The Rules that Rachel Broke

If you have spent time on any social networking or news websites over the past week, in all likelihood you will already know that the Rachel referred to by this post’s title is ex-regional NAACP leader Rachel Dolezal, who has been at the centre of a veritable media storm since she was outed by her parents for concealing her “true” racial background for the past decade or more. According to Dolezal’s parents, not only has Rachel persistently lied about her racial origins to her employers and the community she aims to serve through the NAACP, but she has undergone a series of physical transformations since her early twenties, cynically intended to conceal all trace of her “real” identity.

For the past week, the web has been ablaze with accusation and speculation. The response from the black community (and from the Internet at large) has largely been one of outrage and confusion, with commentators speculating widely on the motives behind this brazen act of cultural fraud, as well as on Dolezal’s mental health and relationship with her estranged family. “White privilege“, “cultural appropriation” and “blackface” are some of the recurring buzzwords used to suggest interpretations and explanations for Dolezal’s behaviour; meanwhile, a whole host of bloggers have come forward to offer their own bi-/mixed-/trans-racial narratives, both in support and condemnation of Dolezal’s actions. Yet the question remained: why did she do it?

On Tuesday, at long last, Rachel spoke out. The Today show interview is as fascinating to the viewer as it appears to be frustrating for the presenter, in his thwarted attempts to chide and cajole Dolezal into acknowledging her crimes. “Are you an African American woman?”, he challenges. “I identify as black”, she replies.

While Dolezal’s story has undoubtedly already been examined from every angle by those in search of a moral to the story, what interests me here is what the interview can tell us about the usually imperceptible nuts and bolts that hold the concept of “race” fast in the American imaginary. Karen E. Fields and Barbara J. Fields have named this phenomenon “racecraft”: a system of ideas that govern “what goes with what and whom, how different people must deal with each other, where human kinship begins and ends, and how Americans look at themselves and each other”. Thus, by contravening the system’s norms, Dolezal has – intentionally or unintentionally – laid bare the inner workings of racecraft.

So what are the rules that Rachel broke?

Let me put up a picture of you”, says the presenter. Dolezal appears on the screen, depicted in her late teens, with straight, blonde hair, pale skin, and freckles. “Is this an African American woman, or is that a Caucasian woman?” The answer, apparently, could not be more obvious.

Famously, though, it is not skin colour or hair texture that has defined blackness throughout US history, but rather the notion of descent, as decreed by the “one drop rule”. Initially a rule-of-thumb used to determine who could and could not be enslaved in colonial America, the concept became enshrined in law in some southern states under Jim Crow segregation, as a means of establishing who could be classified as white: namely, those with no known “negro” ancestors. This circular logic also led, by exclusion, to a definition of who was black: anyone with any “negro” ancestors in living or genealogical memory.

Yet Dolezal’s parents affirm that they are of Czech, Swedish, and German ancestry, with “a little Native American”, planting Rachel, their biological daughter, firmly in the “white” category. It is this phenotypic “whiteness” that Dolezal has visibly worked to transform, first by darkening her skin (through as yet unknown methods), and, most strikingly, by adopting an entire repertoire of “black” hairstyles. Armed with these leading physical cues, as well as sterling black academic credentials (including a degree from Howard University), Dolezal was able to avert onlookers from the crucial question of her ancestry, effectively “passing” as an African American woman for a number of years – right until her dramatic unmasking last week.

The most striking element of Dolezal’s case, however, is her refusal to even acknowledge the rules of racecraft in the US. Throughout the interview, Dolezal describes to her racial identity as a purely cognitive phenomenon: a hard-wired psychological trait that led her, as a five year-old, to draw pictures of herself using brown, rather than peach crayon, and, many years later, to be described as transracial. From this point of view, true identity is not in the eye of the beholder, but in the mind of the beheld – a perspective that causes Dolezal to dodge the question of whether she could have had as big an impact as a Caucasian woman, stating: “I guess I haven’t had the opportunity to experience that in those shoes”. In the same vein, Dolezal claims that the need to alter her physical appearance sprung not from her, but from those who had trouble accepting that she – ostensibly a white woman – was truly the mother of her two sons (one adopted, and both African American). It is not Dolezal’s incongruous self-perception that is at fault, but rather the prejudices of those around her.

The interviewer, on the other hand, like most of America, judges Dolezal’s “race” according to the traditional criteria of ancestry and phenotype, to which self-designated identity must take second place. By these standards, Dolezal’s attitudes and actions can only be interpreted as at best delusional, and at worst, deceitful. “Did you always expect the lid would be blown off your story at some point?”, the presenter asks. “When did you start deceiving people and telling them you were black?” The question of Dolezal’s family connexions is also brought under scrutiny – in particular, her desire to surround herself with adopted African American “relatives”. This part of the discussion casts further light upon the limits of social acceptability where non-normative kinship ties are concerned. For instance, the interviewer provocatively questions Dolezal about her sons’ views on her racial identity (“they support the way that I identify and they support me”). However, he outright rejects Dolezal’s claim that she has an African American father, saying, “why point out an African American man and say that is my father when you know your father is a Caucasian man?” Of course, legal and bureaucratic procedures exist to allow individuals to adopt a child in America. But adopting a father?

When asked what she hopes will come out of this discussion, Dolezal declares: “[It’s] really about what it is to be human, and I hope that I can drive at the core of definitions of race, ethnicity, culture, self-determination, personal agency, and ultimately empowerment”. The utopian world that Dolezal presents is one in which social categories, relationships, and conventions become fluid to the point of indistinguishability. In such a world, people are free to disown and choose their family and racial category as they please, guided by “intimate connections” and “feelings of identity”, rather than the old metaphors of flesh and blood.

At least one pundit has been quick to pin Dolezal’s crimes on the liberal jibber-jabber of the American left, whose politically-correct rhetoric has brought civilised society to the brink of dissolution. However, the public uproar surrounding her case is a clear indication that Americans today are not living in Rachel’s ruleless society. On the contrary, in the vast majority of cases, identifying as black in the US is not primarily a question of self-determination, personal agency, or empowerment; rather, these are secondary considerations, upheld by individuals to mitigate the daily blow of being categorised, profiled, and discriminated against – all in the blink of an eyelid. Moreover, to voluntarily attempt to shoulder that baggage as an expression of solidarity and identification with the black experience suggests a grievous failure to comprehend the social and historical conditions that have made blackness a non-negotiable state in American society today.

Alas, the rules and paradoxes of racecraft still stand.

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8 thoughts on “The Rules that Rachel Broke

  1. This is months later, but maybe you’ll see it.

    At first I could not understand why a) she’d jettison her white privilege, and b) her parents would do this to her. As the days went on, I began to wonder if race really should be any different than gender, my being transgender. (I’m a female to male. My DL and passport both show me as male.) But then I’ve also always wondered why men would voluntarily jettison their male privilege to be female.

    Society mostly has accepted trans people. Why not allow the same choice about race? Assuming we can work past the our racial issues you eloquently describe in your next/earlier post.

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    • Hi Dave,

      Thanks for your extremely interesting and thought-provoking comment!

      When I read about suggestions that Dolezal is transracial, in just the same way that other people classify themselves as transgender, I generally take this as an argument that she is “really” a black woman “trapped inside” a white woman’s body, in the same way that transgender individuals describe feeling like a woman “trapped inside” a man’s body, or vice versa. This argument suggests that there is such a thing as an a priori “black identity”, which is fundamentally different from a “white identity”, and which exists independently of our bodily experience in society. To my mind, this is a fundamentally erroneous way of thinking – there is nothing essential or ingrained about racial identity; rather, it is something that we develop through the stories we are told about ourselves by our parents from an early age (i.e. you are of European origin, you have white skin, etc.), and later through our observations of how race “works” in society (i.e. are white and black children encouraged to play together in the playground?; is it frowned upon for a person to date someone of a different skin tone or cultural background?, etc.). Of course, there is nothing to say that Dolezal didn’t simply resist these stories and cultural codes from an early age – after all, she grew up in a family that had adopted several black children. In which case, we can still read her behaviour as a reaction to her environment – the result of nurture, not nature.

      So my basis for rejecting the transracial argument is that I don’t see “race” as a natural, inherent phenomenon – which is the argument that is often used to explain transitioning in transgender individuals (see for example this commentary by a writer for The Guardian). But, reading your comment, I realise that you also don’t see transitioning as an entirely involuntary process, but rather as an at least partly conscious decision, which involves weighing up the potential loss of tangible privileges associated with the way that men and women are categorised, and therefore treated, in society. And according to this definition, it is quite possible to see “transracialism” as analogous to transgenderism, at least with regards to the mental processes undergone by the individual.

      As you aptly point out, what remains different between transgenderism and “transracialism” is the question of societal acceptance. I haven’t previously given a lot of thought to the case of transgender individuals, but I suppose that part of what facilitates their acceptance in society is the demonstration of a personal commitment to a trans identity (e.g. cross-dressing; undertaking legal procedures such as name changes or modification of official documents; sex reassignment surgery, etc.). Clearly, Dolezal went through similar processes to demonstrate her commitment to a black identity (using black hairstyles and darker makeup; marrying an African American man; going to an HBCU). However, her commitment was cast into serious doubt, and her legitimacy as a black woman was eventually rejected by the black community.

      Why? I think this is partly due to the general inflexibility in attitudes as to what defines racial identity in America (which is still based on legal stipulations referring to blood and ancestry, dating back to the time of slavery), but also to the political stakes of maintaining this strict division. Blackness has historically been imposed upon the descendants of Africans in America, and for that same reason, African Americans today are able to use their racial identity to lobby for equality and reparations to the far-reaching social legacies of slavery. It is the very inescapability of “race” that currently gives African Americans this political legitimacy; however, if racial identity was agreed to be something that is chosen, rather than imposed, this political struggle would be considerably weakened.

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  2. Great piece, Sarah! I’ve struggled with clarifying my feelings about this controversy. If the biological basis for blackness isn’t determinative, then who’s to say that she can’t feel or identify culturally as a black American. In addition, while Rachel adopted the identity of a conscious activist, there is far less outcry about the more negative black stereotypes other races may adopt (e.g. wiggers). Lots to unpack and digest.

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    • Thanks for your comment, Evlondo! You make an interesting point – I’ve seen plenty of articles recently discussing the apparent cultural appropriation of Iggy Azalea, but nothing about the “wiggers” phenomenon (if it can indeed be called a phenomenon).

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  3. As a non-American, a question re: racecraft. What *if* she had had even one black greatgrandfather? Or if she pulled out a DNA test “proving” that she had black ancestry?

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    • Hi Felix,
      In that case, it would quite literally be a different story!
      It’s not terribly uncommon for Americans that look like Rachel Dolezal (pale skin, fair hair) to identify as black, precisely because they have a black grandparent or greatgrandparent (see the (1)ne Drop project for examples). In those cases, people adopt various approaches to convince others of the authenticity of their blackness, and usually the claim to ancestry is seen as legitimate. But the interesting thing about the Dolezal case is that she hasn’t made any of those claims, but instead has tried to argue her blackness on criteria that are not accepted as valid by most Americans.

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      • Thanks! To add another query – how does racecraft deal with African-Africans, who very well may not share any of the “Black experience” from the US context? To quote this: “This circular logic also led, by exclusion, to a definition of who was black: anyone with any ‘negro’ ancestors in living or genealogical memory.”
        To wit: what is the justification on how Africans can still be black even if they do not share the history of slavery as such?
        Do Africans in the US seamlessly integrate into African-American communities? (Having spent much more time in Africa, I know the relation of African-Americans and Africans in Africa can be really fraught and disappointing for all sides.)
        Again, as a non-American I am fascinated by this discourse/practice, but it seems, at the end of the day, inconsistent in a number of ways. It is also extremely interesting how this story has become global news, even as it is something that requires deep knowledge about the US to truly get, I feel. It is couched in a universal language, but it basically deals in a very specific and local and time-bound configuration.

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      • Thanks for your comment, Felix, and sorry for the delayed reply!

        This is a very interesting question, and not a straightforward one to answer. It seems that many African Americans and American Africans struggle with the limits and contemporary meanings of Blackness, particularly since there has been a steady rise in African (and Afro-Caribbean) immigrants to the US since the 1970s. One area in which the lack of a distinction between these “different types of Black” is seen to be particularly troubling is in affirmative action, where some African Americans resent that American Africans may enjoy increased access to higher education, despite not having the same claims to the genealogical “cultural trauma” of slavery. Some people also see cultural differences (whether “real” or feigned) as separating “regular blacks” from “ethnic blacks”.

        On the other hand, some American Africans (e.g. the children of recent African migrants to the US) argue that they have every right to consider themselves black, since they grew up experiencing colour prejudice in the US, regardless of their “ethnic” origins. Then again, I have heard many young American Africans state that their parents always took care to emphasise to them that they were not the same “type of black” as African Americans: that they have a rich culture of origin, and that they need not have any insecurities about their identity. Despite this, these same individuals might still choose to identify as black, because they feel an affiliation to American black culture.

        An important point to realise is that it’s very infrequent that anyone will ever be challenged on their racial identity (affirmative action measures like racial quotas could constitute an important exception, since candidates may have to be deemed eligible according to some racial criteria). That’s why the Rachel Dolezal case was so intriguing – because even though people may feel that an individual “puts on” an identity or “doesn’t act black”, there is rarely any reason or grounds for society to demand a comprehensive justification for a person’s racial identification. And you’re quite right – when the inner workings of that identity are laid bare, it becomes clear that America’s racial logic is very contextually bound, and often contradictory.

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