Rachel Dolezal: Choosing To Identify As African-American
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Until just a few days ago, the name Rachel Dolezal wasn't well known to many people outside of Spokane, Wash. She is president of the Spokane chapter of the NAACP. And, until a few days ago, she was seen as a leading African-American voice in it that community. Then her parents alleged she has misrepresented her background and that her parents are white. Michael P. Jeffries has been thinking about this and writing about it in the Boston Globe. He teaches American studies at Wellesley College, and he's on the line. Welcome to the program, sir.
MICHAEL P. JEFFRIES: Thanks.
INSKEEP: What on a basic level made it possible for a person with such light skin to pass as black in the first place?
JEFFRIES: The first thing we have to remember is that racial identity has always been linked to privilege, and we're dealing with a country that has a long history of prescribing racial identity and limiting the category of whiteness while sort of expanding non-white ethnic categories.
INSKEEP: Oh, limiting whiteness, you're talking about these old rules that said if you had even a drop of black blood anywhere in your ancestry you were counted as non-white or counted as black. Is that what you mean?
JEFFRIES: That's exactly right, and because whiteness was so limited, those who were placed in other categories had no choice but to accept a wide range of people with different backgrounds, people with different looks within their racial group, and so it has not been historically odd at all for someone who looks like Rachel Dolezal to be considered African-American in certain social contexts.
INSKEEP: Well, now that's really interesting because you're pointing out how arbitrary and, in many ways, outrageous racial distinctions have been over time, and now we have this person who is accused of manipulating those arbitrary restrictions for her own benefit. What bothers you about that?
JEFFRIES: I mean, these racial categories, in many ways, are quite ridiculous, but the word arbitrary I think is troublesome because it can hide some of the power relations and the violence of racism. So the reason that the categories are the way that they are is that whiteness has been violently protected and white privilege has been violently protected while these other categories have been causes of attacks, violence and exploitations. So, on one hand, they're arbitrary, but, on the other hand, the way that whiteness is limited actually enables people with power to protect power and leverage their power into all kinds of social gains, and that's actually what we've seen in the case of Dolezal. The privilege to trade in her whiteness in this way is something that reflects the power dynamics of racial categories.
INSKEEP: What do you mean by that?
JEFFRIES: Well, when she moves into a different racial category, it is completely her choice. That's a choice that brown-skinned folk can never make in the opposite direction. They cannot choose to enter into whiteness because of the way that whiteness is policed both legislatively and socially. So the choice that Dolezal makes to move into blackness is a choice that she makes because she knows that she will get certain benefits from it, right? Her move into blackness is commensurate with acting as a spokesperson on behalf of African-Americans, gaining steady employment with the NAACP, casting herself as an authority on matters of racism and racial identity.
INSKEEP: Does it bother you when African-Americans do pass the other way because light-skinned people have been able to do that from time to time?
JEFFRIES: Does it bother me personally? I mean, I would have to look on a case-by-case basis, but, as a general phenomenon, no. I mean, we're talking about people navigating social rules and political categories that are designed to oppress them. So, in many cases, passing has been a form of resistance, and it has not eliminated the possibility of that person working for a more sort of progressive and socially-just society. I think it's really important to look at these things on a case-by-case basis and not equate passing in one direction toward a more powerful position without privilege with something that Dolezal did. They're different sorts of phenomena.
INSKEEP: What if she said to you, as I believe she has said in public, look, regardless of my ancestry, I feel black. Does that make any sense to you?
JEFFRIES: Sure it does. But, I mean, the fact of the matter is that social identity is the result of a proclamation of personal identity and then the way that it plays out in the world. So her personal self-identity is one thing, but it can't really be validated in a meaningful sense if it doesn't correspond with her lived experience in the world and the experience of others who are also sharing that label.
INSKEEP: Michael P. Jeffries of Wellesley College. He is also the author of the book "Paint The White House Black: Barack Obama And The Meaning Of Race In America." Thanks very much.
JEFFRIES: Thank you.
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