The Rachel Dolezal scandal came as a harsh wake-up call to the black community about what it means when people falsely claim an identity they were not born into, especially when there are tangible benefits to be gained such as scholarships or jobs. While the NAACP didn’t seem too concerned since they officially stood by her as the news about her deceptions unfolded, other black commentators were not nearly as tolerant or forgiving.
The public debates raised issues that most racially unmixed white people in America probably don’t spend too much time contemplating, such as transracialism. The term refers to the crossing of racial boundaries which can occur in numerous ways, but most often it refers to white parents who adopt children of another race. Some argued that Dolezal was practicing a form of transracialism (drawing the ire of transracial adoptees and others who challenged the concept as it applied to Dolezal). She denied the transracial label, however, and adhered instead to an actual “black” identity.
Debates about transracialism inevitably attempted to compare Dolezal’s fraudulent ethnic claims to transgenderism. The transgender community vociferously rejected the comparison and used it as a teachable moment to educate the public on the distinctions between transracialism and transgenderism. Others speculated about mental illness. One article pegged her as a pathological liar and another referred to her as delusional and narcissistic. Another author argued it was not necessary to think of her as mentally ill.
No matter how you look at it Rachel Dolezal pissed off a lot of people.
Of course for all the handwringing, Indian country was quick to point out that for Indians this is a very old story. Dolezal-style ethnic fraud is arguably what most Indians would think of as a form of cultural appropriation, a phrase we seem to increasingly be hearing in the black community as well.
Whether one thinks of Rachel Dolezal as transracial, a liar, mentally unstable, or simply an ethnic fraud, at the center of this identity politics issue is the American obsession with racial and cultural authenticity. The central questions are: is Dolezal’s claim to blackness legitimate? What does it take to be an “authentic black person,” and how do we define authentic?
The American obsession with black authenticity is related to Indian authenticity, and it is tied to “blood” purity. The difference is that for blacks the one drop rule applies, while Indians are required to prove a minimum (and often arbitrary) amount of “blood” to qualify as legitimately Indian. Less blood quantum, less authenticity. For Indians there is an even more complicated dynamic that equates authenticity with cultural purity: not only are “real” Indians those who fit a stereotypically Indian profile, they also live in “pure” cultures untouched by the modern world. In other words, real Indians only exist in a noble but tragic by-gone past. Modern Indians can never be authentic because they have been corrupted by modernity.
But there is another element to this unattainable authenticity. It is about what the American fixation on Indian racial and cultural authenticity says about white Americans’ own identity. Native scholars such as Phillip Deloria and Shari Huhndorf have written most brilliantly on this. Americans as settlers and descendents of settlers (whites in particular) have struggled to form their own unique collective identity because they were caught between the cultures they left behind in the old world and the new world which was foreign and had belonged to the Native. The old world symbolized what it meant to be civilized and proper but ironically, it was also those things that they found so constraining.
The new world, on the other hand, represented freedom from those political and psychological constraints. It presented the possibility to become something new and the Indian was the ultimate symbol of that wild, “savage” freedom. The Indian was also the only truly authentic “American.” But because Europeans could never truly become Native, American identity remains unfinished and confused. As Deloria explained, it is also why Americans historically have vacillated between exterminating Indians and venerating them. It also explains why Americans have always been so obsessed with playing Indian, and why Americans create narratives that write Indians out of local landscapes and re-scripts settlers as indigenous.
The desire to be something other than what one is stems from the discomfort of this confusion and also white Americans’ desire to distance themselves from the racist aspects of American history and society. Staking false claims to a non-white identity—whether black, Indian, or other—is one way white people can deny responsibility for the racism of the past and for the systemic racism that still structures American life and their own racial privilege within that system.
Rachel Dolezal as an academic in Africana studies is well versed in the language of racial constructivism, i.e. the idea that race is socially constructed and therefore not real. She took it to extremes though, and reached an illogical conclusion (that she is black just because she says so), and lied to back it up. There is something pathological about that. But it may be that her dysfunction is only symptomatic of the larger struggle of white Americans to understand themselves in the context of a society that is still deeply racist, whether they like to admit it or not.
Dina Gilio-Whitaker (Colville) is a freelance writer and Research Associate at the Center for World Indigenous Studies. She was educated at the University of New Mexico and holds a bachelor’s degree in Native American Studies and a master’s degree in American Studies. Follow her blog at DinaGWhitaker.wordpress.com.