By almost all objective standards, former NAACP leader Rachel Dolezal of Spokane, Washington is a bona fide black woman. Her pedigree is impeccable. Not only did she receive a Masters of Fine Arts (MFA) from Howard University—perhaps the most prestigious historically black university in America—but she has at least four black siblings and one black son. She was married for numerous years to a black man. And more importantly, throughout her professional career, she has undertaken leadership positions on social issues pertaining to the black community.
Rachel has even (according to her own beliefs) been the victim of hate crimes directed against her due to being black. On at least two occasions she arrived home to find a noose hanging from a tree near her home in predominately white neighborhoods in Washington. She has been described in various news articles as a black woman or a woman of mixed race (which means black in the American context). In fact, Dolezal’s black experience is as authentic as almost any black leader in this country.
So, during an age in which identity has become such a fluid and self-determined concept, why is everyone up in arms just because of the simple fact that her biological parents identify themselves as white? There are plenty of people who identify as black with at least one ‘white’ biological parent. By what measurement is Rachel categorically not black, while others are legitimately considered black? It can’t be a shared sense of struggle – because her life is a testament to sharing the struggle with blacks. It cannot be skin color. After all, a man with her same skin color, Benjamin Jealous, recently served as a black man as president of the NAACP. Or perhaps it is that she is not the biological descendant of slaves. That is a fact not known to the public at this point, but even if it were true that she does not descend from slaves, let us acknowledge that there is a man in the White House today who is not the descendant of slaves and has a white biological parent, who is nonetheless widely considered to be black.
I would argue that Dolezal has earned the right to call herself black and to be considered black by the society at large. She has made significant personal and professional contributions to the uplift of black Americans. She has studied and mastered black culture and art. And, as mentioned above, she has shared in the common legacy of oppression visited upon blacks in this country by virtue of their identity. Blacks should be proud to count someone with her drive, determination and tireless contribution to black causes. She is what used to be referred to in the black community as a ‘race woman.’
But what’s most important about this entire situation is not the lengths to which Ms. Dolezal has gone to be perceived in the eyes of others as being black. What is most important is who she considers herself to be. There are plenty of people walking around today who would be readily identified as white, Latino or Asian, who nonetheless self-identify as being black. Take the NBA Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling’s girlfriend V. Stiviano. On the secret recordings she made of Sterling’s racist comments, she objected to Sterling’s disappointment with her attending Clippers games with black men. When she pointed out that she too was black, Sterling said that she appeared to be a Hispanic or white woman to others. If it were merely about one’s outer appearance, then why would one’s self-identification be taken seriously?
Some have said that Dolezal is merely claiming to be black when it suits her – that she is in a sense trying to cynically exploit ‘black privilege.’ The fact that she sued Howard University because it rescinded her scholarship and teaching assistantship once it became apparent that her skin was white is used to prove this. However, the fact is that there are plenty of white students who receive race-based scholarships to attend black colleges. If she had made explicit reference of her ‘white’ identity in her application to Howard, rather than just showing up and trying to fit in, she would likely have fared far better. But the fact that she applied to Howard as a black woman and got in with a full scholarship, is a feat almost as rarely accomplished as a black person applying to Harvard without making explicit reference to race, and being accepted. It goes to show her true commitment to her black identity that she has used it even when it would not be as beneficial as being white.
I, myself, applaud and welcome to the black community. Nicholas Geranios of the Business Insider was wrong in qualifying the situation as a “ruse”, especially considering that Dolezal has identified as black since the age of 5. Her consistent efforts to uplift those around her is admirable and something that should never be regarded as a form of trickery—she has stayed true to herself and what her intentions have been, which is a lot more than most people can say in today’s world. I hope she benefits from all of the richness and hospitality that black culture has to offer, just as she has seemingly provided benefits to the community in which she embraces. In a more direct manner, I believe she is a credit to her race and a woman who represents the black community in a worthy fashion.