Rachel Dolezal has a right to be black

Editor’s Note: Camille Gear Rich is professor of law and sociology at USC Gould School of Law. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

Story highlights

Rachel Dolezal, who is biologically white, passed as a black woman as a leader at NAACP

Camille Gear Rich: We should not indict her for her choice to link herself to the black community

CNN  — 

When it comes to identity, America takes one step forward and two steps back.

On Monday, Rachel Dolezal, the head of the Spokane chapter of the NAACP, resigned in shame because she had posed as a black woman even though she is biologically white.

The outing of Dolezal seems ironic given the recent public embrace of Caitlyn Jenner, the transgender woman formerly known as Bruce Jenner. Jenner seems to have ushered in an era of greater tolerance about the constructed nature of identity. After all, when a transgender woman is elevated to the cover of Vanity Fair, it’s as though we have reached a tipping point. We can accept the idea that one’s social identity can be radically transformed if it doesn’t match with what one feels in the heart.

The stark difference in Dolezal’s treatment forces us to ask what’s the difference between claiming a gender identity versus a racial identity? Why is it that we celebrate Bruce Jenner’s gender change and frown upon Rachel Dolezal’s racial change?

Camille Gear Rich

Dolezal is disturbing for many people because she marks a cultural fault line. Like it or not, we have entered into an era of elective race – a time when people expect that one has a right and dignity to claim the identity of one’s choice.

The central issue that separates Jenner’s and Dolezal’s choices is deception. Jenner chose carefully how and when she would disclose herself as actually female. Dolezal’s involuntary outing was staged by her angry parents who felt left behind as she chose a life associated with being a black person.

The irony of the situation is certainly not lost on Dolezal’s parents, who adopted several black children who became Dolezal’s siblings, perhaps giving her the first taste of what it would be like to be in a black community.

As much as critics try to characterize Dolezal’s behavior as a fraudulent choice, sociologists and psychologists know that decisions about racial and ethnic identity are typically not merely expressive, strategic, or apolitical, but are driven by social conditions.

Growing up in a family with black siblings exposed Dolezal to the reality of discrimination and made her more sensitive to its effects. It probably helped her understand the contrast between the reality of black lives and white privilege. Other similar experiences, such as marrying an African-American and having black children, also make white people more sensitive to racism.

Dolezal likely became politically and socially conscious about these issues because of her experiences in an interracial family. In this sense, her parents must be proud of the child they raised.

Should we indict Dolezal for her racial deceit?

That depends on a number of factors. What accounts for her decision to “become” black instead of remaining white to advocate for racial justice?

Did Dolezal feel that her white skin made her suspect as she engaged in political activism? Did she fear it would be a distraction as she attempted to gain credibility in racial justice efforts?

Opinion: Passing for black? Now that’s a twist

Of course, she could have attained a leadership role in the NAACP as a white woman, but did the perception that she was black make people feel more objective about her performance rather than skeptical about her understanding and commitment to anti-racism?

Was she aesthetically driven? Dolezal claims that she has been in love with black aesthetics since childhood. The decision to adopt a black female aesthetic for herself is a political act given that Americans in general assume black women are not aesthetically as desirable as white women. Yet, others reduce her aesthetic choices to mere cultural appropriation.

People allow Caitlyn Jenner to change because she has some biological basis for believing she is female. But is this all identity is? Are we prepared to accept the implications of this view?

What if Dolezal can identify one “biologically” black ancestor – does this suddenly make her claim to blackness valid? If she cannot, does this failure render invalid her connections to blackness, and all of her efforts to make the world better for African Americans?

In my view, hate the sin but love the sinner. Dolezal lied. She should not have lied, but she lied for reasons with which we can sympathize.

I admire the way she chose to live her life as a black person. Advocating for anti-racism efforts is ethical and admirable if she wanted to claim blackness as a social identity. Those quick to throw stones well know that there are costs to living life as a black person, and once Dolezal made the switch she seems never to have looked back. I will not indict her for her choice to link herself to this community, and I would consider her claim no greater if she identified a long lost African ancestor.

Dolezal’s case forces us to examine our society, which made her feel that passing for a black woman was her best choice in her advocacy for African American issues. She forces us to consider whether our biology or our action is more important to identity, and should we act in ways that honor our chosen identity in meaningful ways. We should not have to be slaves to the biological definition of identity, and we should not use race or gender identities as weapons to punish one another.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook.com/CNNOpinion.

Read CNNOpinion’s Flipboard magazine.