Rachel Dolezal

So, about that whole Rachel Dolezal thing…


Her parents were quoted as saying “Our daughter is primarily German and Czech and of European descent.” They themselves have white skin, and they have photos of her showing that she had white skin.

Well, that proves nothing. Craig Cobb also looked totally caucasian, and was a white supremacist too — but hilariously, it turned out he was 14 percent African heritage. (There’s video of him finding out, if you want to enjoy some schadenfreude.)

Historically America had special words for fractional African heritage. Craig Cobb would have been described as an “octoroon“, and the official rule was that you were black if you had even one drop of “black blood”. 14 percent easily qualified.

There have been books published of portraits of people who look white but identify as black, often quite legitimately. You can even find cases of white-skinned children being born to African parents. Which is because…


Race is not determined by genetics. As I’ve written before, race is bullshit, by which I mean not hard science.

It’s fascinating social science, of course, because it’s a frequently arbitrary categorization mostly imposed upon people by society at large. But if you’re under the impression that we could sequence Rachel Dolezal’s DNA and determine definitively whether she’s white or not, well, it’s not as easy as that.

Consider Craig Cobb again. Although he far exceeds historical standards for being counted as black, my guess is that he will live out the rest of his life identifying as white — and nobody unaquainted with his TV appearance will ever question the fact. He looks white according to most people’s idea of what ‘white’ looks like, and he behaves like everyone’s idea of a white guy — and that’s all you need in order to be white.


Even assuming for a moment that Rachel Dolezal is white — whatever that means — it doesn’t matter, as far as her being president of an NAACP chapter. The NAACP was co-founded by Mary White Ovington, who wasn’t particularly African in appearance, and the organization has had white people active as chapter leaders throughout its history.

As the current President of the NAACP said concerning the Dolezal case:

“The NAACP is not concerned with the racial identity of our leadership but the institutional integrity of our advocacy. Our focus must be on issues not individuals.”


The troubling things about the Rachel Dolezal case, to me, aren’t to do with her supposed ‘faking’ of her race.

The first issue is that back in 2002, she failed to get a teaching post and scholarship — and sued the university, alleging that she had been discriminated against because she was white. That calls into question her sincerity.

The second issue is that she has alleged that people have sent her racist hate mail — but the evidence is rather questionable, suggesting the possibility that she sent herself hate mail to get sympathy or support her claim to be black.


What we have here is a much more complicated and interesting story than 90% of the media coverage has suggested. Rather than dig in to the facts of the story or discuss the complexities of race, reporters have just lazily reported that Dolezal has been “faking”.

But as Jelani Cobb writes in one of the few good articles I’ve seen:

… in truth, Dolezal has been dressed precisely as we all are, in a fictive garb of race whose determinations are as arbitrary as they are damaging. This doesn’t mean that Dolezal wasn’t lying about who she is. It means that she was lying about a lie.

Maybe it was for career purposes, but Tim Wise sets out a possible alternative explanation:

…she apparently discovered at Howard (and much to her shock and dismay) that it isn’t enough to love black culture and profess one’s solidarity with the movement for black equality; that indeed, black folks don’t automatically trust us just because we say we’re down; that proving oneself takes time, and that the process is messy as hell, and filled with wrong turns and mistakes and betrayals and apologies and a healthy dose of pain. And I suspect she didn’t have the patience for the messiness, but armed with righteous indignation at the society around her, and perhaps the one in which she had been raised out west, she opted to cut out the middle man.

That’s still problematic, though:

Whether intended or not, make no mistake, by negating the history (and even the apparent possibility) of real white antiracist solidarity, Dolezal ultimately provided a slap in the face to that history by saying that it wasn’t good enough for her to join.


Rachel Dolezal isn’t the first person to attempt to change race, and she won’t be the last; you might remember Mitt Romney’s appearance on Univision, for example. Then there’s Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal’s official portrait (and an even worse unofficial one), which met with immediate derision when pictures of both made the rounds earlier this year.

And ultimately, that’s probably the most convincing proof that Rachel Dolezal is white: she was able to use her white privilege to get away with becoming something else for a few years.