Once news of Rachel Dolezal’s hidden identity swept across the media landscape — from black Twitter’s #AskRachel hashtag to her appearance this morning on NBC’s “Today” show — we’ve been embroiled in debates about notions of reverse passing and transracial identity. Clearly, her story offers an interesting thought experiment, not unlike Langston Hughes’s short story, “Who’s Passing for Who?”, wherein the narrator is left “not knowing now which way we’d been fooled.”
But full-blown comparisons to African American passing — the practice of living with one’s blackness concealed — fall flat. To read Dolezal’s racial ruse — which ranged from getting elected, as a putative black woman, to lead the NAACP chapter in Spokane, Wash., to teaching an African American studies course — as “passing” is to misunderstand the lives of the thousands of African Americans who passed for white, particularly during the socio-political nadir of post-slavery African American life and the high point of racial passing, between the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In that era, passing was a difficult and dangerous choice in a world stunted by emerging systems of legal segregation, disfranchisement and extra-legal racial terror.
African Americans who passed typically had a significant quotient of white ancestry and were often the children or grandchildren of multiple generations of mixed-raced forebears. And by the logic of slavery and segregation, they were still considered black, expected to live in segregated communities, legally proscribed from full citizenship and privy to black life, as W.E.B. DuBois characterized it, “behind the veil.” The “one-drop” rule, codified during Jim Crow, meant a person with any African ancestry was black, no matter how pale their skin.
Even when their blackness wasn’t detected by the naked eye, African Americans had no claim to whiteness, so those who passed were, in effect, using their phenotype to either subvert or circumvent the racial order. Unlike Dolezal’s claim on blackness, which appears completely falsified, their claim on white identity was only false in context of the one-drop rule.
Dolezal sought the spotlight as an alleged victim of now questioned claims of racial hate crimes. African Americans who passed often went to great lengths to divert attention from themselves. Like schoolteacher Lola Houck, a rail passenger who purchased a first-class ticket on the ladies car in the late 1880s. She didn’t pass all the time. Living in the small black community of Victoria, Tex., she married an African American man and taught at a black school. But she was pregnant at the time, and likely wanted to avoid the second-hand smoke and crowding that passengers were often subjected to in the “colored cars” or smokers where white male passengers using tobacco rode.
When an African American bootblack recognized her and outed her as a “colored woman,” she was ejected and rode the remainder of her journey between the smoker and the ladies car, running from end to end, trying to regain entrance. When a conductor shoved her away from the door, throwing her into the brake wheel and almost off the platform, she miscarried, and sued the railroad for damages.
Comparisons to Dolezal are fraught, in part, because people of color faced this kind of peril and did so to gain rights they would have been otherwise denied. Black citizens were barred by law from top-tier public education, advanced employment, safe housing and the right to vote without restriction. Passing, though, wasn’t a victory, per se. Because it often required complicity with ongoing inequality, most black communities ultimately viewed passing as betrayal.
But many still made the choice for self-preservation. And while their deception underscored the ridiculousness of racial segregation, they had to live with the fear of exposure. Anatole Broyard, New York Times writer, born the descendant of free Creoles of color in New Orleans, abandoned his identity in adulthood, separated from darker-complected family members and joined the then-segregated U.S. Army as a white officer leading black troops. He married and never shared with his children the secrets of his identity, even on his deathbed.
Historically, the penalties for passing ranged from ostracism and economic ruin all the way to lynching. Many passing African Americans were so fearful of exposure that they chose never to have children, afraid that they might be born looking too black.
What, then, of Dolezal? In a bizarre sense, she almost seems to have patterned herself after black icons like writer Charles W. Chesnutt, feminist leader Mary Church Terrell, Mordecai Johnson — the first African American president of Howard University, Dolezal’s alma mater — and NAACP leader Walter White. All lighter-complected African Americans who could have passed, but chose not to, and were admired for their commitment to black uplift. In that context, perhaps Dolezal’s intricate minstrelsy was a way to gain a kind of cache in black circles that would have been harder to cultivate as an openly white ally.
White saw himself as “Negro, a human being with invisible pigmentation which marked me a person to be hunted, hanged, abused … I was gripped by the knowledge of my identity … I was glad I was not one of those whose story is in the history of the world, a record of bloodshed, rapine, and pillage.” Dolezal, by contrast, told Matt Lauer she felt that “at some point, I would need to address the complexity of my identity.”
Race is a social construct. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t real as a lived experience in America, and it wasn’t constructed out of thin air. On this broken foundation, African Americans led, created communities and built a movement that transformed, and strives to further transform, America for the better. There may have been a role for Dolezal to play as ally in that movement if she had pursued it — but not as a white woman masquerading as a black woman. Absent the painful choice between second-class citizenship and a lie — and absent the threat of repercussions beyond embarrassment — her elaborate performance needs another name.
She’s given us something to think about, no doubt. But she’s not black; and whatever she’s doing, it’s not “passing.”