Whatever else we might say about it, let’s not forget this: Rachel Dolezal’s story is a decidedly American one. Here, I refer not only to story of Dolezal’s racial passing, but also to how Dolezal’s story triggers and reveals America’s racial fascinations. Whatever Dolezal’s motives or ethics, our scrutiny of Dolezal’s race echoes a long history of parsing race in the United States more generally.
Much of the conversation about Dolezal proceeds within long-standing US assumptions about how race “works”: if her biological parents are “really” white people, then so is she, and therefore she cannot be black. While Dolezal is a member of an interracial family, she seems to have no mixed-race African American genealogy, and this is the single deciding factor about her own race. In effect, these assumptions tell us that there is no way for a woman who was born white (i.e., to white parents) to become black. For her to claim blackness, then, is a conscious act of deception.
But for all the clarity these assumptions provide, they are not the only American story about race and womanhood. Even as Americans want race to be simple and essentialist, American racial ideologies rarely allows it to be. Race, Dolezal’s story reminds us, is connected to the history of racial justice work and interracial collaboration, and complicated by relations of power and privilege. Her story also reminds us how race is connected to not only biological relationships, but also to social relationships. For a scholar of race and nineteenth-century literature like myself, Dolezal’s complex (and confusing) story calls to mind other stories of white womanhood revised.
Consider how Dolezal’s American Story aligns with this fictional one: Kate Chopin’s 1893 short story, “Désirée’s Baby.” In the story, Désirée, a woman of unknown parentage, is adopted into a respectable white family and marries the wealthy son of slaveholders, Armand Aubigny. When Désirée and Armand’’s baby begins to show signs of being mixed-race, Armand argues that, because the baby does not look white, it is not white. The appearance of Désirée’s baby calls Désirée’s race into question.
The story teases out the complicated ways “evidence” works in regard to the supposedly objective fact of race. Désirée’s argument (like many of the arguments about Rachel Dolezal’s younger appearance) is that she looks white, so therefore she must be white (and so must her baby). Armand counters with some common knowledge about mixed-race people: although Désirée may look white, some mixed-race people also look white and therefore this fact cannot prove her whiteness. Stipulating the whiteness of the baby’s father (Armand himself) because his family origins are known, he concludes that Désirée must not be white. Of course, the reader is meant to understand another fact about Désirée’s race: when Armand, a wealthy white man, believed her to be white, she was; if he starts believing her race to be otherwise, her whiteness will slip away.
And, predictably, this is what happens: convinced that Désirée (and her baby) have black heritage, Armand disowns them, throwing them out of his home. But the story does not end there: in its final paragraph, Armand discovers correspondence between his parents that reveals his own mother’s African ancestry, proving that, by his own logic, he is the one who is not white, and one possible explanation for his baby’s mixed-race appearance.
This story reminds me of Rachel Dolezal’s because both stories present questions about what we can know about race when race is simultaneously complicated by matters of genealogy, appearance, and social relationship.
Interestingly, Chopin’s story never gives us any “evidence” to prove Désirée’s race. Instead, what we see is that Désirée — because of changing social relationships —effectively becomes a mixed-race woman over the course of this story, as a result of her baby’s racial presentation and her husband’s response to it. Désirée’s body never changes, we learn nothing about her genealogy, but her child’s body and, more importantly, the changing ideas of her white husband and white adoptive parents, changes what her own body means. Chopin’s story shows how US race is, among other things, relational. Chopin’s story shows how US race is, among other things, relational.
Rachel Dolezal’s racialization, too, is determined by her relationships to other people. Her story would not be half as interesting if she did not have black siblings, a black ex-husband, or a black child, if she did not attend a historically black university, teach African American Studies, or work for the NAACP. The assumptions that these are the relations of a black woman, rather than a white one, contribute to Dolezal’s ability to “pass” as black as much as her appearance does (knowing that the appearance of mixed-race people varies widely.) In a world in which it is possible for a white woman to engage in racial justice work, teach African Americans studies, identify with nonwhite siblings, marry a black man, and bear a nonwhite child, but these relations nevertheless worked to frame Dolezal’s supposed blackness, with a similar logic to that which would exclude white women from participating in them. In light of these relationships, Dolezal’s identification as black raises more questions about “whiteness” — about what white supremacy allows whiteness to be.
Importantly, people have been asking why Dolezal could not just participate in these various relationships to black people from her position as a white woman. While biological relationships between white and black people have a prominent history of racism, there is also a long history of precedent for white people’s antiracist participation in interracial family relationships in the United States. As the NAACP notes in its official statement on Dolezal, “One’s racial identity is not a qualifying criteria or disqualifying standard for NAACP leadership.” Nor have white people been categorically excluded from racial justice work in other realms.
Dolezal’s apparent need to claim, then, seems rooted in white supremacist beliefs that have historically framed whiteness as exclusionary of these antiracist relations to black people. Not like Désirée, but Armand, whose own whiteness necessitates a rejection or concealing of black relations, Dolezal’s claim to blackness is also a rejection of whiteness, according to customs of hypodescent which generally categorize mixed-race people as nonwhite.
The idea that Dolezal’s relations to black people inspired her own racial identification sparks questions about the limitations and definitions of whiteness available. While Désirée’s relationship to her black baby results in a reverberating loop of genealogy that revises her own assumed whiteness, Dolezal’s taking up blackness frames whiteness as unable to contain the relationships she desires.
One might argue, of course, that this inability is not true, that there are ways for white people to participate in interracial family and community. But dealing with white privilege in interracial familial relationships and allyship is difficult. What difficulties, exactly, might Dolezal avoid through this privileged self-racialzation?
Racism creates a definition of whiteness that is, itself exclusionary. Under white supremacy, white people are those who not only meet a biological definition of whiteness, but also those who exclude nonwhite people from their racial genealogies in all directions. How do Dolezal’s nonwhite family members factor into the stakes of her own whiteness?
White supremacy has, historically, excluded white women in interracial kinship relationships from the category of whiteness, making assumptions about white women’s racial relations much like the assumptions that re-racialize Désirée via her baby. These assumptions frame white women as women who belong to exclusively white families, whose sexual desire is oriented only toward white men, who only reproduce white children. Dolezal’s interracial relations – her black siblings, husband, child – remove her from this particular, racist vision of white womanhood.
This does not, of course, mean that Dolezal is not white. She is not like the mixed-race heroines of nineteenth-century literature by writers like Lydia Maria Child, William Wells Brown, and Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, who discover their African American ancestry while also finding themselves legally enslaved and fully subject to the effects of racism. Nor is she like the countless mixed-race black people who have “passed” as white for their own benefit or safety in a dangerously racist nation. She is not launched into blackness like Désirée, a woman whose race cannot be definitively known but only inferred from her inability to reproduce a white-looking child.
However, Dolezal’s racialization (whether this self-racialization is ethical or not) suggests an inability to shake the white supremacist vision of white womanhood that Dolezal herself did not invent, but has absorbed from a long American history of white womanhood.
In the midst of the inevitable continued parsing of Rachel Dolezal’s motives and those of her parents, the implications of Dolezal’s whiteness for her racial justice and educational work, and discussions of the unethical nature of this type of deception and its possible effects on African American people and racial relations, the fact of Dolezal’s relation to white parents will be prioritized. We might also take into account the relations beyond these that have worked to racialize and re-racialize Rachel Dolezal and how these relations to African Americans echo a history of complex, relational racialization, like that enacted by Désirée’s baby.
Brigitte Fielder is writing a book about how interracial kinship relations inform and revise white womanhood in nineteenth-century American literatures.