Rachel Dolezal was born a healthy Caucasian girl to two happy Caucasian parents. She was raised by both of her White parents, and according to her Uncle Daniel, “she probably wouldn’t have known any Black people” during her early years. During her late teens, her parents adopted four African-American children into the family, whom her father claims, “she was immediately drawn to.” There have been widely varying versions of her childhood told, therefore at this point it is difficult to separate fact from fiction, but so far it seems apparent that at the very least, the above claims are true.
After attending the historically and majority Black institution, Howard University, she tried her hand at various careers, mostly focusing on art and activism. She taught at Eastern Washington University as part of the African studies program. She even advised African-American student groups. During that period of her life some sort of transition was occurring. When she graduated from Howard she still self-identified and publicly identified as White, but by the time she began teaching at the EWU, some eight or so years later, she was allowing or encouraging people to view her as Black.
So what happened? What caused a member of the most privileged race in America to trade in her “White card” so she could parade as a member of the most despised? Dolezal may want to be black for social, familial, or even career reasons. No one doubts her passion or empathy for the Black cause. She’s done more work, through her activism and her time with the NAACP, than many African-Americans have done for their own people. For much of her adult life she seems to have been surrounded, whether by choice or fate, with the more dark-complexioned race. From her adopted brothers, to her college friends, to her husband, to her neighbors, to even her own child; it appears that everyone that mattered in her life was Black. Who doesn’t want to fit in? However, while she may wish she was a member of the African-American community, that simple fact is not sufficient to claim membership. One cannot become something just because one desperately wishes it so.
Unfortunately, whether she likes it or not, Dolezal did not grow up Black. And that’s huge. During her formative years she benefited from white privilege, even if it was unintentional and unasked-for. She does not have blood relations who suffered at the hands of Jim Crow or even slavery. She cannot understand what it is to know she will never meet the beauty ideals set by a Euro-centric society. She has never been accused of succeeding only because of affirmative action. Until she adopted the curly hair and darker skin, she did not know what it is to be watched suspiciously in stores or by police officers (she still may not know). Until she began performing Blackness she could not understand what it is to be perceived as Black (if she even does now); she was never forced to face the stereotypes and assumptions that are uniformly borne by Black bodies.
Conversely, she was never a part of an uplifting and loving Black community of women, who understand each other’s pain and joys at a level that makes words unnecessary. She has never been able to proudly consider the accomplishments of her Black brothers and sisters for the Civil Rights Movements and for Human Progress in general. Due to simple genetics, she can’t lay claim to having the blood of mighty ancient civilizations, chief of all, the Egyptians, running through her veins. She cannot smile in the knowledge that the sweat of her peoples’ collective labor (forced slavery on plantations was a huge chunk of the early American economy, and aided the U.S. in acquiring wealth much quicker than it would have otherwise) helped build this great nation.
She does not know the Black experience.
Moreover, not only is Dolezal not Black because she has lived life as a White person, she also is not African-American by some sort of “physiological aberration” logic. People are Black through ancestry and life-lived. Race is about a shared history, physical features, a community, and the way the world perceives one (the first two aspects concerning birth, the second two regarding life). It’s already been settled that Dolezal clearly hasn’t lived the Black life.
By the same token, the claim that she is the wrong race by a mistake of birth is implausible; racial identity is not comparable to transgenderism. Gender is about something one usually chooses for oneself: to play as a boy, dress as a boy, live as a boy; and that choice usually lines up with what society expects for that individual. Race is more about something thrust upon one by the outside world; it’s one’s assigned space in a caste-like system of racial inequality. People generally report feeling male or female, respectively. Yet, to be Black isn’t to feel Black, it’s to live life while being perceived as Black. To announce one is Black, simply because one likes Black people better or just feels Black, diminishes the Black experience as a whole. And frankly, it’s offensive. Race and Gender are two completely distinct, widely disparate, spheres of identity. Ergo, Rachel Dolezal and Caitlyn Jenner, for instance, are in very dissimilar situations. Obviously, I am very aware of the intersectionality of race and gender, I’ve addressed the impact of both on my life in an introspective essay about growing up biracial. Nonetheless, while race and gender as we see them today, are both social constructs; they operate in fashions highly unique to each other.
Dolezal is certainly a fascinating case; perhaps she’ll prove to be a gold mine for psychologists studying the field of identity. Regardless, the “click-bait” quality of her story does not give veracity to her assertion. She was not born in the wrong body as some sort of genetic or divine aberration. She has not, and cannot claim to have, lived the Black experience. Regrettably for Dolezal, the basic fact is: reality is not optional. To assert otherwise is simply delusional. Meaning, no matter how badly Dolezal wants to be Black, if she checks off all the boxes for White, then that’s her race. I’m sure she would have made a fine Black woman. But she’s White. Period.