Why can't Rachel Dolezal be as black as she wants to be?

From its beginnings, America has been the place where people go to reinvent themselves, Neil Macdonald writes. And you don't just have to take Caitlyn Jenner's word for that. So why should race be any different?

America has long been the place where people go to reinvent themselves, well before Caitlyn Jenner

Washington State civil rights advocate Rachel Dolezal talks with family member Izaiah Dolezal (L) while her son Franklin looks on, Tuesday. Accused of "racial appropriation," Dolezal told interviewers she has identified as black since she was a child. (REUTERS)

Rachel Dolezal, who is white, wants to be black.

Wait. Let me rephrase that, using more current argot.

Rachel Dolezal, who was born a white person, has decided to self-identify as a black woman, and wants Americans to respect that choice.

She wants to be "transracial." Or at least she has passed the questioning phase in her own mind and is now in the process of transitioning to another race.

She has darkened her skin and dyed her hair and taken on, at the very least, a mixed-race look.

She certainly isn't the first white to desire transraciality, if such a term actually exists.

The late Lou Reed once penned a song titled I Wanna Be Black, in which he laid out several reasons, most of which are unprintable here. (He wanted to "have natural rhythm," among other things.)

Reed was no doubt indulging his famous taste for dark satire. But Rachel Dolezal was, and is, serious.

She became a civil rights activist, and eventually president of the Spokane chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

That was before her parents outed her as white-by-birth, and she had to step down.

"She's clearly our birth daughter, and we're clearly Caucasian," said her father, Lawrence. And, indeed, Dolezal is a fair-skinned blonde in early photos.

Keeping up with Caitlyn Jenner

On national television Tuesday, Dolezal made her case. She asserted that she has "self-identified with the black experience" since early childhood.

But, she said, "I was socially conditioned to be limited to whatever biological identity was thrust upon me and narrated to me. And so I kind of felt pretty awkward with that at times."

African-American women rally in support of the Spokane chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People Monday after Rachel Dolezal resigned as its president. (REUTERS)

This, of course, all comes as former Olympian Bruce Jenner appears on the cover of a glossy magazine as the newly born Caitlyn Jenner, surgically reshaped, new breasts swelling out of tight lingerie, making pretty much the same self-identification argument as Dolezal.

Jenner's motives, too, have been questioned, especially by conservatives.

For years, Bruce Jenner was a central player in Keeping up with the Kardashians, a stew of uniquely American tastelessness and the triumph of appearance over merit.

Evidently, Caitlyn Jenner now plans to star in some sort of reality show sequel of her own.

But Bruce Jenner's conversion to transgender Caitlyn Jenner was immediately accepted by American liberals.

It has become liberal orthodoxy that a person is the gender the person says he or she is, regardless of the gender assigned by birth. (Actually, there are some ultra-liberal thinkers who dispute the very notion of gender as anachronistic and insulting).

Dolezal, though, has received little such acceptance, although Whoopi Goldberg has spoken up for her.

Generally, Dolezal has been treated as either a crackpot or a charlatan, at best foolish and, at worst, attempting to hijack the suffering of American blacks.

Victimhood, in today's discourse, is currency and jealously guarded.

So the whole thing has become one more ugly, cheap battle in America's culture wars.

Delighted conservatives are taunting liberals, asking why you can be transgender but not transracial, while earnest liberals are flailing about trying to draw distinctions.

Ultimately, if Rachel Dolezal is attempting to appropriate the victimhood of blacks, is Jenner not trying to appropriate the oppression of women? What, really, is the difference?

Barack Obama: black or white?

Problemes de riches, of course. Only in places like America can people afford such self-indulgent chatter.

But clear away the ridicule and preachiness, and Rachel Dolezal should probably not be dismissed.

Family photo of Rachel Dolezal. Courtesy of Dolezal family (Dolezal family via the Spokesman-Review)

The notion of deciding your race is becoming more relevant every day in America. Don't forget, this is a country practically founded on the concept of self-invention and reinvention.

In addition, race is becoming a relative notion.

President Barack Obama, for example, says he is black, but could just as logically change his mind tomorrow.

His mother was, in his words, "white as milk."

To insist that Obama is black and has no choice in the matter would be to buy into the odious Jim Crow rule that dictated race is decided by even "one drop" of black blood.

In America, increasingly, people are the product of two or three different racial ancestries. Visit Los Angeles or New York sometime and look around.

Who is to gainsay someone who claims Asian identity by dint of a Chinese grandmother?

Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren, a former Harvard professor who appears just as white as Rachel Dolezol's early pictures, has claimed some Cherokee ancestry, again angering conservatives, and probably some liberals, too.

I will leave anthropological distinctions to anthropologists, although it's worth noting that virtually all of them believe the entire human race originated in Africa.

In any event, what is the harm, exactly, in people claiming to be whomever or whatever they want to be?

Personally, I don't care what Jenner wants to be; I actually don't care about Jenner at all. But I can only respect the work Rachel Dolezal has done, whatever her motivation.

As she says, racially she's human, culturally she's black.

Personally, I tend toward the view of Richard Rodriguez, the Pulitzer-nominated California intellectual who has for decades argued that race distinction is becoming pointless.

He says a "browning of America" has been under way for years and is accelerating, and that it cannot be ignored or wished away.

When it's complete, there'll be one less subject for stupid, sarcastic argument.


Neil Macdonald is a former foreign correspondent and columnist for CBC News who has also worked in newspapers. He speaks English and French fluently, as well as some Arabic.


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