“I Identify As A Black Woman”

Tanisha Spratt
August 9, 2016

In the United States race transcends physicality. A black person can  look physically white but identify as black if he or she is supported by  the right credentials, and a white person who looks racially “other”  can pass as black or white if he or she “acts the part.” Racial  passing requires a great deal of work. In order to pass successfully the  subject has to not only diligently maintain their physical appearance  and actively form relationships with people from outside of their race  but also, often, deny their families and other close acquaintances  because their presence threatens his or her fabricated racial identity.  In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries numerous blacks who  were light-skinned enough to pass as white did so in order to evade the  social and legal barriers that blacks of all shades faced.

One of the primary incentives to pass was the prospect of living a  life that was not conditioned by their inferior racial status. By  passing they were given greater access to social, educational, and  economic opportunities. Conversely, today there are many benefits of  passing as black in the United States. A person who does so is given  access to affirmative action programs, social networking groups such  as Jack and Jill of America, Inc.,[1] and job opportunities that are race specific.[2] In  their 2010 study “Passing as Black: Racial Identity Work Among Biracial  Americans” Nikki Khanna and Cathryn Johnson note that the majority of  their biracial respondents “have, at one time or another, passed as  black and they do this for several reasons – to fit in with black peers,  to avoid a [white] stigmatized identity, and/ or for some perceived  advantage or benefit.”[3] Too  dark to pass as white in a white setting, respondents often claimed to  “pass as black [in order] to find a place with their black peers” and,  thus, avoid complete social isolation. Passing has been, and continues  to be, orchestrated by many biracial Americans in order to navigate the  strict and seemingly impermeable borders governing “blackness” and  “whiteness.”

A person’s “blackness” is often determined not only by his or her  skin colour, but also by their vocation, political interests, speech,  music preferences, and upbringing. In this way “blackness” can be  perceived as a concept that is, to some extent, fluid. Whilst racial  passing may seem like an antiquated, insignificant and, even,  nonexistent practice in contemporary “post-racial” U.S society, racial  stratification remains a highly contentious social and political issue  and, therefore, racial passing remains culturally relevant. An increase  in anti-immigrant sentiment over the past decade is currently at the  forefront of numerous political debates as the Democratic and Republican  nominations are underway.

Republican candidate Donald Trump has succeeded in gaining a sizable  support network of voters from both the far right and the seemingly  “neutral” American white middle class by unashamedly voicing his racist  domestic and foreign policy propositions to the American public.  Far-right terrorist groups such as the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan are,  currently, united with “ordinary white citizens” under Trump’s political  agenda. Given Trump’s recent policy announcements concerning immigrant  deportation and Muslim exclusion, the desire to look “white” or  “non-ethnic” has generated new conversations about racial physicality  and construction.

In light of the recent terrorist attacks in Paris similar waves of  anti-immigrant sentiment have also spurred social and political  conversations about race and racial construction in Western Europe.  Looking “other” in certain contemporary European social spaces is often  problematic for those who are stigmatized for openly expressing their  religion and/ or culture by wearing garments such as the hijab or the  niqab. The “othered” subject’s proclivity to “blend in” and avoid  stigmatization often conflicts with his or her religious and/ or  cultural ideals, beliefs, and commitments. He or she is often implicitly  (and sometimes explicitly) urged to assimilate by adopting Western  standards of dress and disowning cultural markers that immediately  identify them as “other”.

Despite the privileges and benefits that derive from being white in  the United States there are whites who attempt to distance themselves  from this group because they believe it to be oppressive and devoid of  culture. In February 2015 Rachel Dolezal, a white woman and then  president of the Spokane, Washington chapter of the NAACP, claimed that  she received hate mail in the form of 20 pages of notes, which included  pictures of lynchings, to her postal address at work. Although this  wasn’t the first time that she claimed to have been the target of a  racially motivated assault (in 2009 she maintained that burglars left a  noose on her front step after stealing $13,000 in cash) a local news  station took an interest in this incident and, whilst doing their  research, unearthed the fact that Dolezal had been passing as a black  woman for years.

She was confronted about this during a televised interview and, the  following June, this interview went viral. In the immediate aftermath of  its release people from across the world joined in a social media  debate about the ways in which race is understood to be both constructed  and intrinsic in the United States. Critics of Dolezal claimed that her  performance of blackness featured overt practices of cultural  appropriation and was equivalent to blackface minstrelsy. They said that  she devalued the experiences of “real” black women by claiming them as  her own. They said that she took the job of NAACP president and the  scholarship that she received to attend Howard University (a  historically black institution) away from “deserving” black candidates.  They said that passing as black was the ultimate exercise of white  privilege, and they said that she only self-identified as a black woman  when it was in her social and economic interests. This last point is  undeniably supported by the fact that, whilst at Howard, she sued the  university for discriminating against her as a white woman despite  openly self-identifying as black.

There were also some who publicly supported Dolezal. These people  repeatedly emphasized the fact that she did selfless things with  her “black woman status” – she affected positive changes within her  NAACP chapter, taught little black girls who had been adopted into white  families how to correctly style their hair, and maintained a loving  black family. They argued that she didn’t intend to hurt anyone and that  in the United States (“the land of the free”) people should be able to  self-identify in any way that they choose.

For example, a commonly heard argument was that if Caitlyn Jenner can  alter her physique and self-identify as a transgender woman, why can’t  Dolezal do the same and self-identify as a “transracial” woman?[4] The  answer is simple – Dolezal’s decision to adopt a black identity was  forged through her exposure to black culture, whereas a transgender man  or woman’s transition is the product of an innate sense of his or her  gendered identity. The former is, to an extent, self-inflicted whilst  the latter is not. Dolezal made an active decision to pass as black and,  in doing so, spurred several cultural critics and race scholars  to pathologise her self-constructed racial identity. When remarking on  Dolezal’s “transition” during a televised interview, Michaela Angela  Davis expressed her belief that Dolezal suffers from a “racial identity  disorder” and exhibits, primarily through her physical  appearance, “[cultural] appropriation to a pathological level.”[5]By  pathologising Dolezal’s self-constructed racial identity, critics like  Davis implicitly convey the fact that race continues to be perceived as a  biological reality, rather than a social construction, in certain U.S  socio-political spaces.

Dolezal publicly demonstrated her “black consciousness” by running  for the presidency of her local NAACP chapter, campaigning alongside  members of the #blacklivesmatter movement, and physically altering her  appearance in order to “look black.” She refused to elaborate on this  last point during the numerous televised interviews that she  participated in immediately following her exposure but, when looking at  recent photographs of her alongside ones that were taken before  she “became black,” it is obvious that she engaged in various cosmetic  tanning practices and learned how to convincingly style wigs and hair  extensions in order to effectively pass.

One of the crucial ways in which she fits into the broader context of  racial passing is through the fabrication that she made concerning her  family. For years she carried around a photograph of a black man and  claimed that he was her father. Whilst she later argued that she did not  overtly claim that he was her biological father and instead  meant that, because of the close relationship that he and she shared, he  was who she considered to be her “dad,” in showing the photograph to  numerous people and labeling him as such she was, many argued, complicit  in her deceit. Her adopted brother, Ezra, claimed in an interview  shortly after she was exposed that when visiting Dolezal he was  instructed not to talk about their parents because their whiteness  threatened her status as a black woman.

This fear was key to traditional passing narratives. Numerous people  who chose to pass moved away from their families and severed all ties  with them because of this fear. The media placed a heavy visual emphasis  on Dolezal’s parents throughout the summer following her exposure. The  interviews that they gave and the comments that they made were almost  exclusively televised, and their images were widely disseminated through  various online platforms when Dolezal was discussed. Dolezal’s  whiteness was repeatedly affirmed through the undeniable fact of theirs;  her self-perceived “blackness” was de-legitimized by the “biological  reality” of her whiteness as made evident by her parents.

Until the mid-twentieth century blackness was widely believed to be  something that is genealogically determinable. Originating in the late  nineteenth century, the “one drop rule” deemed a person legally black if  he or she had any known trace of “black blood” in their family. The  statutes defining who was black and who was white varied according to  each state. In Virginia, by 1910, a person was classified as black if he  or she had “one-sixteenth or more Negro blood” in their familial group.[6] This  meant that, even if this person’s other relatives were visibly (and  legally) white, if he or she had one great-great grandparent who was  black they were, also, legally black. Whilst it is no longer used for  the purposes of legal classification, the lingering social acceptance of  the “one drop rule” is a key way in which blackness continues to be  determined in the United States. Even if a person does not physically  look black, if he or she can prove that they have one black parent they  can claim a black identity. Despite looking white, Mariah Carey publicly  embraced a black identity (gained through her father) at the beginning  of her career and, in doing so, both widened her listening audience and  enabled film agents to cast her in roles such as that of the  stereotypical black sharecropper.[7]

Moreover, by racially identifying as Dominican, Puerto Rican,  Lebanese, and Haitian (and, therefore, “black”) actress Zoe Saldana  enabled agents of the upcoming biopic Nina to cast her as Nina  Simone. Saldana’s skin was darkened and her phenotype was cosmetically  altered in order for her to resemble the dark-skinned,  and stereotypically “African looking,” musician. In both cases, any  ambiguity surrounding their racial identity that arose because of their  physical appearance was addressed by the public visual presence of their  families. Yet, both celebrities have, at different times in their  career, faced intra-racial discrimination and marginalisation because of  their deviation from stereotypical physiological “norms” of blackness –  both have light skin, “straight” hair, and stereotypically “white”  facial features.

There is, it seems, a dichotomy between blackness as an inclusive  concept because of the residual presence of the “one drop rule,” and the  belief that a person isn’t “black enough” if he or she does not meet  certain criteria. If a person has any known black ancestry, but publicly  denies a black mono-racial identity, he or she is often mocked or  belittled by blacks for seemingly trying to evade the stigma attached to  being black in the United States. Conversely, if he or she is  “partially black” and adopts a black mono-racial identity they are often  welcomed into the black community. This is, however, often predicated  on their performance of blackness. In order to gain full inclusion and  acceptance one must often publicly, and privately, demonstrate an  exclusively black consciousness. Rachel Dolezal’s extended stay in the  black community was made possible because of the extensive measures that  she undertook to deceive and manipulate her work colleagues, students,  and family members.

Although she has continued to embrace her self-constructed racial  identity in a public and unapologetic way, because she has no biological  claim to a black identity she cannot be considered black in the United  States by either blacks or whites. As noted by Rogers Brubaker, “In  North America, where the classification of racial boundaries depends not  only on phenotype but also, crucially, on ancestry, racial identity is  prevailingly understood as a supra-individual, social-relational  phenomenon, not as subjective individual property.”[8] The  legal framework outlining racial categorization remains potent. The  U.S. Census Bureau clearly defines a white person as “a person having  origins in any of the original peoples of Europe, the Middle East, or  North Africa” and a black person as “a person having origins in any of  the black racial groups of Africa.”[9] Because  the parameters governing blackness and whiteness continue to be policed  in the United States there is often little room to harbor an identity  that falls somewhere between the two categories. Dolezal’s attempt to  manipulate this divide through her racial self-construction spurred  millions of Americans to cast her as a fraud, a liar and, ultimately, an  outcast.

The impending election of Donald Trump as the 2016 Republican nominee  makes evident the fact that segments of the U.S. continue to be divided  along racial lines. There is a sizable population of voters that agree  with Trump’s proposition that a looming and divisive wall should be  constructed along the U.S-Mexico border in order to keep out  “undesirables,” and that Muslim’s should be temporarily denied entry  into the U.S (although Trump recently amended this statement to allow  the newly-elected London mayor and Muslim Sadiq Khan free movement to  and from the U.S).[10] If  Trump succeeds in his bid for the presidency and implements the  racially discriminative foreign and domestic policies that he has thus  far proposed, how will targeted U.S citizens socially accommodate  themselves? Will there be a surge in attempts to publically downplay  their “foreignness” or “otherness” in order to avoid stigmatization and  possible victimization? Will more minority citizens attempt to racially  pass as either white or non-Hispanic/ non-Muslim in order to emphasize  their disassociation from stereotypes associated with their  “undesirable” racial and/ or ethnic groups? An analysis of these  questions in relation to contemporary national practices of social and  racial passing may warrant future research.


[1] Jack  And Jill Of America, Inc. Is An Elitist African-american Organisation  That Was Founded In 1938 To Foster A Community Of Socio-economically  Privileged African-american Children Living In Predominantly White  Communities.

[2] An Example Of This Would Be A Diversity Officer At A University.

[3] Nikki Khanna, Cathryn Johnson, “Passing As Black: Racial Identity Work Among Biracial Americans,” Social Psychology Quarterly, 73:4 (2010) Pp. 380-397.

[4] The  Term “Transracial” Has Traditionally Been Used When Referring To A  Child From A Racial And/ Or Ethnic Minority Group Who Has Been Adopted  Into A White Family.

[5] Coreshift, “Rachel Dolezal Segment On Ac360 June 12 2015 (Marc Lamont Hill, Michaela Angela Davis)” <Https://Www.Youtube.Com/Watch?V=Mxkphz4xr4e> [Accessed 30/12/2015].

[6] Judy Scales-trent, “Racial Purity Laws In The United States And Nazi Germany: The Targeting Process” Human Rights Quarterly, 23:2 (2001) Pp. 259-307.

[7] See The Butler, Dir. Lee Daniels (The Weinstein Company: 2013).

[8] Rogers Brubaker, “The Dolezal Affair: Race, Gender, And The Micropolitics Of Identity,” Ethnic And Racial Studies, 39:3 (2015) Pp. 414-448.

[9] United States Census Bureau, “Race” <Http://Www.Census.Gov/Topics/Population/Race/About.Html> [Accessed 08/01/2016].

[10] Reuters, “Trump Says London Mayor Sadiq Khan Could Be “Exemption” To Muslim Ban” <Http://Www.Theguardian.Com/Politics/2016/May/10/Donald-trump-london-mayor-sadiq-khan-exception-muslim-ban> [Accessed 11/05/2016].

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Tanisha Spratt