Little White Lies: Can You Choose Your Race?

passing as white, passing as black, Rachel Dolezal, white woman identifying as black

As a brown-skinned woman with a history of slavery in my family tree, I identify as black and as African-American. I do see those terms as being two different things. But when it comes to the story of Rachel Dolezal, I say you don’t get to decide if you are black. You either are or you aren’t.

As most of us move through our lives, we find moments of deep self-reflection. We may wake up and reassess who we are daily. Determining whether we are moving towards or away from the person that we want to be. Are we living our lives in truth? Are we keeping it real?

For some, it’s only on milestone birthdays or upon the first day of the New Year that they may think about who they are now and what changes they want to make in the future. For me, each year, on the anniversary of when I first started blogging, I pick a word for the year. My word this year is TRUE.

My father was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s this past winter. When interacting with him, I’ve realized that often what is actually true doesn’t matter. Do I want my interactions with him to be positive? Or do I want to be right and make sure he knows what is true? Since I’ve realized his condition, I find it much easier to go with the flow and not always insist on the truth. Truth is nuanced. What is true to me, may not be true for you.

It seems that what is most true is science. We cannot deny gravity. We cannot deny mortality. Some deny climate change, but that’s another article. You can’t deny your DNA. Or can you?

Recently, I watched the movie Little White Lie on Netflix. This documentary film by Lacey Schwartz, tells her story of growing up believing that like the family that raised her, she was white. Although if you look at her at all times through her life in the film, she looks like a light skinned black girl and now woman. Her biological father was black, but she never knew and her family didn’t talk about it. How did such blatant denial go on for so long? (I highly recommend the movie. It was well done and mind-blowing at the same time.)

I had first heard about the film from prior media coverage, yet had not seen it when I, and most of the world, came to learn the strange saga of Rachel Dolezal. Where to begin?

Needless to say, my feelings about her are probably inconsistent and often veer towards pity, annoyance and anger. When I first heard about her, I wondered if she might be part of one of those stories where the person was raised white by parents who were descendants of blacks, who had been passing for white and intermarried with whites, like Bliss Broyard.

I thought maybe her parents were the ones in denial and didn’t want to accept the truth about their black roots. But then according to a Vanity Fair article, an Ancestry.com DNA search may show that she has no African ancestry after all.

From what I’ve read generally, it appears that she did some good work with the NAACP, however she could have done that work as a white woman. There was no need to lie.

But then it seems that from her perspective, she didn’t lie about being black, because she considers herself black. That is her truth. Except for when she sued Howard University for discrimination, because she was white. Although I think that she may have said in an interview that she was not claiming to be white in that lawsuit, but that she was “perceived to be white” by the university and that is why she sued based on race.

However, intelligent minds can differ and I am sure that many people disagree about how to think about her. It was interesting to me how the writer of the Vanity Fair article about Dolezal, Allison Samuels, framed a particular issue:

” ‘It’s taken my entire life to negotiate how to identify, and I’ve done a lot of research and a lot of studying,’ she says. ‘I could have a long conversation, an academic conversation about that. I don’t know. I just feel like I didn’t mislead anybody; I didn’t deceive anybody. If people feel misled or deceived, then sorry that they feel that way, but I believe that’s more due to their definition and construct of race in their own minds than it is to my integrity or honesty, because I wouldn’t say I’m African American, but I would say I’m black, and there’s a difference in those terms.’

“This is a peculiar defense. If there is a difference between being black and being African American, it’s one that escapes the vast majority of people I know. When I said as much to Dolezal, she claimed to have received a recent traffic ticket where the police officer marked her race as ‘black’ on the ticket without even asking.”

I identify as black and African-American, but unlike the writer of that article, I do see those terms as being two different things. Generally, I consider all African-Americans as black, but not all blacks are African-American. To me, African-Americans are descendants of those who were enslaved in the southern United States prior to the Civil War. They may have been born here, but their ancestors were brought here unwillingly and by force from Africa. From what I know of my own family tree, my ancestors were enslaved in Virginia and South Carolina.

Not all black people in this country have that background. Some were born in Africa, the Caribbean, Europe or Canada. Or their ancestors were born in other places and voluntarily immigrated to the United States. They are not descendants of those who were enslaved here. In my opinion, we are all part of the African Diaspora, but not all black people are African-American.

Then to put Dolezal’s ticket argument to rest. I am a brown-skinned woman and have never looked white a day in my life. I once received a warning from a police officer who wrote the race as white, which is ridiculous. But maybe that says something more about how police officers issue tickets versus warnings in this country. But I digress.

Dolezal wants to write a book and, as a writer, I find this rather annoying. She is not African-American. From what I can tell, she does not have any African ancestry, so she is not black either. Her identifying as black because she wants to means that she could suddenly decide not to identify that way as well. When it comes to race, you don’t decide. You are or you aren’t.

Lucrative book deals are hard to come by and if she gets one, then it’s just plain unfair. Not that life is fair. But so many black women have stories that go untold. It would not be right that Dolezal should profit this way. She is lying to herself and in doing that she is lying to others.

Because she has studied African-American history, she knew that because of the “one-drop rule” she would be accepted by black people. There are lots of black people who look white and identify as black. But usually they do have some African ancestry and family members who look black. This is not the case with Dolezal.

She took advantage of black people being welcoming and open to her. And to me, that feels mean. One comment in particular from the Vanity Fair article feels condescending as well:

“I know what I was working on and different people and systems that I was engaged with, but I mean, I hope that people are jumping in and picking up the slack.”

It seems like she is afraid that work won’t be done without her around. Black people have been organizing for centuries and I am sure that the chapter will “pick up the slack” without her.

With the recent deaths of Sandra Bland and Kindra Chapman, as a black woman I am concerned about my safety and the safety of those that look like me. It feels raw and scary.

For Dolezal to choose her truth as being a black woman, it makes me wonder how she may reassess and change as time goes by.

Lisa Johnson is a freelance writer, blogger and attorney living in Quincy, Massachusetts. You can find her dishing up tasty servings of life, food and current events on her blog Anali’s Next Amendment. She enjoys yoga and meditation, has a wicked sweet tooth and has written freelance for several publications including The Atlantic. Find her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram.

Image via Wikimedia Commons

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