Summary: Rachel Dolezal sparked a national conversation on racial identity in June 2015 when her black identity was discredited by her white parents. This video is an NBC news interview, in which Dolezal claims "I identify as black" and goes on to defend herself against various criticisms about her racial identity and experiences (including a lawsuit against Howard University, claiming they discriminated against her as a white woman). On the one hand, Rachel Dolezal can be seen as a successful activist that "breathed new life" into her local NAACP chapter as its president (she has since resigned). And some people (both inside and outside the black community) have defended her support for African-American culture, and view criticisms of Dolezal as fracturing the movement for racial justice. However, most commentaries on Dolezal have been highly critical. Jessie Daniels summarized the criticisms in her excellent post, "Rachel Dolezal and the Trouble with White Womanhood." Specifically, Dolezal's attempt to pass as a black woman has taken away resources (i.e. a full scholarship to Howard University) reserved for African-Americans, she has allegedly stolen the stories of African-American (and Native American) oppression and experience and presented them as her own, her white skin has helped her benefit from colorism and white privilege (i.e. a visibly black person would not be permitted to pass as white), and that such claims reflect bell hooks' notion of "eating the other." Her case has also sparked a controversy about her claim of a transracial identity, which has long been applied to adoptees whose race did not match that of their parents. First, this claim of a transracial identity has been criticized by transracial adoptees, who argue that “We find the misuse of ‘transracial,’ describing the phenomenon of a white woman assuming perceived markers of ‘blackness’ in order to pass as ‘black,’ to be erroneous, ahistorical, and dangerous.” Second, numerous conservative pundits jumped on the notion of "transracial" as being the same as transgender, in order to critique and discount both identities. But as Daniels and other scholars and activists have pointed out, the two identities are uniquely different. Carla Kaplan shed light on another dimension of black identity that, upon first glance, seems to be shared with Dolezal. Kaplan noted that, in the 1920s, the term "Voluntary Negro" was used to describe light-skinned blacks who looked white and chose to identify as black. The key point here is that the term was not intended for whites and was meant to honor African-Americans whose ancestry was shaped by racism (unlike that experienced by Dolezal), and that while they could "pass" as white, they chose to embrace their black identity out of racial solidarity. Kaplan went on to acknowledge that a "fervent social constructionist" view might logically enable such a fluid racial identity, but that she would still be culturally wrong in doing so.
Submitted By: Paul Dean