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Rachel Dolezal’s ‘deception’: What we don’t want to know about racial identity in America

Stephanie Jones-Rogers, assistant professor of history | June 29, 2015

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.

Comments to “Rachel Dolezal’s ‘deception’: What we don’t want to know about racial identity in America

  1. I remember my initial reaction when the Rachel Dolezal story broke. I pretty much assumed she was a liar who used her “Blackness” to get professional advancement or financial gain. Since then I have learned more about her. I think the Guardian article on her opened my eyes ( I think she really felt happiest being “Black” and did not gain financially from her deception. Her children are Black. She worked hard for civil rights and was a well-liked college instructor of African art. I now see that my initial hostility and that of much of White media was just our “White supremacy” showing. She was a traitor to her race. The hostility of most of the African-American community, there were a few exceptions like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Al Sharpton, is more puzzling to me. Yes, she had “appropriated” their Black identity but she had also appropriated their experience by actually choosing to live it. Anyone who accuses her of “blackface” is denying that she has walked the walk and frankly doesn’t understand the concept of blackface. It was done by White actors whose directors felt Blacks were incapable of portraying themselves or racist Whites who wanted to ridicule Black appearance and mannerisms. Ms. Dolezal considers “Blackness” the height of beauty and she obviously desires to be Black. In this day and age of identity politics, she is about the only person who every other persecuted minority can openly despise, a pariah who can be ridiculed by everyone without a second thought. Transgenders heap scorn on her for somehow dragging them down when all she wants is the same thing they want, acceptance and equality. Yes, she probably is a “liar” but compared to our Liar-in-Chief, her lie has to be considered a “White lie,” or should it be called a “Black lie?”

  2. Why does Mr. Jones-Rogers imply that a white person with a minority of black ancestry isn’t white? If that were true, Hispanics and Arabs would be kicked out of the “white race.” The fact is that, throughout American history, you were “white” if you were reasonably Caucasian in phenotype and presented yourself as white. True, black ancestry was nothing to boast of or publicly acknowledge, but it was often an open secret in the community and did not have to ruin lives.

  3. I just stumbled upon here. I come from India and the entire categorization like white, black, negro, colored is new to me.
    I am 32 now. I would pray to see a day when “racial discrimination” is completely eradicated from this world and my American brothers to stop marking race in their birth certificates and other government papers. This way, the government can send a message to both Blacks and Whites that racism is no more a determining factor to avail equal opportunities in the American community. Thanks for the boldness and the genuinity in your article.

  4. I know this doesn’t really have anything to do with your article but, personally, I think that when society finally stops questioning what race you identify as, when people don’t need to ask where you are from, when your race doesn’t effect any opportunities of any kind, I think that’s when racism will truly be absent in our society.

  5. It is certainly true that the ways individuals navigate the minefield of race can be quite complex, especially for ‘mixed race’ people. What should not be lost in this discussion, however, is that race, while biologically meaningless, is not just a state of mind. Race is socially real and is a very powerful shaper of peoples’ lives.

    Identifying as black is not just a personal choice to identify with a culture that one likes: being black is a social status that is fraught with physical, economic, cultural and psychological attacks on an on-going basis. The good people of the Mother Church in Charleston know what it means to be black. The problem with a person who was raised white claiming to be black is that they did not experience the on-going aggressions of racism. Dolezal’s claim of blackness strikes me as the romance of the white with the ‘exotic,’ an old and tired reality of colonialism and racism. I think it is not coincidental that the public becomes fascinated by this story at the moment the #Black Lives Matters movement and the movement to remove the Confederate flag are forcing people to deal with racism in a new way. The defense of Dolezal trivializes racism at the very moment we should be aware of its deadly reality.

    A side comment: as others in this strong have noted, the stories of the people in the slave era who ‘passed’ as white are hardly the same as the stories of people with NO family experience of encountering racism who claim to be black (Walter White did have a black family and his choice doesn’t at all fit with Dolezal’s story).

  6. Thank you Professor Rodgers. I don’t believe there is a such thing as race in humans. A race is a competition. I’m certain there are bloodlines. I think the planet is filled by four major bloodlines and their blends. African, Asian, European and Eastern Indian and all the blends that have come from intermingling of the peoples. We often admire in others what we don’t possess. Although many love jazz music, they don’t say it’s the African in them that they feel when they hear the music. Overall, I think it’s her choice to be and represent herself as she chooses. The greater question to me is what is the damage? If she’s most definitely not African and we demonize her for not being so, how do we applaud transgender people when they aren’t born as the people who we are demanded to accept? It’s also funny to think it’s okay for a man to want to be a woman, but who in their right mind would want to be black?

  7. This article is good at bringing up that RD is not the first to successfully use the general public’s perception to choose an ethnicity. No getting around it, it doesn’t really matter what you self-identify with, because society will decide ‘what you are’ by what your looks characterize you to be, according to their standards, in that time, and paradigm. However, what I found fascinating was that she would willingly throw away the advantages that being perceived white would bring you. But, reading through the whys, it seems that she could wield more power as a minority than not. Sadly that’s all I see in it. And, although it’s extremely interesting, I can’t help thinking her entire life as an extreme expression of self-hate- to deny an entire truth about yourself, if not haplogroups, then the sum and experiences of everything that is you.

  8. You know the old saying, ‘Power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolute’? Like many, I was captivated in the salacious headlines regarding this person. The more I read, the more I subconsciously started to construct a persona for her.

    The City Of Spokane City Council had already launched an investigation into Ms. Dolezal and two other councilman months before the story hit the internet. The independent investigation revealed a pattern of harassment, corrupt behavior and general bullying by Ms. Dolezal and two others who were considered to be acting in her favor. The complete PDF is available on the City Of Spokane website.

    Power corrupts.

    Racial equality is not just a destination, but a journey as well. This person reinvented herself, lied and destroyed anyone who stood in her way. This did very little to foster a genuine dialog. It only made a spectacle of the process.

    Another interesting point is how Dolezal’s younger adopted sister now professes her support online. This was after a heavily redacted self-written blog spanning years was edited to conceal anything negative about Rachel. The younger sister revealed on one Christmas break during college, Rachel threw her out because she contacted her parents needing help with a new cell phone. Rachel had a zero contact policy with mom and dad. This policy extended to her college-age adopted sister. Another entry scathed her older sister for being ‘fake’ to her own race, lying to all her friends in Spokane but condemns others for lying.

    The word narcissistic comes to mind.

  9. The reader is given no concept of when Walter White worked for the NAACP. Not only would this make the piece more interesting and useful, it would keep ‘to this day’ in the sentence ‘People question his self-identification as a black man to this day’ from being sensationalistic self-indulgence. ‘To this day’ means something very different depending on whether the intervening time has been five years or fifty.

    ‘Interviewing whites who attended the rituals…’ I can’t find anything in this paragraph that in any way specifies or defines what rituals. Presumably the KKK is meant but this should be stated. As it stands it’s just bad writing. Embarrassingly bad.

    Race is, sadly, an emotional issue. Few things connected with life – which is what history is -are not emotional. However, it is up to the people who teach and write about history to know how to balance emotion with the proper use of the language through which they convey their ideas and knowledge. Our children deserve that at the very least.

  10. I really enjoyed this article. However, I think the issue goes beyond how she identifies herself racially. From what I understand, she would tell stories of her struggles as a young “black” woman and struggling while growing up in South Africa, which is all false. I think just wanting to be someone else and trying to save your life or live a better life as a minority or slave is completely different than what Rachel did. All that being said, this was still a very good article!

  11. She definitely deceived us. I’m mixed with African, American, Indian and Irish — if I try to claim any of them, I would still be considered black, color, negro. Ms. Rachel only proved she could be both and be accepted. Multiracial is a joke to some.

  12. Professor,

    Commenter Ann Lan makes some points that I would like you to address in this thread: The misrepresented backstory, the use of race as a weapon to gain access to a fellowship (via lawsuit) and gaining access to the NAACP as a woman of African descent.

    In addition, in race matters, there is the phenomenon of the value of the pale person of African descent — the “high yellow” if you will. Dolezal was able to use the exoticism tied to all that comes with being the “highest of the low” (as opposed to just another “white” person) in order to advance her position amongst both the African descended and outside groups to get to the top of the NAACP.

    And while race certainly doesn’t exist, heritage and ethnicity does. When I, and indeed you, speak of people of African descent, we must both concede the truth: aside from the Out of Africa theory of human evolution, Rachel Dolezal is not of African descent. And when we talk about “black,” that’s exactly what we mean.


  13. What a breath of fresh air! Thank you! I have really been bothered by the viciousness of the attacks on Ms Dolezal. Your historical perspective is useful and I hope there will be more discussion about ‘choice’ when it comes to race because it’s obvious that there should be more choices than just saying ‘black’ or ‘white’.

    It seems to me a real holdover from slavery is that people choose to consider themselves black if they have ANY amount of African blood. The vast majority of Americans who identify as black have white ancestors, but are not identifying as white. People identify at their own will: a woman whose mother had parents of Korean ancestry and whose father was born of black and white parents identifies herself as black. Her choice, of course, but she is certainly 50% Korean and lesser amounts black and white. Complex and interesting.

    Please find time to expound a bit on your last sentences, professor. Would love to hear your thoughts.

  14. Thank you for seeing the other side of the coin. I cried and cried when I heard this story when it came out!! It seems no one understands!! Then, some of the things Ms. Dolezal may have been deceptive and manipulative about (not about her race) left me feeling hopeless and voiceless. Thank you for giving us this paradigm. It’s a very important moment in history (as always) and its really important for the good to come together to eliminate the evil. Thank you, Blessings to you!!!!!!!!!

  15. Your article is fascinating. Still, I really do believe that Rachel Dolezal was truly lying to herself. This is more than issue of race and appearance. This is an issue of self-worth and self-deception.

    Rachel definitely isn’t a bad person. She has put up a great effort to help minorities in the Washington area. Still, it is important to be true to oneself. If Rachel wants to wear her hair and makeup a certain way, that is her business. I don’t mind her not claiming to be white since biologically there is no such thing as race. This was confirmed in the early twentieth century and is still proven today.

    I do have a problem with her pretending to be another race. Why couldn’t she simply claim to be “race-neutral.” After all, biological we all are. It is only socially that we are given a race. I am a white male from Maryland. No matter how much I want to change or what I do to myself, I will never be a Latino woman from Mars.

  16. Great article! As a Berkeley grad (’96) who had the honor of taking the Ethnic Studies People of Mixed Racial Descent course (along with a few others addressing mixed-race identity), I’m glad to see someone addressing the Dolezal story from this perspective.

    Those of us from the multiracial population are all too familiar with “border crossing” — with our identities commonly shifting due to how others may “see” us, or how our parents may have identified us, to how we may refer to ourselves when filling out a job application or even when with our closest friends. Race is a social construct, and our notions of it continue to be redefined with each generation.

    As this “headline” unfolded, I was looking forward to a deeper exploration and discussion on what it means to racially “self identify” in 2015. In the U.S., racial categories are determined through the U.S. Census Bureau which grants an individual the option to check the box (or boxes) that best describe how he/she “self-identifies.” Clearly it would appear Rachel sees herself, as well as self identifies, as black. She’s now facing the consequences for choosing to do so, however I agree with this post. I am perhaps in the minority for thinking so, but I don’t find how Dolezal sees herself as “deceptive” —especially after reviewing the actual interviews where she finally spoke openly about how she affirms her identity.

    While I may not have referred to her as “black” — ultimately that really isn’t my decision to make. It’s hers.

    Kimberly A. Cooper, MA

  17. Rachel Dolezal did deceive us. She manufactured an identity, including a fake backstory and father, and sought to profit from her perceived ethnicity by using it to obtain employment and status. Interestingly, this was after she unsuccessfully sued her alma mater for discriminating against her because she was WHITE. She sought to perpetuate racism in order to more prominently position herself professionally and ethically as a champion against it.

    She is alleged to have filed false police reports in several states involving accusations of racially motivated crimes. In fact, she was outed by a journalist who was investigating some of these allegations, not by her parents who, when asked, simply answered questions truthfully.

    She then claims, with surprising success judging by some of the comments, that race is a social construct and suddenly she is credited with being the catalyst for serious philosophical and moral debate on a hitherto unexplored facet of the African American experience and what it means to be black.

    People, it’s all a bunch of garbage. She’s a con artist who got caught!

    • You seem to be the only person who bothered to read her backstory. I had been waiting (still haven’t read all the comments yet) to address her sudden decision to change to black while at Howard University after figuring out she was getting nowhere as a white person. She is nothing but an opportunist. I am willing to bet will probably write a book about her experience.

  18. The issue to me, and many of the people I have spoken to on the subject, is not that Rachel identifies as black, it’s the lies she told to back up her story. It is one thing to say “I identify with this or that culture or race.” It is another to say “I grew up in Africa” when you’ve never been there, to tell stories of the discrimination that you claim you faced growing up that never happened, to present someone as your father who is not, etc. I haven’t spoken to anyone who cares about what race she identifies with. It’s her lies and continued unwillingness to tell the truth that bother people. Rachel is very good at talking in circles when asked a direct question.

    • She’s a con artist. End of.

      Her case should not to be confused with, and should not be compared to, incidents of ‘passing’ for white in the past. A more suitable comparison would be with John Howard Griffin and Ray Sprigle, who were white (biologically and legally) and who both ‘passed’ as black in segregated America, but for reasons very different to RD who lied to everyone, including herself it would seem.

      In true con artist style she will write a book and profit from her lies now that she has been rumbled.

  19. I knew sober articles would eventually come…this is one such…thank you.

    It has been said that a statement is true if it agrees with reality. Therefore, a statement is false if it contradicts reality. Since the belief in the plurality of the human race is fraudulent, it is inherently false. Every set of biological criteria to define a distinct race has been inconsistent with itself. There is one race, the human race. Therefore, it is not possible to conclude that Rachel lied or deceived in contradicting a false belief.

    It would be more consistent to believe in a binary human race, given the biological and functional differences between men and women than to speak of differences between white man and black man or between white woman and black women. But of course, we all know that the human race is not complete without male and female.

    Rachel’s offense is that she has raised the possibility that ‘white privilege’ can be forsaken and heavens will not fall. She has demonstrated that white culture is not the immovable pillar of civilisation. She ably proved that human cultures are equivalent and ‘hot swappable,’ rather than a fate decided at birth.

    Ironically, her second offence is that by being accepted and elevated in black culture (even as advocate for the cause) has rendered ‘black disadvantage’ a inter-lifetime liability rather than multigenerational liability. If this is so, then ‘black disadvantage’ is finite and hence might be quantifiable. This untested possibility, is deeply unsettling to many.

    Instead of assessing the issues in a rational way, it has been easier to try silence the debate through condemnation, ridicule and ostracising the protagonist. But thinkers like Stephanie Jones-Rogers will not be cowed to silence.

  20. You are missing the point of who she is in this. I have worked with her for years in human rights and she is still lying while making up this latest story to continue her deep desire for attention. She fakes hate crimes — that is real the point. It takes away from everyone who has ever experienced a real hate crime. It also wastes the resources of our already broken police departments and she makes it more likely that an actual victim of a hate crime will be dismissed as just another faker. I know this woman and these situations closely. She is an amazing con artist and if she is going to lie for fame, although she’s used the attention for some good causes, it does not change who she is. Intelligent people are buying this latest story that she has concocted because she had been publicly caught will not help her and she really does need help. This latest fake story is just another insult to all of those with a legitimate lifelong struggle. This is the reason that so many of the organizations she has worked with in the past have broken ties with her long before this story broke.

  21. Dear Assistant Professor Ms. Jones-Rodgers,

    Thank you for such an informed and history-based perspective. The more I read, the more I understand that the concept of race and racial identity is complex, with many layers.

    Your commentary makes a lot of sense to me, especially understanding that many, if not most of us, likely have mixed race genealogy. As a caucasian male (at least by birth certificate), I am cause-driven and can understand Rachel Dolezal identifying with black culture and cause. I can also understand not identifying as caucasian, as in her situation.

    However, Rachel Dolezal made many choices. She has and had the opportunity to claim and present her race, to the extent she is aware, i.e. as stated on her birth certificate. In choosing not to be forthright in this sense, it seems to me that she was less than transparent and frank in her representation, the effects of which can serve to discredit to her and may have similar ripple effects with the organizations and people she served.

    There is a difference between stating that one identifies as black, or was born as a black individual. It does appear that Rachel Dolezal cares to impact the world in positive fashion. Her life’s work would more powerful if she represented herself with more transparency.

    Best regards, Lo Reichert

  22. Deep, interesting perspective. I could not understand the anger and hatred directed at Rachel and was disappointed that instead of questioning why these emotions were stirred, commentators raked through her life, collecting the negative and acted like judge, jury and executioner. Why does she have to be some sort of saint to be valid? The ‘she lied!!!’ crap is just a red herring. This piece is really getting to the core of the issue and will make people uncomfortable — thinking large — need more of it. Especially liked the last sentence, which should be the starting place for a lot of questioning and research. Great work!

  23. Thank you, Professor Jones-Rogers. I’ve been hoping you’d weigh in on this subject. I remembered the “Defiant Women” from our class and Ms. Dolezal” seemed to be one of them.

  24. Very interesting article. The last two sentences, however, do not fit. She, most definitely, deceived us and still is!

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