Are You African American?: I Don't Understand the Question

A curious case of passing took center stage on social media this week. Enter Rachel Dolezal, the 37-year-old artist, professor and NAACP leader from Spokane, Washington who is allegedly passing as black.

According to The Spokesman, "in recent days, questions have arisen about her background and her numerous complaints to police of harassment. Members of her family are challenging her very identity, saying she has misrepresented major portions of her life."

Dolezal seems to have represented her racial identity as (at least part) African American, solidifying it by teaching courses in Africana Studies, earning a graduate degree from Howard University, tweeting about African American culture and advocating for social justice with the NAACP.

In my mind several questions need answering. The first is why. Why couldn't Dolezal have done all of this work as a non-black woman? Seriously, what limitations did she see on herself as white in this context? The next question is what happens to her relationships with friends and family as a result of her profile change? Then there's the larger question of what Dolezal's passing means for the rest of us whose identities aren't as malleable? And, finally, there's the issue of her hair. I mean how did she get that volume?

Of course, there are also the comments from the Twitterverse:

Only Dolezal has the answers. Or does she? Toward the end of the video interview below, a reporter asks Dolezal if she's African-American. She replied, "I don't understand the question," before walking away from the camera abruptly.

We don't understand either. From a distance we can wonder whether Dolezal felt her work would be taken as seriously from another social location. If that's the case then it begs the question of what the center and margins really are in a nation whose demographics are changing. One thing's for sure though, passing not only thrives but becomes more sophisticated in an increasingly diverse society. And for that reason passing remains a paradox.