White or black, and why should anyone care?

June 15, 2015–

Spokane, Washington resident Rachel Dolezal joined the in-the-international-spotlight club last week because of her race. Or, perhaps, because of her lack of race.

Ms. Dolezal is head of the Spokane chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), but reportedly might be lacking in the color expected from someone holding that position. In fact, her own parents started the media furor by saying their formerly blonde, blue-eyed baby girl had been falsely portraying herself as “black” for years, and provided a birth certificate and photographic evidence as proof.

A long-time Spokane social activist and part-time African studies college instructor, Ms. Dolezal has been evasive when questioned about her race since the emerging story broke. “That question is not as easy as it seems,” she told the Spokesman-Review newspaper in one of her last known statements to the press on Thursday. “There are a lot of complexities…and I don’t know that everyone would understand that.” She closed the brief interview by noting that “We’re all from the African continent….”

The NAACP on Friday issued a statement in support of Ms. Dolezal, stating that “one’s racial identity is not a qualifying criteria or disqualifying standard for NAACP leadership. In every corner of this country, the NAACP remains committed to securing political, educational and economic justice for all people.” Ms. Dolezal had stated that she would release a statement regarding her race (or lack thereof) tonight during the local chapter’s regularly scheduled monthly membership meeting, but that meeting has been cancelled upon her request.

Ms. Dolezal is certainly not the first person to disguise her race. Perhaps one of the more famous instances of white-to-black race impersonation in relative modern times is that of John Howard Griffin. Griffin artificially changed his skin colour to black with a combination of drugs and extensive ultraviolet light exposure and travelled the racially segregated southern states for six weeks as a black man. His experiences were chronicled in the international bestselling book–Black Like Me–and helped highlight the day-to-day struggles of being black in the white-dominated southern society of the late 1950s.

While not a color change, a young Jewish boy named Solomon Perel successfully masqueraded as a German of Aryan descent during World War II, after he was captured by German troops during their initial invasion of the Soviet Union. He was so successful that he was incorporated into the army unit that captured him as an interpreter, played a role in the capture of Josef Stalin’s son, and was then sent back to Germany to attend an elite Hitler Youth school. As a circumcised Jew, Perel’s identity was in constant danger of being exposed, but he somehow managed to avoid detection until the end of the war (his story is told in the the book, I was Hitler Youth Solomon, which was adapted into the 1990 Academy Award-nominated film, Europa Europa).

These two impersonators had good reasons behind their race deception. But what of Ms. Dolezal? Should, as is expected, her race prove to be white not black, then why? What was her motivation? And, should we care?

If she was gaming the system for financial gain, then yes, we should care. Ms. Dolezal did receive a full scholarship to the traditionally black Howard University; however, race was evidently not a criteria for the scholarship. Spokane city officials are reportedly investigating whether she lied about her ethnicity when she applied to be on the municipal police board. And the Spokane Police Department has suspended its investigation into racial harassment hate mail she received, reportedly because evidence has surfaced that the alleged mail never passed through the U.S. Postal Service.

So, there doesn’t yet appear to be any evidence that she was outright gaming the system for financial gain, but perhaps playing the system for some kind of personal reason….

Maybe Ms. Dolezal just wants to be black. If that’s the case, should we care?

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