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Rachel Dolezal and the Materiality of Race

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June 13, 2015


The story of Rachel Dolezal  is circulating with a ferocity that demonstrates both how bewildering it is and the inadequacy of national and international conversations about race. To recap briefly: Dolezal has been President of the Spokane chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), a venerable and storied civil rights organisation, since January of this year.  She has also been an adjunct in the Africana Studies department at Eastern Washington University and has, for at least a decade, consistently presented herself as black.

Dolezal is very light-skinned and she appears to have maintained a number of sometimes elaborate hairstyles in recognisably African-American styles over the last decade or so.  She has been presumed to be black, and has made several presentations on and given lectures about blackness, its connection to hair, the racial problems with the movie The Help, and more.

This week, her parents revealed that Dolezal is in fact white, of white ancestry with perhaps some Native American blood.  

Responses to her range from anger at what many term the misappropriation of racial identity to equal amounts of anger that black critics simply won't give her a break.  Amidst all this, the phrase, or phrases similar to it, “race is a social construct,” has been thrown around a lot.  As has the often dismissively tossed phrase, “identity politics.”

Dolezal's case is complicated and bizarre. There are substories here about adopting her brother as a son, allegations of sexual abuse by her parents (I could not help but think of that pivotal scene from Chinatown), a tale about having been raised in a teepee and hunting animals for food as a child, and more.  I suspect we will be watching this story for a while as more details unfold.

I write this as someone who is critical of the quest for diversity and, yes, various forms of identity politics.   At the same time, these past few days, I've found myself unsettled by the overly triumphant nature of much of the commentary from liberals and leftists for whom this has become a way not to grapple with the complexities of race and racial identification but to mock them meaninglessly.  

The problem with the idea that race is a social construct — as the idea is generally understood — is not that race is not, in fact, a social construct but that the nature and meaning of the words “social construct” are being obliterated.  Let us, for a moment, think of how race operates in contingent, conditional ways, as in the case of, say, the Irish, who became white, or the ways in which particular ethnic categories gained social mobility by, ironically, ghettoising African-Americans, as Erez Bleicher points out, or how Asians have managed to become a desirable minority while keeping intact a narrative that positions African-Americans as vastly inferior in body and mind.

The problem with the way the notion of a “construct” is understood, by both liberals and leftists, is that it presumes that race simply does not exist. Inevitably, this takes on a more sinister meaning: that because race cannot really exist, racism is not really a problem and can simply be willed away.

And this is where those who happily crow about Dolezal's  case as somehow proving that race or racial categories don't actually exist are getting it wrong.  They ignore the material realities of race.

Consider, for instance, the fact that Dolezal is an adjunct professor at a university.  Take her out of the picture and think seriously about what it means for an African American woman in this country to gain an advanced degree without it being assumed that she never earned it (especially someone who does not look as "exotic" as Dolezal has appeared).  I once wrote a story about a formidable Black intellectual with multiple positions in different departments at a university (an entirely common practice when someone's academic work ranges across disciplines).  A white man instantly questioned her credentials because it seemed unlikely that she could be all of that as a black woman, something he would never have done if she had been a white man. We need to think seriously about the material realities of academic pursuits, about who gets to acquire degrees, of how damned hard it is to, first, get a Phd in any field as a person of colour, especially as an African-American, how damned hard it is to get a job in the field, and how damned hard it can be to keep a tenure-track position as an African-American in particular.

In countless cases I've witnessed or know of, a department will hire an African-American and then offer absolutely no support, not take into account that, for instance, someone who's perhaps a first-generation university graduate and part of a small minority in a field may actually need more than just a monthly paycheck to continue their work.

What I have seen and know is that in several instances, universities will instead burden African-American tenure-track professors with far, far more than they're able to take on, expecting them to be many things for all, say, 20,000 of their students.  And they are expected to be everything for their African-American students: parents, counsellors, psychiatrists, friends, mentors and much more, bearing burdens that white professors are rarely expected to take on.  If they're female, their burdens double as they're expected to take on roles that blur the lines between mother figures and professors.  In all of this, they're also expected to serve on multiple committees and show up at official functions and smile for photographs to prove how good the university is at “diversity.”

When the inevitable happens, when a professor cannot churn out her published book and other requirements for tenure because she is simply overwhelmed, the response is immediately, "Ha! See?! We do everything we can for them, but they clearly are not up to snuff."  And she is denied tenure.


Dolezal is not a tenure-track professor, but she has reaped several real advantages by presenting herself as black, and those include being hired as the president of the local chapter of the NAACP, a job that would, no doubt, have been a stellar addition to her resume.

There are material advantages to being a white woman who later emerges as a black woman — and in her case, I hope we don't forget, she got what I will assume is a cushy job or two out of it. There have doubtless been lots of other financial advantages — grants, speaking gigs, and tons more immaterial advantages, including a degree of cultural and political status.  


This is entirely different from being a black person who can, sometimes or always, pass as white.  

That person's life experience is entirely different from that of a Rachel Dolezal.  Their immediate family is likely to not pass as much, for instance, and that has all kinds of long-ranging effects. Racialised economic exclusion and violence do exist, and persist for generations in their effects. Being exposed as black passing for white has far more severe consequences than being exposed as white passing as black.


I point all this out because the materiality of race, even as it operates as a legal fiction in several instances, functions to exclude, stigmatise, wound, and break, in a literal sense, as the past many months have shown.  Now exposed as white, Dolezal will probably have a troubled career ahead of her.  Or, more likely, given that she is white, she will enjoy a career on talk shows, perhaps receive a book deal, and give a TED talk.  No matter what, Dolezal will return to the comfort, security and, possibly, anonymity of whiteness, able to reinvent herself as just another white woman somewhere, unrecognisable without her “black hair.”  As to that hair and her conscious presentation of herself as black through its reworking, I’m reminded of what Liza Featherstone wrote on her Facebook wall (about the hoax in general, not about the hair) that “it says a lot about how we fetishize blackness even as we make life very difficult for the people who are actually black.”

Imagine if she was, instead, a black woman who had passed as white for years.  Consider what happens when black teens dare to use white people’s pools, or when they lie about where they live just so their children can attend better schools.

Consider all that and consider how the point is not that race does not exist if it is a social construct, but that the fact of race constantly being shaped as a construct leaves indelible marks on some bodies and even shatters them, while others, able to cut off their locks and free themselves from cornrows, return to the blinding and unbelievable lightness of whiteness.


You can read my new piece on the Dolezal matter, "The Difference between Black and White Guilt, here.

This is a free piece intended to raise questions, not provide all the answers.  

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