Despite the furor that erupted over the past few days, Rachel Dolezal is not the first white person to “identify” as a person of a different race. Throughout United States history, scholars say, the phenomenon of racial “passing” has included hundreds of thousands of people of many races attempting to live their lives within the typical cultural trappings of another ethnic group.
For the most part, such “passing” involved black people trying to pass as whites, attempting to avoid the harsh and often deadly racism of societies at the time. Italian and Jewish immigrants, who were not always considered racially “white” during an era of segregation, antimiscegenation laws, and official quests for racial purity, would Anglicize their names and represent as northern European whites.
But the multilayered, messy family saga of Dolezal and her identification as a black woman has gripped the country at a moment when questions of race and personal identity dominate national conversations, from debates over social equality and justice to intimate conversations about personal choices and people’s deep-seated desires. Today’s often angry, politically-charged discussions about “white privilege” and “shopping while black,” as well as what some see as a history of police brutality in minority neighborhoods has in many ways made white participation, or appropriation, of black culture a much more sensitive topic.
“This is a very fraught moment in the history of American race relations,” says Mark Naison, professor of African and African American Studies at Fordham University in New York, citing the Black Lives Matter movement that sprang up after several high-profile killings of black men at the hands of police. “If this had happened five years ago, I don’t know if it would have gotten people as upset as it is now.”
Scholars have long challenged the idea that race is some immutable, innate “essence” that determines who a person is. Though instances are rare, white people have changed their cultural identity, and sometimes appearance, to live their lives as “black,” as apparently did Ms. Dolezal, the former president of the Spokane, Wash., chapter of the NAACP. In most cases, such "reverse passing" was done for deeply personal reasons and not for social status.
On Tuesday, Dolezal finally broke her silence and addressed the furor over her racial identity. On MSNBC, host Melissa Harris-Perry asked the former NAACP chapter president, “Are you a con artist?”
“I don’t think so, you know?” Dolezal responded.
“I don’t think that anything that I have done with regards to the movement, my work, my life, my identity – I mean it’s all been very thoughtful and careful,” she said, adding that she has identified as black since she was a child.
“From a very young age I felt a spiritual, visceral, instinctual connection with black is beautiful,” Dolezal continued. “Just the black experience and wanting to celebrate that. And I didn’t know how to articulate that as a young child … But that certainly was shut down. I mean I was socially conditioned to not own that and to be limited to whatever biological identity was being thrust upon me and being narrated to me.”
Still, critics point to her apparent deceptions and lack of candor about her background – and the fact that she sued her alma mater, the historically black Howard University, for “reverse” race discrimination.
But the deep affinity she described for black culture is not unprecedented, even though other white people have seldom gone to the lengths Dolezal did to change their appearance and claim actual blackness.
Perhaps the famous example – which also was not without controversy – is John Howard Griffin, who darkened his skin in the 1960s and subsequently wrote the memoir, “Black Like Me,” about his experiences passing as a black man in the South during the Jim Crow era.
But there have been a number of examples over the decades, from people who fell in love with a person and wanted to share their identity, to people who fell in love with a culture.
In the 1950s, Ioannis Veliotes, the son of Greek immigrant parents who grew up in a black neighborhood in Berkeley, Calif., famously took on a black identity, eventually becoming the “godfather of rhythm and blues” and one of the progenitors of rock and roll as the bandleader Johnny Otis.
"As a kid I decided that if our society dictated that one had to be black or white, I would be black," he once wrote.
And in the 19th century, a man named Clarence King, a Manhattan blue-blood explorer who traced his ancestry to the Mayflower, fell in love with a black woman and then married her, taking on the identity of a Pullman porter, a job mostly held by black men at the time, according to the 2010 book, “Passing Strange: A Gilded Age Tale of Love and Deception Across the Color Line,” by Martha Sandweiss.
“You can’t make hard and fast rules out of any of these issues,” says Professor Naison, a white scholar of African American history and culture, which he embraces as his own. “Johnny Otis became black and was fully accepted, but he never lied, and he told everybody why he was doing it.”
“Rachel Dolezal never did that,” he continues. “She never explained what her motives were, so she comes off as a hustler, or as somebody gratuitously assuming the burdens of blackness in a way that has no permanency and no real connection to the community.”
The issue has been especially acute for musicians. Like Johnny Otis, the soul singer Teena Marie enmeshed herself deeply into black culture – though unlike Otis, she didn’t identify as a black woman. In her 1981 song “Square Biz,” she celebrated both the difficulty and joys of living within black culture, singing, “I've been called Casper, Shorty, Lil' Bit/ And some they call me Vanilla Child/ But you know that don't mean my world to me/ 'Cause baby, names can't cramp my style.”
And in a famously inflammatory essay “The White Negro” in 1957, the writer Norman Mailer suggested that black jazz culture was somehow more existentially authentic – which at the time attracted many young, disaffected whites who felt trapped in a stifling, conformist culture.
Today, white appropriation of black music – and identity – remains a controversial issue. For the past few months, the white hip-hop artist Iggy Azalea, the stage name for the Australian-born Amethyst Amelia Kelly, has endured a storm of criticism for her appropriation of black culture.
“There are white rappers who are terrific and have respect,” says Naison. “Her lyrics don’t have any depth, and she appears more cynical, because she has her own careful marketing strategy.” The same might be said for the ’80s flash-in-the-pan Vanilla Ice, the stage persona of Robert Van Winkle, who was mocked for his successful suburban appeal to white teens.
These are admittedly subjective judgments, however, and the criterion for “authenticity” is hard to pin down. Artists such as the Beastie Boys and Eminem, now considered hip-hop legends, were white artists who took black hip hop and made it their own.
While Dolezal didn’t use her identity to become rich or famous, some of the allegations – such as whether she received scholarships from Howard University intended for African-American students – raise concerns about appropriation, Baz Dreisinger, author of “Near Black,” a history of white passing, told Vox.
“[If she isn't black] that's just appropriation on the most literal level possible,” he said. “It's like the cover phenomenon around the birth of rock 'n' roll — literally, a white artist could steal a song, cover it, and make money that the black artist who created the song or recorded the song initially did not get. And those are cases where it's so easy for us to wag our fingers at someone, because that's literal theft, that's literally taking money out of someone else's pocket.”
And part of the issue with Dolezal, in addition to her apparent misrepresentations and lack of honesty about the “complexities” of her identity, is the fact that she was not an entertainer but a civil rights activist who, oddly, took on the narrative of social oppression and a career in racial activism.
“Dolezal is a product of our own contradictory moment, when Americans are at once far more open to racial boundary-crossing and as preoccupied with those same boundaries as ever,” wrote Daniel Sharfstein, a legal historian at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., and author of “The Invisible Line: A Secret History of Race in America,” in an essay in The New York Times. “There seems to be little reason that Dolezal would have needed to identify as black to live the life she has led.”
“A tan and curls do not make someone black,” he continued. “Nor does a graduate degree from Howard or a leadership position in the NAACP. But it’s becoming harder to say what, exactly, does, even as racism remains real and deadly.”
Dolezal, however, asserted a deeply held American value Tuesday as she defended her assumed identity as a black woman.
“As much as this discussion has somewhat been at my expense recently and in a very sort of viciously inhumane way come out of the woodwork, the discussion is really about what it is to be human,” she told Ms. Harris-Perry on MSNBC. “I hope that that can drive at the core of definitions of race, ethnicity, culture, self determination, personal agency and, ultimately, empowerment.”