Rachel Dolezal to address furor over her race. Who defines racial identity?

Rachel Dolezal, president of the Spokane, Wash. chapter of the NAACP, has said she will publicly address the controversy around her race and ethnicity on Monday.

Colin Mulvany/The Spokesman-Review via AP/File
Rachel Dolezal, president of the Spokane chapter of the NAACP, poses for a photo in her Spokane, Wash. home. Dolezal is facing questions about whether she lied about her racial identity, with her family saying she is white but has portrayed herself as black.

Civil rights leader Rachel Dolezal has said she will respond to the controversy surrounding her racial identity in a statement Monday night, the Associated Press reported.

Ms. Dolezal, who is president of the Spokane, Wash. chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and who has long asserted that she is at least partly of African-American heritage, has been accused of lying about her ethnicity after her parents said she was born Caucasian.

The revelation has sparked global discussion about the definitions of racial identity, and what it means to be black in today's world. 

“As you probably know by now, there are questions and assumptions swirling in national and global news about my family, my race, my credibility, and the NAACP,” Dolezal said in a message to NAACP members. “I have discussed the situation, including personal matters, with the Executive Committee,” which will make its statement on Monday, she added.

“The Executive team asked that I also release my response statement at the same time, which will be during the 7 to 9 p.m. monthly membership meeting,” Dolezal said.

The NAACP has so far supported Dolezal, who has served as president of the Spokane branch since January and been a civil rights advocate for years. “One’s racial identity is not a qualifying criteria or disqualifying standard for NAACP leadership,” the organization, which added that it stands by Dolezal’s record, said Friday.

“[W]e encourage Americans of all stripes to become members and serve as leaders in our organization,” the group said.

But Dolezal’s apparent deceit — identifying a black man as her father; misrepresenting her ethnicity on government forms; and referring to her dark curls as “natural” though she was born with straight, blonde hair — has led some to say her actions belittle the meaning and experience of black identity.

“Rachel Dolezal … may be connected to black communities and feel an affinity with the styles and cultural innovations of black people,” Alicia Walters, a Spokane native who founded a leadership program for black women and is herself black, wrote in an opinion piece for The Guardian. “But the black identity cannot be put on like a pair of shoes.”

Dolezal's actions showed the world that a person can be black without the burden of having lived through it, rendering invisible the experiences that forge a black woman’s identity, Ms. Walters added.

Which leads to another, crucial part of the discussion: Who or what is responsible for defining a person’s race?

Dolezal insists on calling herself black, even in the face of evidence against the contrary, because she believes that self-definition is the only definition that matters, Michael P. Jeffries, an associate professor of African-American studies at Wellesley College, argued in an op-ed for The Boston Globe.

“But that’s not how racial identity and racism work,” Mr. Jeffries noted. Dolezal’s choice to give up whiteness is a privilege not afforded to blacks who want to give up blackness — a reality based on a racial logic that allows for the possibility of a light-skinned black person but not a brown-skinned white person, he added.

“What’s key is you can’t choose your position in the hierarchy,” Slate’s Jamelle Bouie wrote. There will always be a fundamental difference between someone who has created for herself the experience of being black, and someone who has no choice in the matter, he added.

Is Dolezal only black when the experience would benefit her in some way? Mr. Bouie asked. There’s no way to know, and according to Bouie, that’s what’s troubling: “It feels like Dolezal is adopting the culture without carrying the burdens,” he wrote.

Still, Dolezal has some support among those who see her actions as a way of embracing, wholesale, the struggle for civil rights and racial equality.

“There’s an alternative response to the Rachel Dolezal story, one where we applaud a fellow human being for abandoning unearned racial privilege,” tweeted Thuli Madonsela, who serves as public protector, or ombudsman, of South Africa.

Closer to home, James Wilburn, a former Spokane NAACP president, told KULR in Billing, Mont.: “White, black, it didn’t matter. She had a lot of passion for human rights and that’s what mattered.”

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