Rachel Dolezal was born the daughter of two white parents, Larry and Ruthanne Dolezal. She lived with adopted black siblings. She went to school in Mississippi with many black children. She married an African-American man. It appears that somewhere along the way, acculturation played such a large role in her life that she began to change her appearance. She tanned her skin a little bit more. She started talking as though she was black. Whether this was self-deception, ideological confusion, or deception for the purpose of reaping the benefits of being black remains unknown. Certainly, if she intended to gain employment, there are many easier ways than for her to pass herself off as something she is not.
The history of black people in America is a tale of personal triumph. It’s a tale of hardship, suffering, and tragedy. It’s a tale of a nation ignoring the basic humanity in other people while being deluded by its own bias. It’s a story of runaway slaves who got their toes or feet cut off, of women who were forced to be mistresses to white owners against their will, or lynchings in the middle of the night often assisted by law enforcement officers.
Because of this heritage, it has been assumed that black people are at a natural disadvantage in American society. The assumption is based on nothing, for scores upon scores of black people have done great things with their lives. They have succeeded where success was thought impossible. Yet, the assumption persists, one that is based upon victim-hood. It is the same assumption that is used to determine whether women are naturally at a disadvantage in society or not, as well. It is a way of carrying over traditions from the past to understand people today.
Though such a process is as unworkable and fallacious as it appears to be, feminists, civil rights activists, and social justice warriors all through the country have nevertheless used their own disadvantages as a rallying cry. They claim that, because they are disadvantaged, they deserve to have more than others in the name of equality. Rarely, if ever, is there any talk of people overcoming the obstacles in their lives. There is hardly ever any talk of personal initiative- nor will there be so long as government agencies and non-profit charities continue to buy the fiction that women and minorities have it worse off than the rest of us.
This, on the surface, appears to be why Rachel Dolezal would proclaim herself to a member of a so-called underprivileged group (one that ironically tries its best to convince everyone that its members are no different than anyone else). As a black minority, she would have more to gain than as a white woman. The process of deception, one begun, would have to be carried through for her whole life so that she could convince others that she’s not white, but black.
There may also be additional reasons why she would carry out such a deception, the most notable of which appears to be not wanting to be the odd woman out in a group full of black people. These were the kinds of groups with which she grew up.
There is also another, more implausible, highly improbable reason why she would choose to present herself as black and call herself black. She might really believe she is black. A black woman born in a white woman’s body. If this is so, it would be the first known case of its kind- apart from Michael Jackson bleaching his skin white so that he no longer looked like the black man he had grown up as. She would be one of the world’s first trans-racial individuals.
The term, like transgender, implies a transition from one state of being to another. Today, we understand that not all women have vaginas while not all men have penises. There are even people whose genitalia puts them in an in-between identity called Intersex. We have come to recognize that genitalia is not the defining characteristic of gender.
Similarly, we might one day come to understand that ancestry and heritage is not the some as ethnicity. An ethnic group, which is often thought of in terms of local tribes around the world, is based upon shared cultural experiences. Since Dolezal shared often in the cultural experiences of black people, it might not come as a surprise as to why she chose to identify with that group. If so, then her case isn’t one of deception, but of a new way of being human.
Racism, the idea that races are inherently different from one another, has throughout history always been tied to government circles. One of the most notable example comes from Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf, a rambling treatise on why Germans are better than everyone else:
The black-haired Jewish youth lies in wait for hours on end, satanically glaring at and spying on the unsuspicious girl whom he plans to seduce, adulterating her blood and removing her from the bosom of her own people. The Jew uses every possible means to undermine the racial foundations of a subjugated people.
Hitler’s book is filled with much such examples of him generalizing the conduct of a whole group with the conduct of a few individuals. These ideas have since been debunked: there may be good Jews and bad Jews, sleepy Jews and hungry Jews, old Jews and young Jews. Even within a Jewish community, there is differentiation between individuals. The convenience of ignoring that basic precept led to the slaughter of millions under Hitler’s regime.
The only presumption that could make Dolezal’s claim to be black- in any way whatsoever- rests in the belief that all white people are the same. The idea goes that you’re stuck with whatever it is you’re born with. If that were the case, the black people could never aspire to rise above their circumstances, whatever those might be. People would not be able to change their genders. No one would experience changes in sexuality. There is no reason to suppose that the color of a person’s skin, together with their acculturated experiences, may not differ greatly from that which they possessed at birth.
Human skin color differs according to how much melanin a person has or doesn’t have. For most of history, human beings lived outdoors in areas with high concentrations of sunlight. The human beings that had lived in caves during the Ice Age came out to find their white skin turning red as it peeled away from sunburn. An increase in melanin occurred as an evolutionary adaptation in order to prevent ultraviolet radiation from the entering the body. Skin tone is nothing more than an indicator of which part of the world a person’s ancestors came from. It does not define personality, or behavior. Those who think it does- whether they be black or white- fall into the same trap that Hitler fell into of generalizing an entire group based on observations of a handful of people.
The day may come when science provides an advancement capable of increasing the melanin in a person’s body so that their skin turns darker. This would be the opposite of a condition called vitiligo, a condition that arises due to a lack of melanin in a person’s body. White spots appear on a black person’s skin. Examining this condition makes it readily apparent that the fundamental differences between people aren’t much more than skin deep.
For that reason, I choose to give Rachel Dolezal the benefit of the doubt. I choose to believe that in wanting to be black, in presenting herself as such, she is tearing down the culturally constructed walls of race and ethnicity. If race becomes a matter of choice- insofar as a person can choose with the current technology- then we will be forced to re-examine whether racial divides have any significance at all.
Edit 6-12-2015: Since writing this article, I have learned through Rachel’s twitter account that she does identify as a transracial person and that, moreover, there are other people who do so as well. I have left the comments highlighting suspicion of her motives to demonstrate my own ignorance, as well as the ignorance people have when confronted with people who choose to change their ethnicity. She, like many others who have boldly taken a step forward to declare themselves as something society has never seen before, is receiving a lot of negativity from every angle. In time, this will pass. Free choice will win out, even to the point where a person can choose whether they are black or white.