Rachel Dolezal: ‘I Identify as Black’

Published: 17 June 2015

Country: US

Rachel_DolezalFormer NAACP official Rachel Dolezal’s racial identity has caused a heated debate on race and gender in the US media landscape. Dolezal, who is of Caucasian decent, had lived as a Black woman for years, using self-tanner to darken her skin as well as adjusting her hair to ‘pass’ as an African-American woman.  In her interview for NBC, Dolezal said that she ‘still identifies as black’ and that she doesn’t ‘put on a blackface as a performance.’

After her parents ‘outed’ the civil rights activist as Caucasian, media split into two opposing camps. A number of media outlets compared Dolezal’s self-identification as a black woman to Caitlyin Jenner’s trans* identity, whereas others strongly opposed to the idea of equating race with gender in this way.

CNN defended Dolezal’s ‘right to be black’, speaking of an ‘era of elective race — a time when people expect that one has a right and dignity to claim the identity of one’s choice’. Several conservative American media outlets wondered: ‘How, exactly is what Dolezal did any different than what Jenner is currently doing? Rachel Dolezal is not black, and Caitlyn Jenner is not a woman.’

The Daily Mail reported on Dolezal suing Howard University for ‘anti-white discrimination, five years before she started pretending to be black’.

Rachel_Dolezal_2Dolezal has since made a public statement on NBC’s Today Show, where she ‘declared […] that she still identifies as black – and that she does not ‘put on blackface as a performance’’. She further noted:  ‘My life has been one of survival […] and the decisions I have made along the way, including my identification, have been to survive’.

Dolezal used the opportunity to give diffuse ideas of survival, again, claiming victimhood from a privileged position. Coming from a white woman in a space of white domination, how can transitioning into a black woman be a strategy of survival?

Black civil rights activists argued that ‘moving the lines of race back and forth’ is part of Dolezal’s white privilege, stressing that black people cannot be as flexible and shake off their disadvantages and ‘hide their skin’: ‘I cannot hide my skin or make myself invisible when I am protesting police terror or creating theater art for other Black women with skin like mine. I cannot manipulate what race is for my own pleasure’.

‘The “one-drop rule, which, for much of American history, legally defined as black anyone with a black ancestor, was used to keep black people from adopting whiteness. Ironically, it has made it easier for Ms. Dolezal to claim blackness without others questioning the assertion,’ wrote the author Tamara Winfrey Harris for the New York Times adding: ‘I will accept Ms. Dolezal as black like me only when society can accept me as white like her’.

Huffington Post argued: ‘The implications of a white woman, donning blackness and then using that blackness in order to navigate black spaces is offensive’.   Washington Post took a similar stance quoting writer Jamelle Bouie: ‘’It feels like Dolezal is adopting the culture without carrying the burdens.  It seems like she’s deceiving people for the sake of an à la carte blackness, in which you take the best parts, and leave the pain aside.’

The case of Rachel Dolezal and her actions is complex and with many components interrelated. That is why media has a responsibility to acquire knowledge on issues around race and racism to ensure professional, balanced and analytical coverage and to avoid being used as a stage to perform discrimination and violence against BME populations.