Rachel Dolezal: why ignoring the painful past of “passing” is indefensible

Civil rights advocate Rachel Dolezal has been accused of falsely claiming she is African-American. Stephanie Keith/Reuters

In 2015, American Rachel Dolezal captured the public imagination when the media discovered that she was white and had been passing as black for nearly a decade.

Dolezal, who has had white ancestors for over three centuries, checked boxes like “black” and “African-American” on application forms, darkened her skin, and began to wear her hair in African-American styles. She lied about her past and family, and attempted to sue her alma mater, historically black Howard University for reverse racism.

“Black” Dolezal was a lecturer in Africana studies and president of her local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People NAACP.

She recently visited South Africa to discuss non-racialism, but received resistance against her self-identification as “trans-black” and her claim to an authentic, internal black identity. This isn’t surprising given the brutality of the country’s racial past.

Painful history

In both the US and South Africa, “passing” as another race has a long and painful history. For a very long time this was a highly guarded secret in many families out of necessity.

South African poet Michael Chapman’s stark “Concrete Poem” (1986) illustrates it powerfully:

The Chameleon Dance

The Minister of Home Affairs, Mr Stoffel Botha, has now disclosed that during 1985:

● 702 coloured people turned white;

● 19 whites became coloured;

● One Indian became white;

● Eight Malays became coloured;

● Three blacks were classified as Malay.

No blacks became white, and no whites became black.

The form of “Concrete Poem’s” cold, official bullet list shows a sharp divide from the social and emotional gravity of its content. Racial passing under apartheid did not simply entail a quick visit to the Department of Home Affairs, followed by popping champagne to celebrate one’s new life. It typically included a traumatic separation from family, community and an initial subjectivity raced in a particular way.

South Africa’s Population Registration Act of 1950 drew the boundaries of race in a move that both proscribed and enabled the act of passing:

“white person” means a person who in appearance obviously is, or who is generally accepted as a white person, but does not include a person who, although in appearance obviously a white person, is generally accepted as a coloured person.

The same act described “coloureds” as “neither white nor ‘native’”.

For a coloured person to pass as white and reap the benefits of a racist society, they had to become “generally accepted” as a white person. That’s what Marion Campbell’s parents do in Zoë Wicomb‘s 2006 novel “Playing in the Light”.

Marion, an Afrikaner in her late thirties, discovers that her racist white parents were “play-whites”. It was a local term for coloured people who “passed” as white. Her parents removed from their lives anything that could reveal any connection to their coloured families, in order to “raise the child without the burden of history”.

In fear of their secret being discovered, they raised Marion strictly, not only without history but also without free play, friends, family and cousins, family photos, trinkets from her parents’ childhoods – things of culture and tradition that are so linked with race. Marion’s father breaks down after confessing to her that as a younger man, he had disowned his tight-knit coloured family and deprived Marion of cousins, uncles and an aunt.

He is racked with dry sobbing. Things became so complicated in the country, so political, he croaks, that they agreed to stop seeing him; he was excluded from [his sister] Elsie’s dinners. Marion cradles his head in her arms.

This scene resonates with the ideas of American race scholar Alysson Hobbs, who says, “writing a history of passing is writing a history of loss”.

Misrepresentation

Dolezal referenced Hobbs’ work “A Chosen Exile: A history of racial passing in American life”, in a conversation with South African talk show host Stephen Grootes, when he provoked her on a history of race:

In Jim Crow America, or the time of slavery, you would never have [chosen to pass as black]; it would be disadvantageous.

Dolezal retorted that it’s still disadvantageous today and deflected by discussing a history of American passing and referencing Hobbs’ book. However, while Hobbs’ project does argue for an understanding of racial boundaries as more porous than we often assume, it chiefly examines personal accounts to see not only what was gained by passing, but what was lost: the many sacrifices, risks, secrecies, lies, exclusions and traumas entangled in the commitment to passing.

In an interview with NPR, Hobbs expands on the idea of loss:

The family jokes, the oral history every family has, and repeats and passes down, those things are lost to people who pass.

Black and coloured people, who passed in the US and in South Africa respectively, chose to “pass” because of deeply unequal conditions. These put them in danger or led to the full benefits of citizenship being withheld.

Dolezal, on the other hand, as white, is uncoerced by an overtly racist political order. She seems to wilfully misunderstand or ignore that she’s inserting herself into a history of coerced crossings that reverberate with black peoples’ loss and trauma.

The exercise of power enforcing the boundaries of race – held in the past by white political orders – is the condition for subjects to be able to cross in the first place. But now black people have more say than ever about what blackness is.

Scholar Stuart Hall and others do argue for many “blacknesses”, and against an essential black self (of hip hop, activism, basketball, corn rows, etc), while acknowledging that the central uniting factor among black people is a shared experience of racism. That’s something Dolezal did not grow up with and can easily escape.

Black people have fought tooth and nail for laws that regard them as equal citizens. It’s not enough to be considered equal if one has to deny oneself and one’s identity. For a supposedly well informed white person and lecturer of “African-American studies”, Dolezal’s use of “passing” to justify her identity makes a mockery of the serious and painful experiences of loss undergone by black people in highly racist societies.

Though Dolezal also underwent an experience of loss and distance from her family, she created it herself, through lies and deceit. In Wicomb’s novel, historically white Marion considers how, why and if she should begin to identify herself as coloured.

Perhaps it’s a question of time, the arrival of a moment when you cross a boundary and say: Once I was white, now I am coloured.

Perhaps it’s a question of time for Dolezal too. I don’t know if her moment will arrive in today’s arena of highly contested identity politics. Right now the precious gains made by civil rights movements remain under attack in the US and South Africa via more insidious racisms than legal segregation.

It’s therefore understandable that black people are resistant to altering the boundaries of a racial “social construction” to welcome an insensitive white woman. Someone who refuses to listen to black voices about blackness, co-opts a painful history of passing and ignores the work of civil rights movements to remove the racist socioeconomic and violent conditions that coerced black people into passing.