Laurie Essig Ph.D.

Social Studies


Rachel Dolezai forces us to consider the unthinkable.

Posted Jun 14, 2015

A Florida Enchantment 1914
Source: A Florida Enchantment 1914

 At this point, much has been said about Rachel Dolezal, a woman who was born to white parents, was raised as white, and yet was also not simply white. Ms. Dolezal has four adopted siblings who are Black, went to Howard University, a historically Black school, teaches African American Studies, and is the head of the Spokane NAACP, where she lives. Further, Ms. Dolezal passes as Black.

Yet her parents insist she is white. Her father said

She’s clearly our birth daughter, and we’re clearly Caucasian — that’s just a fact.

But when it comes to race, there are few facts. For instance, no one is Caucasian unless they are from the Caucasus, an area between the Black and Caspian Seas that was, in a much earlier racial theory, thought to be the place from which all white people originated. This now antiquated and incredibly racist theory of origins somehow slipped into US language as "fact."

It is also not a fact that Americans stay the race they are assigned at birth. At the height of Jim Crow laws, as many as 1 in 5 African Americans passed as white at some point in their lives.

There are only two facts about race: One, it is it is a socially constructed category that has changed significantly over the course of history. Irish were not white, nor were Italians, Eastern Europeans or Jews. Poor whites were also not white a century ago. Or maybe they're still not and thus the persistence of "white trash."  Two, to live as a Black person in the US is to experience structural, social and cultural discrimination at every turn. 

That's why some are calling Ms. Dolezal's life "blackface," including one of her own brothers (who describes himself as 25% Black). Still others are accusing Ms. Dolezal of running from her white privilege by refusing to accept it, suffering from a new form of mental illness, the Rachel Dolezal Syndrome. Finally, others are calling her a con artist who deceived those around her about her “true” race.

As if on cue, conservative commentators pointed out the parallels between Caitlyn Jenner becoming a woman and Dolezal becoming Black. The ultra-conservative wrote: 

Just last week the President of the United States congratulated Bruce Jenner on his courageous decision to pretend to be a woman, and the entire left bursting into spasms of ecstasy over a collectively insane decision to ratify the notion that men can magically become women. Today, the entire left is struggling to explain how a white woman who identifies herself as black is not, in fact, black.

And also as if on cue, there was the absolute insistence that one can become a woman, but never Black. According to Quartz:  

 To conflate trans folks with Dolezal gives credence to the deepest, most malicious lie there is about transgender identity and queer sexuality—that they are deceitful. Being a transgender person is not about misleading the world about your past, in terms of your lineage, upbringing, history, and experiences. It is not about denying who you once were and any advantages you may have had, personally and filtered down through generations. Increasingly, it seems this is exactly what Ra­chel Dolezal has done through untruths about her life and her experience.

And yet, as someone who teaches queer histories and race histories, I am struck by the parallels between them. First of all, many transgender people have had to pass as cisgender, meaning they did and do hide their histories, experiences and upbringings. As Sandy Stone pointed out in her 1993 seminal essay “The Empire Strikes Back: A PostTrannsexual Manifesto,” access to hormones and surgeries was historically controlled by (male) doctors who insisted that transwomen both pass as women before surgery and pass as straight.  Stone herself was called a “transsexual menace” by Janice Raymond for “passing” as a woman. For Stone 

Passing means to live successfully in the gender of choice, to be accepted as a "natural" member of that gender. Passing means the denial of mixture. One and the same with passing is effacement of the prior gender role, or the construction of a plausible history. Considering that most transsexuals choose reassignment in their third or fourth decade, this means erasing a considerable portion of their personal experience. 

Since Stone’s essay, much has changed and many trans people do not have to "efface" their prior gender role. But passing for trans people is not just a quaint artifact of a transphobic past. With very few legal protections in this country, passing is a continuing practice for many trans people. And yes, this means erasing one’s past or reshaping it to fit with current gender presentation as Dolezal has done about her own racial past.

The lie that all trans people are as out in the open as the millionaire celebrity Jenner and can be is far more damaging to trans lives than Dolezal passing as Black.  There is something of a family resemblance between transitioning across racial boundaries and transitioning to a different gender. Both require a performance that is not given, but taken. Both can radically undermine the reality of race and gender by forcing us to acknowledge their precariousness, but both can also lead to cries of deceit. Yet deceit is the price we pay for society’s insistence that these boundaries are “natural” and “real” and therefore cannot be crossed.   

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