Recently, I was watching television and became captivated by the story of a fascinating woman. She was born to parents who claimed one racial identity, which was affixed to her through infancy, childhood, and adolescence. When she grew to be a woman, she made a choice to become someone else. She divorced herself from everyone and everything she had ever known, moved to a place where no one knew her, and began life anew. She lived the rest of her life as a person, a character really, that she invented. But eventually, someone discovered her secret.
To anyone who has been reading blogs, tweeting on Twitter, or even scrolling through their Facebook and Instagram feeds, this story is all too familiar. It describes what we have come to know about Rachel Dolezal. She was born to white parents and was, by default, considered to be a white person by her family, friends and community. In spite of personally identifying as a black person since the age of five, Rachel did not disabuse them of this notion. But, as these stories go, something changed. The stars aligned and an opportunity arose, and Rachel chose to be someone else. She began to “disguise [herself] as a black woman” and as her mother said, she was “being dishonest about her ethnicity.” She was in her (and a lot of other folks’) estimation, a white woman.
But the story that enthralled me on television was not Rachel Dolezal’s. It was the story of Elvira Frederic. In 1921, Elvira was born in Louisiana to Azemar and Camille Frederic, two people of African descent. In the U.S. Federal Census of 1940, she is marked as “col” for “colored.” When the census enumerator made his entry, she was 18 years old and working as a maid in a teashop; all typical experiences for women of African descent in the South. But for reasons that remained unspoken and unknown, Elvira decided to remake herself. She moved North, and she became a white woman. She married a white man and had “white” children who never knew her secret. They had never seen their grandparents, not even pictures of them.
All of this changed when her daughter, mystery writer Gail Lukasik, ordered a copy of Elvira’s birth certificate from Louisiana and discovered that she was identified as “colored” in the document. Gail confronted her mother about what she’d found, and her mother admitted it but swore her to secrecy. Elvira made Gail promise not to tell anyone else in the family until after she died. When Elvira passed away in 2014, Gail sought help from the professional genealogists that staff the PBS series Genealogy Roadshow. Kenyatta D. Berry, a lawyer and master genealogist, discovered more details of Elvira’s racial remaking.
These stories of personal invention, and many more, which color our nation’s history, signal something very important about the complexities of race and racial identity in America. As a historian of slavery, I have encountered stories which mirror Rachel’s and Elvira’s time and again. I’ve encountered many more, which similarly call our contemporary sense of certitude about “race” into question. There was Sally Miller, a young indentured German girl whose master claimed her as a slave, imposing upon her a status reserved for people of African descent. She sued for her freedom, claiming to be white. People attested to her whiteness in court, while others claimed that she was a mixed race woman pretending to be white.
The rich multiracial communities that characterized 19th century New Orleans and the ethnic diversity of the city made both stories equally plausible. But the “truth” rested largely upon what Sally looked like. The jury examined her with their eyes, visually sizing her up, measuring her against a set of racial criteria which they used to determine a person’s “whiteness.” They determined that she was “white” and she won her case. There was also Helen Craft, a very light skinned mixed race enslaved woman who not only passed as white, she passed as a white man, boarded a train with her darker skinned husband, who posed as her servant, and steamed off to freedom in the North.
Slavery left many mixed race people with few choices. Law, custom, and community determined what racial identities they could or could not claim. But everyone seemed to understand that some people could expand their options depending upon what they looked like and how they performed their identities. If they possessed largely “European” features and they performed whiteness—i.e. spoke “articulately,” possessed the ability to read or write, adorned themselves with clothes and other markers of freedom and not slavery, and removed themselves from people who knew them—they could possibly escape the yoke of racial inferiority ascribed to African ancestry. This was a risky undertaking, but some were willing to hedge their bets.
Of course, this is not Rachel’s story. As I read the tweets and even the media coverage of her case it became clear from the multitude of outraged comments that many believed that Rachel committed a greater deception. She was passing as a black woman. Yet there is one story that reminds me of hers. Walter White was a man who self-identified as a black man although he had fair skin, light colored hair, and blue eyes. He was also Executive Secretary of the NAACP, and during his time as a member of the organization’s rank and file, White risked his life by traveling to the South, passing for white and investigating lynchings by interviewing whites who attended the rituals. He fought tooth and nail for racial justice and yet people question his self-identification as a black man to this day.
The truth is that, for most of our nation’s history, many of the people who we consider to be “white” today, would be “colored,” “Negro,” or “black” in Sally Miller’s time, Ellen Craft’s time, and Walter White’s time. No matter how white their skin, how light their eyes or hair, they could not choose to be anything else without great risk to their lives and their freedom. Our responses to Rachel Dolezal’s “deception” suggest a level of clarity and certitude about racial identity that reveals all that we don’t know about the malleability of racial identity and all that we don’t care to know (or admit) about just how multiracial most of us are in America. Yet I think that her story offers us an opportunity to reckon with how we became so multiracial in the first place, and that story is inextricably tied to the history of American slavery.
It is a story of violence, trauma, and oppression, and it continues to be a story of shame, for white and black people alike. But I wonder how the conversation about race could change if we began by openly considering whether Rachel Dolezal was telling the truth about her multiracial identity instead of assuming that she was deceiving us? What if we talked about what “whiteness” and “blackness” really mean when we consider the multiracial heritage of many Americans, regardless of what they look like to us? I approached the story of Rachel Dolezal in this way, and I concluded that Rachel did not deceive us at all. We have been deceiving ourselves.