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Williams: NAACP officer's deception sparks needed dialogue on racial identity

Williams: NAACP officer's deception sparks needed dialogue on racial identity

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When I heard that Rachel Dolezal was passing as black, my first thought was, "Why in the world would she want to?"

It's an article of faith among some misguided individuals that being black in America - or even poor - is a gravy train with biscuit wheels.  To them, Dolezal's scam makes perfect sense. 

Look, I'm black and I'm proud. But being black is not something any rational person would chooseRichmond native Arthur Ashe, when asked if contracting the AIDS virus was the hardest thing he'd ever dealt with, said being a black man in this society was more difficult. 

As comedian Chris Rock once told the white men in his audience, "None of you would change places with me - and I'm rich!"

Dolezal resigned as head of the Spokane, Wash., NAACP, in a letter posted on that organization's Facebook page Monday, but not before shoving the word "transracial" front and center in our lexicon. Her outing by her white parents spawned a cottage industry of indignation over the latest cultural appropriation, and, more tellingly, a flurry of Internet humor. 

A Twitter hashtag, #AskRachel, followed questions that black people inherently (wink) should know, such as "Who are the top 5 rappers of all time?"

Internet memes feature Dolezal with a John Boehner tan and a beehive of braids, accompanied by such captions as "1st time a white person pretended to be black to get a job," and "Orange...is the new black." And, "Are you: 1) white 2) black 3) BiRachel." 

But when we move beyond the memes or the justifiable outrage over this imposter, our concept of race stands as a worn-out joke. 

Some scholars date our concepts of whiteness and blackness to the 1676 Bacon's Rebellion, during which an alliance of white former indentured servants and enslaved blacks in Virginia terrified the ruling class and led them to double down on chattel slavery based on race.  

Then came the one-drop rule, as in one drop of African blood, which looms large long after terms like "quadroon" and "octoroon" fell out of usage in polite company. 

Today, we have a biracial president who identifies as black and a burgeoning mixed-race population unwilling to be defined by an outmoded paradigm in our increasingly diverse nation. But America's racial lines have always been more blurred than we like to pretend.  

Black folks come in all hues, which is why Dolezal could pull off this stunt in the first place. And with such a visible legacy of miscegenation, lots of so-called white families have African blood. 

An Ohio community in the foothills of Appalachia has folks with blue eyes, fair skin and reddish hair who say they have experienced discrimination because they identify as black.  

Biracial people like Obama choose to be black, perhaps because they're hemmed in by America's longstanding societal norms, or perhaps because the tugs of group identity are so powerful that we feel compelled to choose sides or seek the comfort of a team.  

Dolezal -- who as a graduate student at Howard University filed a lawsuit against the school claiming she was being discriminated against because she was white -- seems colorblind in her embrace of victimhood. As a study in contradictions, she's the perfect foil to highlight the absurdity of racial identity in America.

In the past, black people passing as white had an obvious incentive -- to escape subjugation and enjoy opportunity. 

In America, the practice "traditionally involved someone who society defined as black who was 'passing' as white," says Nikki Khanna, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Vermont. "However, the reality was that these individuals often had a great of deal of white ancestry themselves (often a white parent or grandparent) and, of course, they had white physical characteristics which allowed them to 'pass' as white."

Khanna, author of "Biracial in America: Forming and Performing Racial Identity," says that in other societies, such as South Africa, there was no such thing as "passing" -- "If you looked white, you were white. But in our society, historically speaking, having any black ancestry anywhere in your family tree (even if you looked white) meant you were black. Period."

And then there's Dolezal, who apparently looked just black enough to fool people.

"From my understanding of the case of Rachel Dolezal, she has no ancestral connection to blackness, which is what makes her particular brand of 'passing' so bizarre," Khanna said. 

She says the students in her race relations courses are shocked to learn that racial differences, from a biological standpoint, are insignificant. 

"Genetically speaking, we are 99.9 percent similar to each other regardless of 'race,'" she said. "In fact, I may have more genetically in common with someone of another race than my own and I think most people will be surprised to know that. This is not to say that there aren’t genetic differences between different populations or groups of people around the world, because there are -- but those differences don’t map along what we think of as traditional racial lines."

But just because race is genetically meaningless doesn't mean it doesn't have a real impact on our lives, every day.  

"We make race real when we discriminate against each other or privilege one race over another," Khanna said. "Certainly, our 'race' affects our life chances, employment opportunities, interactions with police, and so on. Race may not be biological, but it is social."

For all the harm Dolezal's fraudulence has caused, it has value if we learn from it. 

"To most Americans, race is something rooted in physical appearance and ancestry," Khanna said. "For her to be born to two white parents and claim to be African American flies in the face of most Americans’ understanding of what race means. Whether she intended to or not, she has started an interesting dialogue about what race means in America and how we, as a society, determine who can and cannot racially identify as black, white, Asian, Native American, and so on."

Something that means so little should not mean so much. Now that Dolezal's deception has been exposed, it's time America stopped fooling itself about the meaning of race, and stripped this social construct of its power to determine lives.    

mwilliams@timesdispatch.com

(804) 649-6815

Twitter: @RTDMPW

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