I grew up in a largely white suburb of Washington, D.C. My older brother and I were the only Black kids in the neighborhood and were among the small handful of Blacks at school.
At six years old, my blackness never crossed my mind. It became apparent when my best friend, Christine, a freckle-faced white girl with blonde Shirley Temple curls, offered me some Coppertone sunblock — you know, the pink bottle adorned with the iconic image of a little blonde girl surprised to find her puppy nipping at her swim trunks.
Clearly amused, my mother chimed in sweetly, “No, baby, that’s not for us,” handing me a bottle of cocoa butter instead. Of course, I didn’t associate that this was a major life lesson in motion: Baby girl, you’re born Black, and you can’t change it.
But what if you could? Would you?
Rachel Dolezal apparently answered “yes.” Dolezal, the president of her local NAACP chapter in Spokane, Wash., has come under fire after it was revealed that she, a white woman, has been masquerading as a Black woman publicly for years. Here’s the kicker: It was her parents who outed her.
"It's very sad that Rachel has not just been herself," her mother, Ruthanne Dolezal, was quoted telling the Spokane Spokesman-Review this week. "Her effectiveness in the causes of the African-American community would have been so much more viable, and she would have been more effective, if she had just been honest with everybody." She says that after she and her husband adopted four African-American children, Rachel began to “disguise herself.”
Rachel’s birth certificate shows that she was born to two Caucasian parents. She married a Black man and teaches classes about African-American culture at Eastern Washington University. She even posted a photo of herself with a Black man she identified as her father to the Spokane NAACP Facebook page.
Even more telling, Dolezal identified as part African-American in an application for the police ombudsman commission and has stood along with Baltimore City State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby in the wake of Freddie Gray's death. Asked point blank by a reporter on Thursday if the man in the Facebook picture was her father, Dolezal affirmed again, then clarified that she “didn’t understand the question” before abruptly walking away from the microphone.
You have to wonder, how was she able to pull this off for so long?
Maybe folks were too shy to question the brownness of her skin or the perfect spirals of her hair. Maybe it’s because Spokane County’s Black population, estimated at 1.9 percent, is so small that it was easier for her to pass. Maybe it's Maybelline.
No matter the reason, Dolezal’s stunt brings up many questions about what it means to identify yourself as a race you weren’t born into. By Friday morning, #transracial and #wrongskin were both trending on Twitter, drawing much comparison to the current trans movement reignited by Caitlyn Jenner’s (formerly Bruce Jenner) male-to-female transition.
The sobering reality is that, unlike white people, we can’t paint the brown on for as long as it serves us. We have been enslaved, beaten, belittled and even killed over our Blackness. We’ve also become stronger advocates for equality because of it.
Does she really believe she is Black, or is this the most outrageous, sickening, offensive form of blackface come to life? Dolezal has yet to give a statement on the matter, and we may never know her true intentions.
But one could argue that there’s a double standard in shaming Dolezal for her perception of racial identity, just as it would be wrong to shame Jenner, Laverne Cox or any other trans person for doing what they felt was necessary to have the physical traits they believe they were truly meant to have.
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(Photos from top left, clockwise: Dan Pelle/The Spokesman-Review via AP, File; courtesy of Larry Dolezal; Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review via AP, File)
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