Passing Race in America: Black-Blonde or Blue-Eyed Indian?

This story appears to be exceptionally nourishing for America. “I identify as black,” 37-year-old Rachel Dolezal, with German, Swedish and Czech roots, says on NBC’s Today Show. Moderator Matt Lauer continues by asking when she started “deceiving” people around her.

But Rachel doesn’t think she’s lying to people; the whole matter is, she says, more complex than answering the question “Are you white or black?” What should be so complicated about it? True, Rachel grew up with four black adoptive siblings, married a black man, looks after two black sons (one biological, one adoptive), and graduated from traditionally black Howard University in Washington, D.C. — but even that shouldn’t excuse her appropriating black identity.

So “well,” moreover, that she best fooled those with whom she identifies. Dolezal built her career as an activist for the rights of blacks, which in Spokane, Washington led her to the presidency of the local NAACP chapter. But her African-American “story” fell apart there last week, when her parents, in response to a media investigation, confirmed that Rachel isn’t in the least a “Southerner” (the daughter of a black man from Mississippi, as she once claimed), but a blue-eyed blonde from Montana.

The Transition from Black to White

The whole episode could have ended like this: Rachel is a “racial con-artist” who profited from playing at blackness. She curled and dyed her hair and darkened her skin by various means. A bit of a Michael Jackson in reverse — and in skirts: American outlandishness, period.

But what if it indeed is more complicated? What if Rachel is part of a much broader American mosaic? Of confusion not just in bloodlines, but even in personal identification? Of a historically complex, painful and at the same time fascinating all-American narrative that begins with the arrival of the first slaves at the beginning of the 17th century and continues — for better or for worse — up to the present?

Ronald Potter, who lectures in religious studies at Belhaven College in Jackson, Mississippi, where Rachel studied from 1998 to 2000, recalls in the New York Times that she reminded him of “a black girl in a white body,” like “hearing a black song by a white artist.”

Of course she lied to those around her, but internally her racial transition wasn’t necessarily false. Most importantly, it’s not at all exceptional. America has a general, historically established term for it: “passing race.” Racial transfer, transition or however else you may translate the phenomenon is described by Baz Dreisinger, English professor at New York’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice, in her book “Near Black: White-to-Black Passing in American Culture.”

Dreisinger points out that Americans associate the concept of passing race much more with black-to-white transition, when, in the course of American history, above all in the second half of the 19th century, many blacks tried to rid themselves of the phantom of slavery and pass themselves off as white. According to a recent Yale University study, based on analysis of DNA from the 19th and 20th centuries, as much as one-fifth of originally black males crossed over into white society.

Dreisinger, however, devotes her study to the opposite direction, when whites wish, just like Rachel Dolezal, to be “virtual blacks.” In the attempt to approximate blackness, and in the belief that it is transferable, many strive for a physical likeness as well.

For example, the jazz clarinetist Mazz Mezzrow, who lived from 1899 to 1972, claimed that his skin actually darkened from living among blacks. The critic and author Waldo Frank (1889-1967) at one time transitioned to the black side when collecting material on the American South in the 1920s — according to Dreisinger, he did it so credibly that the black community took the Yale-educated Jewish youth as one of their own.

Why the Pot Melts

In her book “Near Black,” Dreisinger claims the lines defining racial identity in American culture are not only blurred, but subject to change. The term “culture” can be understood here in the broadest societal sense of the word.

It’s not just about artists, as Daniel J. Sharfstein, professor of history at Vanderbilt University, among others, admonishes. In the New York Times Magazine, he portrays a wide range of well-known examples, such as traveler Clarence King from a well-to-do white family, who led a second life as a black man under the name of James Todd.

“The history of people breaching social divides and fashioning identities for themselves is as old as America …. From the beginning of the American experience, the color line bent and broke in many directions, and for many reasons,” Sharfstein generalizes the fascinating phenomenon of the entire American racial and ethnic “melting pot.”

This phenomenon stands right before your eyes when you take the New York Metro and — face to face with another passenger, a person so unlike anyone you’ve ever seen in the monotone Bohemian Basin — you wonder deep down inside what all kinds of exotic roots and genes this American was made of. Black, Asian, Hispanic, Indian … and perhaps a drop of white blood as well?

Census Questionnaires — Ever Imprecise

Or suffice it to glance at a questionnaire from the most recent nationwide census in 2010. The official census has been conducted regularly every 10 years in the U.S. since 1790, but only in 1960 could Americans first check off their racial origin — until then, it had been up to census officials.

And only since 2000 have Americans been able to mark more than one box, and thereby indicate mixed racial origin. At first glance, it might seem that the questionnaire from 2010 (reprinted here) contains an exhaustive choice of possibilities and combinations. Nonetheless, 6.2 percent of respondents chose none of the options listed and checked off the last box, “some other race.” Which reportedly so unnerves statisticians that they want to make the questionnaire even more precise for the next census.

Returning to Rachel Dolezal, her parents spoke clearly in statements to the media about a white origin with roots in Europe, but they concede a possible admixture of “native American” blood. If that’s true, then there would be an extraordinarily priceless and genuinely American point to the whole narrative.

Rachel would be of mixed origin, in no way white-black, as she feels herself to be, but white-Indian — which also happens to be the most commonly represented category among “multi-colored” Americans. According to a Pew Research Center survey just published last week, 6.9 percent of the entire American population claims mixed racial background and more than half of those (51 percent) indicate themselves as “White American Indians.”

So maybe it’s no big deal after all. Perhaps the virtual black-blonde Rachel is just an ordinary blue-eyed Indian — a run-of-the-mill American story.

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