What the Rachel Dolezal case can teach us about race, identity

As part of a new op-ed series, FIU News shares the expertise and diverse perspectives of members of the university community. In this piece, Laurie Shrage, a professor of philosophy and women’s and gender studies, discusses issues of race and identity in relation to the Rachel Dolezal story making headlines.

By Laurie Shrage

A white girl in blackface. That’s how the media has treated Rachel Dolezal, as a laughable fraud, impostor or fake. Not too far back, many saw transwomen as men in dresses, but fortunately transgender individuals are now treated with more respect. What’s the difference with Rachel Dolezal?


Civil rights activist and former president of the NAACP Spokane chapter Rachel Dolezal.

Some commentators have pointed out that to be African-American one has to have a set of shared experiences with members of this group. Often this means knowing that your great grandparents were or could have been slaves, understanding that you and your family members can at any moment become the targets of racist hostility, putting up with more subtle slights and exclusions, and inheriting a set of traditions and communicative practices.

Interestingly, in some interviews with Dolezal, she says she identifies as black not African-American. Some may not see the difference here, but we need to. First, not all blacks are African-American. Some are Afro-Caribbean, Afro-Brazilian, and so on. The “African” or “Afro” part implies that some of one’s ancestors were African. African-American is an ethnic identity. Alternatively, “black,” or “person of color,” is a more inclusive group; it includes anyone who is not white. Historically, people in the United States have been categorized as non-white if they had one non-white ancestor. This is the one-drop rule, which serves to keep the category of white people small and exclusive.

Dolezal says she is part Native American. If Native Americans are non-white then, according to the one-drop rule, Dolezal is non-white. Of course, she could identify as mixed-race, Indian, brown, and perhaps a host of other identities, but she has chosen black. So, if she is black and American, doesn’t that mean she is African-American? Dolezal appears to be using the term black to signal that she is part of a broad umbrella group of non-whites, but to many this term has a more specific meaning.

Some commentators have pointed out that Dolezal’s self-identification reflects white privilege. It is much more difficult for someone who is black to assume a white identity than vice versa. This is true, and is due to the one-drop rule, which makes the borders of whiteness more impervious than those of blackness. All light skinned people—however they currently identify—are socially privileged relative to those who have darker complexions. This reflects a horrible prejudice that we need to challenge.

So wouldn’t it be more productive to criticize the tools of white privilege, which include the one-drop rule and over-valuing lightness, rather than to publicly humiliate a person who is way too light to have experienced the most intense forms of racism? Some commentators argue that Dolezal could have been more influential in her civil rights work as a white ally. This may be true but, if so, we should not necessarily find this comforting. Her greater influence as a white person in the civil rights struggle would just be another expression of light-skin privilege.

Some commentators have made fun of Rachel Dolezal’s hair and her claims to understand the meanings and rituals associated with hair in the African American community. Presumably one can learn these meanings and rituals, and making fun of a person’s hair is just mean-spirited and judgmental. If black is beautiful, including black hair, then it should be beautiful on anyone. The same is true of “white hair,” if there is such a thing.

Similarly, some writers have made fun of Dolezal’s tanned skin. Of course, wearing a tan doesn’t mean you’re black, and if this were the sole basis of Dolezal’s self-identification, then it would be a thin foundation. But Dolezal’s roots in non-white communities go somewhat deeper. I don’t claim to know Dolezal’s real motives for presenting herself as black, and I’m not suggesting that all of them are admirable, but rather that we should not rush to judge her so harshly.

Lastly, some commentators have argued Dolezal would have shown more integrity if she had been open about her past as a white woman. Some suggest that it’s fine for her to assume a different social identity; just be transparent about it—“come out of the closet,” so to speak. When people come out as gay or lesbian, others typically see them as more authentic. However, when someone comes out as a person who was formerly assigned to a different sex or race, that person will often be regarded as inauthentic and even fraudulent. We tend to see sex and race categories as more fixed and less fluid than other categories, such as sexual orientation, religion, ethnicity, and so on. And maybe they are less fluid, but they are also less rigid than formerly thought.

In short, what is really interesting in the Rachel Dolezal story are not the revelations about her past, but the public’s reaction to her parents’ disclosures about their daughter. Why were these revelations so powerful and disturbing to so many? What does this tell us about the perverse logic of racial classification?



Laurie Shrage, Ph.D., is a professor of philosophy and women’s and gender studies. Her research and areas of expertise include moral and political philosophy, feminist theory and American philosophy. Shrage, who previously served as director of the Center for Women’s and Gender Studies, currently teaches a course on LGBTQ issues. She was a Laurance S. Rockefeller Visiting Fellow at Princeton’s University Center for Human Values during 2011-12.