Can Rachel Dolezal Really Be 'Transracial'— Or Is White Privilege to Blame?

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Over the course of many years, Rachel Dolezal changed her appearance, beginning with darkening her skin and hair. (Photos: Nicholas K. Geranios/AP, Dolezel family/Corbis)

Last week a reporter asked Rachel Dolezal — the embattled president of the Spokane, Wash., branch of the NAACP, who on Monday afternoon announced she was stepping down from her post — a simple question. 

“Are you African-American?”

“I don’t understand the question,” Dolezal, 37, answered. She then walked off-camera as the reporter clarified, “Are your parents, are they white?”

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A reporter at 11Alive / WXIA Atlanta tweeted this photo comparison.

Dolezal had earlier posted a photo on Facebook of her and a man she alleged to be her father. The man in the photo is African-American. Yet Dolezal’s parents, from whom she is estranged, are unmistakably white

What is true: Dolezal grew up with adopted siblings who are African-American and received a Master’s in fine art from Howard University, a predominantly African-American college. Her adopted brothers have described how her looks gradually changed, starting with a darker tan, dying her blond hair black, and eventually perming her hair into tight coils. 

Rachel Dolezal’s parents, Ruthanne and Lawrence, said Monday on the Today show that they are puzzled as to why their daughter would misrepresent her race.  (Video: Today/NBC)

When asked about her racial heritage by a reporter from the Spokane Spokesman-Review, Dolezal said “That question is not as easy as it seems. There’s a lot of complexities … and I don’t know that everyone would understand that." 

Almost as soon as the Dolezal story broke, the hashtag #transracial erupted on Twitter, quickly trending and dominating the conversation surrounding Dolezal, who has yet to comment publicly on the issue. (Yahoo Health reached out to Dolezal for comment but had not heard back as of press time.) People have postulated that Dolezal may be born white but identify as being black, even making comparisons to Caitlyn Jenner’s very public transition from male to female. 

The word transracial, however, has a complicated and nuanced history.

What It Really Means to Be Transracial 

“The term ‘transracial’ was originally used to describe cross-racial adoption, such that the adopted children were seen to be spanning their own and their adoptive parents’ racial categories,” explains Mikhail Lyubansky, PhD, a member of the teaching faculty in the Department of Psychology at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign who specializes in the psychology of race. “In this sense, yes, of course there are transracial individuals.”

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On its Facebook page, the NAACP wrote that members “are not concerned with the racial identity of our leadership but the institutional integrity of our advocacy.” (Photo: Colin Mulvany/The Spokesman-Review via AP)


But Lyubansky explains that the use of the term nowadays is not as simple as that: “With the greater visibility and growing acceptance of people who identify as transgender, the word ‘trans’ has largely evolved to refer to those whose gender identity is different than the one assigned to them at birth, which is sometimes described as feeling/believing/knowing that they are one kind of person" stuck in another kind of person’s body.

“This description … makes sense when describing both trans men and trans women, meaning that it fits equally well regardless of direction. Applying this concept to race makes little sense to me. ‘Trans’ refers to a lack of fit between biology and identity, but there is no biology involved in race.”

Lyubansky says the use of the word “transracial” in regards to Dolezal “is logically flawed and socially problematic in that it ignores the oppression of both those who are transgender and those who have had to live with real racial discrimination.”

Just as quickly as some on Twitter promoted the concept of Dolezal as transracial, others used the social media platform to critique the utilization of the term in a way that minimized and disenfranchised the transgender community.

“This is a dumb thing to say. Don’t say this,” tweeted Citizen Radio’s Allison Kilkenny of those arguing that if it is possible to be transgender, it is just as possible for Dolezal to be transracial. “Trans women are women. What #RachelDolezal did is blackface.”

(Indeed, even Dolezal’s own adopted brother accused her of blackface this weekend.)

“This kind of racial fluidity may be something many of us wish existed, but it doesn’t,” says Lyubansky. “It’s a choice available to relatively few and … allows a white person to enjoy all of the privileges (group acceptance, social accolades, academic prestige) without actually having to overcome the experience of prejudice and discrimination.”

Assimilation and Dolezal’s Time at Howard University 

It is possible to identify with any cultural/ethnic/racial group, including a group different from the one we were born into. But there is already language in place — words such as assimilation — to describe the process of moving from one identity to another. 

Assimilation, Lyubansky explains, involves first the rejection by an individual’s own group followed by the person’s acceptance by new group. “We see cultural assimilation all the time when … immigrants adopt the characteristics of the new culture so fully that they are indistinguishable in their behavior from those who were born into the culture,” he says.

Dolezal attended Howard University, a historically black school, where, an adopted brother stated, she did not assimilate — but rather had problems fitting in. Her adopted brother Ezra told Buzzfeed News that “she used to tell us that teachers treated her differently than other people and a lot of them acted like they didn’t want her there,” Ezra said. “Because of her work in African-American art, they thought she was a black student during her application, but they ended up with a white person.”

The website The Smoking Gun uncovered late Monday that Dolezal went as far as filing a lawsuit against Howard in 2002.

The lawsuit named the university and professor Alfred Smith — then chairman of Howard’s Department of Art, in which Dolezal was a student — as defendants in the lawsuit. Prior to the suit’s dismissal in 2004, Dolezal’s claims against Howard included “discrimination based on race, pregnancy, family responsibilities and gender.”

The court opinion also noted that Dolezal claimed that the university’s decision to remove some of her artworks from a February 2001 student exhibition was “motivated by a discriminatory purpose to favor African-American students over” her.

“I suspect Rachel discovered at Howard that it isn’t enough to love black culture and profess one’s solidarity with the movement for black equality; that indeed, black folks don’t automatically trust us just because we say we’re down; that proving oneself takes time, and that the process is messy as hell, and filled with wrong turns and mistakes and betrayals and apologies and a healthy dose of pain,” says Tim Wise, an antiracist author and educator. “And I suspect she didn’t have the patience for the messiness, but armed with righteous indignation at the society around her, and perhaps the one in which she had been raised out west, she opted to cut out the middle man.”

Instead of working with others, Dolezal chose to simply become black and to actually speak for those others. “It was her way of obtaining the authenticity to which she perhaps felt entitled just because of her sensibilities, and which she felt had been denied her by those whose approval she sought,” says Wise. 

Wise also importantly notes that, “Whether intended or not, make no mistake, by negating the history (and even the apparent possibility) of real white antiracist solidarity, Dolezal ultimately provided a slap in the face to that history by saying that it wasn’t good enough for her to join.”

How Does White Privilege Play In? 

Perhaps it could be said that Dolezal’s alleged behavior, posing and identifying as a black woman and activist despite — perhaps in spite of — her whiteness is the ultimate articulation of the danger that white privilege holds.

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(Photo: Colin Mulvany/The Spokesman-Review via AP)

“I genuinely think she’s internalized her privilege to the point of crazy. [This is] when white privilege goes wrong,” Rebecca Carroll, director of social media and marketing for the social justice website Scenarios USA, who writes about issues of race for the Guardian and other media outlets, tells Yahoo Health.

The term “white privilege” describes the societal privileges that benefit white people beyond what is commonly experienced by nonwhite people under the same social, political, or economic circumstances. Peggy McIntosh, a feminist and antiracism activist, writes in her seminal work on the topic, Unpacking the Invisible Backpack, “I have come to see white privilege as an invisible package of unearned assets that I can count on cashing in each day, but about which I was ‘meant’ to remain oblivious. White privilege is like an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools, and blank checks.”

Because this privilege is something one is born into, it’s both unacknowledged and unconscious. 

“I remembered the frequent charges from women of color that white women whom they encounter are oppressive,” writes McIntosh. “I began to understand why we are just seen as oppressive, even when we don’t see ourselves that way. I began to count the ways in which I enjoy unearned skin privilege and have been conditioned into oblivion about its existence.”

By claiming a black identity, Dolezal bypassed all of the hard work required of white allies to earn the trust and goodwill of people of color, says Lyubansky. “She created conditions where someone without the lived history of being black could speak for and on behalf of black people, effectively silencing their voice.”

Rachel Dolezal’s Voice Is Silenced Until She Tells Her Story

Interestingly, the application of the label of “transracial” onto Dolezal by others adds another layer of silencing to this situation. In the absence of Dolezal speaking in her own voice about her identity and situation, others have been quick to speak, unauthorized, on her behalf. 

As she stepped down today from the NAACP, Dolezal stated, “The dialogue has unexpectedly shifted internationally to my personal identity in the context of defining race and ethnicity. I have waited in deference while others expressed their feelings, beliefs, confusions and even conclusions — absent the full story.

“Please know I will never stop fighting for human rights and will do everything in my power to help and assist, whether it means stepping up or stepping down, because this is not about me. It’s about justice.”

And in the end, Dolezal is the only one who can truly do herself justice, by speaking out and helping the world understand her actions. 

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