Only Rachel Dolezal, president of the Spokane, Washington, NAACP can explain her motivation for claiming to be black, as her estranged, white parents alleged to the Seattle Times Thursday. But the curious case of the civil rights advocate "outed" as white raises fascinating questions about white privilege, cultural appropriation, ideas about race as a "construct" and the lived reality of being black in the United States today.
Many of the arguments about race in the wake of the revelations are being debated on social media -- including the new hashtag #TransRacial on Twitter that likens Dolezal's identification as black with Caitlyn Jenner's transgender identification as a woman.
My prob w/ #Transracial: Black folk cant decide to be white when the cops raid their pool party. But a white woman can be NAACP president.
— |L I Z Z O| (@lizzo) June 12, 2015
But what does it mean for a white person, who has a position of cultural privilege due to her skin color, to try to "disguise herself" as black? This is something Dolezal's mother alleges she's been doing since around 2006, according to The Spokesman, claiming oppression, telling police she was a victim of hate crimes, and even dissing the movie "The Help" for being “A white woman [making] millions off of a black woman’s story,” as Stephen Thrasher reports in the Guardian.
If #RachelDolezal can do it, so can I. I am now a white American. Give me: good credit, the ability to swim, and police NOT beating me.
â€” PrestonMitchum (@PrestonMitchum) June 12, 2015
I had stopped with commentary re: #RachelDolezal until I saw the video. The elasticity and boldness of whiteness never ceases to amaze me.
â€” deray mckesson (@deray) June 12, 2015
Within social justice activism communities, there is the occasional charge that some white activists need to make civil rights issues "about" them, taking the symbolic and rhetorical center stage at meetings and rallies -- something that Dolezal took to an extreme as the newly appointed head of the Spokane chapter of the NAACP. Instead of being a white civil rights activist who acknowledged her white privilege, Dolezal bypassed that altogether, claiming she was also was oppressed.
But did anyone tell #RachelDolezal that you can be a white girl and still be an advocate for social activism against racism or nah
— Lady Lazarus (@Siobhanapiranha) June 12, 2015
But perhaps the most fascinating and complex discussion that may come out of Dolezal's black mimicry is the question of what race "really" is. On the one hand, as Dolezal shows with her black mimicry, race is something that can be performed by adopting certain superficial traits. On the other hand, it's what psychiatrist, anti-colonial theorist and author of "Black Skin, White Mask" Frantz Fanon called the "fact of blackness," his lived experience of racism as a black man. One theory critiques racist arguments that say there is an essential difference between races. The other acknowledges that race may be a construct, but racism is real.
"[L]ike it or not, she’s exposed how shaky and ridiculous the whole centuries-old construct of individual 'race' is," writes Thrasher in the Guardian piece.
"The real question now is whether we can ever move past debating an individual’s race and begin to address the structures and institutions we’ve created and let flourish to delineate and maintain the social and economic differences between individuals we’ve assigned to those groups for hundreds of years."