Rachel Dolezal and the Complex Politics of White Privilege

Virtually all segments of the media -- liberal, conservative, alternative, mainstream -- have been deeply immersed in the saga of Rachel Dolezal. Predictably, social media is knee deep in its commentary on the topic.

For the 5 percent of the population who is still uninformed or ill-informed about this story, Rachel Dolezal is a 37 year old White woman (according to her birth certificate and biological parents) who has identified as Black for more than two decades. Her actual ethnic heritage is German, Czech, Swedish and Native American. You can't make this stuff up! To paraphrase the old saying, "sometimes the truth is better/stranger than fiction."

Dolezal just stepped down as president of the Spokane, Washington, branch of the NAACP and has become the target of some not-so-friendly fire from people across the political spectrum. The undisputed truth is that this story is indeed mind boggling. It is as if it has a Twilight Zone feel to it. In fact, Spokane Washington has had a rich and vibrant activist history. Lydia Sims was the first Black woman to lead that city's NAACP chapter. Her son, Ronald Sims, went on to undersecretary in HUD in the Obama administration. In regards to Rachel Dolezal, she has made it clear that she considers herself Black despite her ethnic and genetic makeup.

Those of us who are familiar with Black History or have a solid knowledge of the Black experience are well aware of the fact that there have always been people of color who have engaged in the art of "passing" -- choosing to live and identify as White. The reason why certain Black people chose to deny their Black heritage and pass for White was due to the oppression and degradation inflicted and imposed on their siblings, relatives and fellow brethren by a frequently cruel and inhumane society that refused to acknowledge Black people as human beings. Based on the harsh realities of America's racist history of the time period, it was not all that surprising that there were non-White men and women who chose to live as White if they could indeed do so. For some, it was a simple case of survival.

Indeed, American literature is filled with the topic of passing. Both fictionalized and non-fictionalized accounts of the topic from James Weldon Johnson's The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man; Philip Roth's The Human Stain; Nella Larsen's Passing; Allyson Hobbs, A Chosen Exile; Daniel Scharfstein's The Invisible Line; John Howard's Black Like Me; and others approach and explore the subject in deep, varied, intriguing and compelling ways. The price one often paid for making such a dramatic and drastic decision was that one often had to sever all communication with their family and community. This was one hell of sacrifice to make.

That being said, what has made Dolezal's story atypical is the fact that, rather than attempt to acknowledge that she was part of a race that has historically enjoyed numerous benefits and privileges, she elected to embrace and identify herself with a group of people who have routinely been politically, economically, educationally and psychologically marginalized by the larger society. This is what has made so many people, myself included, scratch their heads. Truth be told, attempting to sever ties with your ethnic heritage is always a risky proposition. Moreover, having two White parents, coupled with our now 24/7 advanced media Internet age, it was incredulous and, to a degree, galling for her to believe that she could get away with such deception.

Many, including her parents, have made the case that Dolezal could have made valuable contributions to the NAACP and the Black community in general as a White woman opposed to living under the guise of a Black person. Indeed, a number of civil rights organizations, the NAACP in particular, have long had considerable White participation and influence. In fact, many of the organizations' early supporters were wealthy, powerful and influential White and Jewish activists and philanthropists. The same holds true today. Someone who claims to be as supposedly racially curious and astute as Dolezal should have known this.

Being neither a psychologist nor psychotherapist, I will concede that I am unqualified to psychoanalyze Rachel Dolezal. That being said, I will still make the argument that, if her past and current behavior is any indication, she obviously is either shamelessly opportunistic or in abject denial. Supporters argue that her demonstrated activism outweighs her actual genetic heritage and that she can be considered as a person who is "transracial." Such a position supports those who argue that race is merely a social as opposed to a biological construct. Her detractors view her as fraudulent, confused and shameless.

Regardless of what position anyone takes on the issue, the fact is that Rachel Dolezal has committed some serious and unethical transgressions regardless of her motives. She claimed to have a father who is Black. She falsely represented herself as part of a culture that she was not of. She brazenly took advantage of such situations and seemed to have no problem doing so. Spokane officials are investigating whether she lied about her race when she applied for an appointment to a police oversight board. The fact that Dolezal was able to get away with living as a Black woman, albeit precariously, for so long is ironic as well as troubling.

After her media tour, there will likely be multiple book deals, movie adaptations, public speaking opportunities in her future that have long eluded working, impressive, dynamic Black women with inspiring stories. This is a person who, even as she masqueraded as Black, was able to perversely capitalize off her deceptive behavior and could have decided to revert to her authentic and biological White pedigree anytime had she chosen to do so. Rachel Dolezal's entire life story is the classic definition of White privilege.


Elwood Watson, Ph.D. is a professor of History, African Anerican Studies and Gender Studies at East Tennessee State University. He is co-author of Beginning A Career in Academia: A Guide For Graduate Students of Color (Routledge Press, 2014)