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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