezal for faking “a black identity to gain status and influence in a community that isn’t hers.” Dolezal, the argument goes, hasn’t fully lived the black experience; her claim to black identity is therefore a performance, which can only compound and reify stereotypes. Dolezal, in other words, isn’t a liar, but she is a fake.
Others, like The New Yorker’s Jelani Cobb, are more sympathetic to Dolezal’s claims. Rejecting them, Cobb notes, would align one with feminist Elinor Burkett’s recent anti-transgender polemic, in which Burkett argued that womanhood is about a lot more than what one merely feels oneself to be — like blackness, it is a lived experience. A view like Cobb’s inclines toward assuming that race, like gender, is complicated and historically contingent, both constructs that differ from their corresponding biological counterparts, ancestry and sex. While Dolezal isn’t black, she can help us understand how society defines blackness.
MSNBC’s Melissa Harris-Perry went further, not just laying out a theoretical justification for Dolezal’s claims, but also suggesting that she might accept them:
Is it possible that she might actually be black? The best way that I know how to describe this, and I want to be very careful here, because I don’t want to say that it is equivalent to the transgender experience. But there is a useful language in trans- and cis-, which is just to say: Some of us are born cisgendered, some of us are born transgendered. But I wonder, can it be that one could be cisblack and transblack, that there is actually a different category of blackness that is about the achievement of blackness despite one’s parentage? Is that possible?
Harris-Perry’s guest on the show, Allyson Hobbs, responded:
It’s absolutely possible, I mean, why not? I think that, one thing that she said that I found so fascinating was she said her identity is multi-layered and that her identity is very complicated, and that she didn’t expect for people to understand it easily. And I think that what she’s alluding to is this, sort of, perhaps . . . there certainly is a chance that she identifies as a black woman and there could be authenticity to that.
Of course, this is more than a theoretical debate: Dolezal’s choices had real impact on her life and others’ lives.
Indeed, a report from the Smoking Gun reveals that in 2002 — apparently before she started trying to pass as black — Dolezal sued Howard University, claiming that she experienced “discrimination based on race, pregnancy, family responsibilities and gender”:
She alleged that Smith and other school officials improperly blocked her appointment to a teaching assistant post, rejected her application for a post-graduate instructorship, and denied her scholarship aid while she was a student.
The court opinion also noted that Dolezal claimed that the university’s decision to remove some of her artworks from a February 2001 student exhibition was “motivated by a discriminatory purpose to favor African-American students over” her.
As detailed in the court opinion, Dolezal’s lawsuit contended that Howard was “permeated with discriminatory intimidation, ridicule, and insult.”
That is, Dolezal sued Howard University, the historically black college, as a white woman, because she felt that black students were being favored over her. The lawsuit was dismissed.
Whatever liberals think of Dolezal and theoretical questions of race matters less than the fact that, as Frederick DeBoer points out, they have constructed environments in which it can certainly seem profitable for her to do what she did. In other words, Rachel Dolezal might have been working under a much simpler theory than social construction: If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.