The Passing Truth

I’ve been avidly following the Rachel Dolezal story.  I wanted to think through my reaction to the whole mishigas since it doesn’t actually require instant analysis despite the predictable outrage on Twitter and elsewhere on the internets. Most of the reaction, even when  justified, has been expressed in cliches, hashtags, and slogans.

It’s a tricky story for me because I firmly believe that race is primarily a social and political construct. I did extensive research on the subject of passing when I was writing a law school paper on anti-miscegenation laws in Louisiana. Additionally, living in New Orleans, I’ve heard many tales of Creoles who moved out of town, especially to Los Angeles, and vanished from the family story by passing.

In short, I was prepared to be sympathetic to Ms. Dolezal until she started doing interviews. If she had replied to the question “are you black?” with a straightforward “culturally, yes,” I would have more sympathy but her tortured answers have left me cold. Many people dislike their parents but very few question their own birth certificates. That makes Rachel Dolezal a self-birther or something equally wacky, which makes it difficult to take her seriously.

We all know people who have, in the British colonial phrase “gone troppo,” and identify with another culture. I have a friend in New Orleans who’s ethnically Italian-American but culturally African-American with racially mixed children but she would never say that she was black. She’s secure in who she is, which is something that Dolezal cannot say. I feel sorry for her. She didn’t initially invite all the attention but once it came she’s floundered. Wishing that you were someone else is not being someone else even in a country full of people who recreate themselves all the time.

This whole pitiful episode, however, has inspired some good and thoughtful writing. One of the best pieces was by Daniel F. Sharfstein in the New York Times Magazine wherein he pointed out that whites passing as blacks isn’t as uncommon as one might think:

The history of people breaching social divides and fashioning identities for themselves is as old as America. These stories were never exclusively about blacks who “passed” for white or Jews who, as my grandparents would say, “got over it” and found their way to the Episcopalian side of the ledger — people who felt compelled to shed their birth identities to reap the full rewards of white privilege. From the beginning of the American experience, the color line bent and broke in many directions, and for many reasons.

In 17th-century Virginia, as the genealogist Paul Heinegg has documented, most of the first free families of color descended from white women who had children with slaves or free black men. Because a 1662 Virginia lawclassified people as “bond or free only according to the condition of the mother,” the status of these families depended on the women’s affirming their whiteness as an official matter. But in everyday life, white mothers of black children were creating new ways for their families and themselves to parse slavery, freedom and race, akin to James McBride’s account in his memoir, “The Color of Water,” of how his mother described her own identity while raising 12 African-American children. When McBride asked her about her parents, she would respond, “God made me.” When he asked if she was white, her answer was, “I’m light-skinned.”

Over time, as racial categories ossified and state legislatures criminalized interracial sex and marriage — an idea that was ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in the 1960s — people continued to define themselves outside the law’s oppressive reach. White people who fell in love with African-Americans could avoid sanction if they asserted that they, too, were black. In 1819, a Scottish immigrant named James Flint described witnessing a black man’s attempt to marry a white woman near Jeffersonville, Ind., just across the Ohio River from Louisville, Ky. The local justice of the peace refused to marry them, citing a legal prohibition, but then had second thoughts, suggesting, Flint wrote, “that if the woman could be qualified to swear that there was black blood in her, the law would not apply.” In a scene anticipating “Showboat” by a hundred years, the groom promptly took a lancet to his arm, and according to Flint, “the loving bride drank the blood, made the necessary oath and his honour joined their hands” and married them.

White people have claimed African-American identity across time, region and class. The historian Martha Sandweiss has documented the case of Clarence King, a celebrated explorer from an elite Newport, R.I., family who could trace his ancestry back to three signers of the Magna Carta. At the end of the 19th century, he led a double life as James Todd, a black Pullman porter whose wife was born a slave. It is not hard to find other examples, all the way up to the present.

The story of Clarence King is particularly fascinating for history buffs as he was a close friend of  Henry Adams and John Hay. (I first encountered King in Gore Vidal’s great novel Empire;  he’s a principal  in Patricia O’Toole classic group biography, The Five of Hearts: An Intimate Portrait of Henry Adams and his Friends, 1880-1918. End of this brief reading list) In King’s case, it was all about loving the wrong person for someone of his class and time, which is the story of most white folks who reversed passed. In Dolezal’s case, it’s passing as a way to recreate herself and to escape from a family that seems remarkably unpleasant. Her parents were the ones who exposed her, after all.

Another fine piece of writing is Bliss Broyard’s sympathetic piece for the Guardian on Monday 6/15. Ms. Broyard’s book about her late father Anatole’s passing, One Drop, is a classic of the genre and sums up my reaction *before* Dolezal’s NBC interviewpalooza:

How do you determine who is black? Is it simply a matter of inheritance – you are what your parents are? Does having a black grandparent make a person black? Must she have been raised as black, in a black community? Is one black ancestor, one drop of blood, enough?

These were the kinds of questions asked during the legal trials undertaken in the late 19th and early 20th century throughout southern and midwestern US states, to determine a person’s “true” racial identity. Then, as now, ancestry trumped lived experience. In Ohio the courts ruled that having 50% black ancestry, a single black parent or two mixed parents, made a person black – and hence socially and politically inferior – while in Louisiana, the “one drop” rule prevailed, and any traceable amount of Negro ancestry denied one certain legal rights, including the right to vote and the right to marry a person of another race.

It was possible to be legally white in one state and legally black in an adjacent one. The line dividing racial categories has never been a clear or constant one. It takes someone trying to cross that line to illuminate its current coordinates.

In the end, Rachel Dolezal is an erratic, confused, and rather pitiful person who should inspire compassion, not scorn. She doesn’t seemed to have financially benefited from passing: her former position at the NAACP was voluntary and unpaid. She seems sincere in her empathy for black folks and black culture, which is not the mark of a con artist. If it’s at all possible at this point, she should exit the spotlight and try to deal with the complexities of her life and identity in private. The spotlight is an unkind and unforgiving place in the 21st Century and is best avoided by people who have complex problems to work through.

3 thoughts on “The Passing Truth

  1. One thing to keep an eye on is the involvement of Dolezal’s parents in the fundamentalist home-school movement. My wife caught something in the early reports about her upbringing that flagged an alert in her head, and as more info’s come out, Dolezal looks to be the product of a seriously warped upbringing. That doesn’t excuse what she’s done, but it could explain why she tried to distance herself so far from her birth family.

  2. Thanks. This is one of the trickiest stories I’ve encountered in a long time. I link to a piece at Slate by Amanda Marcotte when I mention her folks.

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