Rachel Dolezal, the head of the Spokane, Wash., National Association for the Advancement of Colored People chapter, has come under scrutiny for allegedly being a “fake” black woman.
Journalists have uncritically cited the claims of her parents, who point out that they are both white, and so their daughter is as well. In recent interviews with Dolezal, reporters have tried to trap her, asking “Are your parents white?”
This is the wrong question. We shouldn’t be asking if Dolezal’s parents are black, or if she looks black. The only question that matters is: Does she feel black?
We’ve accepted that Caitlyn Jenner, despite being born in a male body and having a Y chromosome and fathering six children, was actually a woman all along and simply forced into a male role by a sexist, patriarchal society held back by quaint notions such as “people with penises are men.”
So why can’t we accept that Rachel Dolezal, despite a European lineage stretching back countless generations, was simply born in the wrong flesh, with the wrong melanin count and the wrong cultural heritage? Why are we attacking her, when we should sympathize with the tragedy she endured growing up, raised by parents who suppressed her inner Igbo?
By all accounts, Dolezal has done everything she can to express her inner black identity. She attended Howard University, married a black man, became an Africana Studies professor, and even seized custody of her adopted black brother from her parents, training him to be racist against whites in the process. She’s so enthusiastic about being black, in fact, that she appears to have fabricated about a dozen hate crimes against herself, perhaps in an effort to bond with her sisters who do the same thing.
After all that effort, why must we persist in misracing her? This is nothing less than verbal violence, an assault upon the safety of transrace bodies. No less an authority than Ta-Nehisi Coates has taught us that race is a social construct, where considerations like “genetic heritage” are actually irrelevant:
The strongest argument for “race” is that people who trace their ancestry back to Europe, and people who trace most of their ancestry back to sub-Saharan Africa… lived isolated from each other for long periods and have evolved different physical traits (curly hair, lighter skin, etc.)
But this theoretical definition (already fuzzy) wilts under human agency, in a real world where Kevin Garnett, Harold Ford, and Halle Berry all check “black” on the census. (Same deal for “Hispanic.”) The reasons for that take us right back to fact of race as a social construct. And an American-centered social construct. Are the Ainu of Japan a race? Should we delineate darker South Asians from lighter South Asians on the basis of race? Did the Japanese who invaded China consider the Chinese the same “race?”
Race is no more dependent on skin color today than it was on “Frankishness” in Emerson’s day… Race does not need biology. Race only requires some good guys with big guns looking for a reason.
So what’s the deal, America? If Caitlyn Jenner can land on the front page of Vanity Fair, why can’t we make room for Rachel Dolezal on the cover of Ebony? It’s 2015, not 1860. It’s time to embrace our new, transracial future.