Rachael Dolezal attracted media attention in 2015 since she, as a white women, presented and ‘acted’ what Americans would describe as (the socialrace) “black.” She was the former chapter president for the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) and former Africana studies instructor; when it was discovered that she had two white parents she resigned from the chapter. Her white parents then came out and said that she was “passing as black.” And, from looking at her appearance, one would be hardpressed to say that she did NOT look black and that she DID NOT attempt to make her appearance LOOK what the average American would describe as (the socialrace) “black.” In any case, though, the controversy is an interesting one: should she be able to self-identify as black, even though none of her (recent) ancestors derive from the African continent? I will discuss Quayshawn Spencer’s (2019) take on the Dolezal controversy then I will discuss my own thoughts on the matter.
The earliest use of the term “transracialism” I can find is from 2004, from Overall (2004) who states that transracialism is the “use of surgery to assist individuals to “cross” from being a member of one race to being a member of another” and that, if it is “morally acceptable” for one to have a surgery to have the sex they feel they should be, then it should be morally acceptable for one to have a surgery to change their race. (With this, I am reminded of the South Park episode where Kyle wanted to be black and play basketball so he went and got a “Negroscopy.”) Others, though, argue that transracialism does not exist (Botts, 2018). In any case, transracialism can be defined as the feeling of being a race other than what society has said your race is—even though, by attempting to “pass” as another race, society may see the individual in question as “black”, for example.
If one is black in America then, surely, there is a high chance that they have experienced what it is like TO BE, black in America, socially. In this specific case, has Dolezal ever experienced any sort of racial discrimination based on how she looks and presents herself, as a black woman? She claims to have been the victim of anti-black hate crimes by police, went to a HBCU (historically black college university) and, as stated, has changed her appearance in order to give off the “aura” that she is black, by tightly curling her and lightly tanning her skin—what black Americans would term a “high-yellow.” Her ex-husband is black. She ticks off the “black/African American” box on job applications. So, knowing all of this about Dolezal, and how she presents herself to the public, is she “black” socially?
“I was actually identified when I was doing human rights work in north Idaho as first transracial” Dolezal, 2015
When Dolezal filed anti-black hate crimes with the Spokane police, she was asked about her experience and then the reporter asked her if she was black. Dolezal responded by then ending the interview. Then, ABC found her birth parents who admitted that she was true of Caucasian (European) descent. Case closed? But wait: Dolezal eventually admitted that she was indeed born white, even though she used the terms “black” and “African American” to describe herself.
One debate was about whether Dolezal could accurately claim to be racially Black without posessing what was called Black ancestry in the conversation. 50 Furthermore, this debate was at least partially motivated by a genuine concern about whether Dolezal was taking away educational or employment opportunities that were intended for people with Black ancestry. For example, during Dolezal’s interview on The Real, co-host Loni Love said that she didn’t care about how Dolezal racially identified, but she did care about whether Dolezal marked ‘Black’ on her college applications because that act could have taken away scholarship money from a student with Black ancestry. 51 Interestingly, Dolezal said that Howard’s college application didn’t ask about race, but she did say that she marked ‘Black’ on her job application to Spokane’s Office of Police Ombudsman Commission. Furthermore, Dolezal said she marked ‘Black’ because “we all have human origins in Africa.” (Spencer, 2019: 252)
However, even though Dolezal may be “black-passing”, under her carefully constructed persona, she does look like a typical white American woman—indeed, I have seen many white women with hair like hers (not all had their hair done to look that way, either). In a 2015 interview, her adopted brother said that what Dolezal was doing was “blackface.” He recalls:
“She told me not to blow her cover about the fact that she had this secret life or alternate identity,” Ezra Dolezal said Saturday. “She told me not to tell anybody about Montana or her family over there. She said she was starting a new life … and this one person over there was actually going to be her black father.”
Let’s say that Dolezal did do this; she ‘constructed’ herself a fake ‘family’ where she has a black mother, black father and black siblings. She then goes out with them and the public sees them together. Rachael, by extension of being with her family, is now treated as “black”—since being “black” in America is social—is she now “black”? BUT, Dolezal seemed to be using “white privilege” when she would attempt to “black-pass” when convenient while “white-pass” when convenient—for instance, when she sued Brown for discriminating against her because she is white! Did she mark “black” on this application and then sue for being discriminated against for being white?
An example of this debate can be found once again during Dolezal’s interview on The Real. In that interview, co-host Tamar Braxton expressed exactly [the concern that Dolezal is a ‘race-shifter’] when she asked whether Dolezal thought she had “walked the walk of a Black woman.” Interestingly, Dolezal responded, “Absolutely,” and followed that up with, “the police mark ‘Black’ on my traffic tickets.” (Spencer, 2019: 253)
But it is easy to show that Dolezal’s claim about us all having African ancestry so there is nothing wrong with her putting “black” on employment forms and whatnot—racial membership is about “genomic ancestry, not ancestry simpliciter” (Spencer, 2019: 277, note 52). All living humans have African ancestry but not all living humans have genomic African ancestry. While the social is involved in OMB race theory, other conditions need to hold for one to be a member of a race.
Those that appear and present themselves as white are still considered black (Ginsberg, 1996; Hobbs, 2016). One could, for example, imagine an extremely light-skinned black—say like Beyonce—and ALMOST say “Oh, she’s white”, but something is off about the appearance, she does not look what the average American would term WHITE and so, after more inspection, she is—rightly—deemed ‘black.’ Thus, just because one presents themselves as a certain race, this does not mean that they ARE or BECOME that race. Race is NOT like a costume that one can choose to dress in and take it off at the end of the day—and while RACE is, partly, about one’s lived experiences in a racialized society, it is also about how society treats the individual they have deemed to be a certain race as well. While people are torn on Dolezal, the fact remains that she has altered her appearance considerably enough to “pass for” black.
‘White-passing blacks’, of course, have a ton of white (European) ancestry—which is how they can have light skin while still keep certain prominent ‘black’ features, such as the lips and nose. One story of a family that ‘white-passed’ is given in A Chosen Exile:
In California, the young woman passed as white. She married a white man, and they had children who never knew they had black blood. Then, one day, years later, her phone rang.
It was the woman’s mother with distressing news: Her father was dying, and she needed to return home immediately to tell him goodbye.
The cousin replied, “I can’t. I’m a white woman now.”
She missed her father’s funeral, and never saw her mother or siblings again.
Did this woman all of a sudden become white since she disavowed her family since she is “a white woman now?” If society treats her as ‘white’, is she white, disregarding her racial ancestry? Using Hardimon’s (2017) socialrace, yes, she would then be ‘white’ in America—but she, biologically, would still be ‘black.’
Asian eyes, white eyes?
Stories like this make me think back to a book I read in the seventh grade called Goodbye Vietnam (Whelan, 1993). From what I recall in the book all those years ago, the Vietnamese girl described Asians getting surgeries to change their eyelids (called a blepharoplasty) so they can ‘white-pass’, which would be ‘transracialism’ under Overall’s (2004) definition. Take this story from a plastic surgeon:
Millard first considered altering the human eye while reconstructing eyebrows for burn victims. He began to keenly study the eye, socket, and folds, musing how to change it from “Oriental to Occidental.”
Upon researching the operation, Millard found that surgeons in Japan, Hong Kong, and even Korea were already performing double-eyelid procedures for both medical and cosmetic reasons. Unable to find any publications about the surgery that were written in English, Millard devised his own operation. He decided to raise the nasal bridge and widen the eyes to reduce the “Asian-ness” of his patient’s visage. Millard first transplanted cartilage to the nose. He then tore the inner fold of the eyelid, removed fat resting above the eye, and sutured folds of skin together, creating a double eyelid. The interpreter was pleased with Millard’s work, and reported that after the operation, his ethnicity was often mistaken for Italian or Mexican.
For example, Kaw (1993: 75) writes that “the attempts by Asian American women to get the double-eyelid surgery “is an attempt to escape persisting racial prejudice that correlates their stereotyped genetic physical features (“small, slanty” eyes and a “flat” nose) with negative behavioral characteristics, such as passivity, dullness, and a lack of sociability.” The first writings of such a surgery in Asia, though, was in the 18th century, long before a strong European presence on the continent (Nguyen, Hsu, and Din, 2009) but I’m sure one can say that they saw Europeans over the ages and attempted to emulate what they saw. Nevertheless, this does seem to be a good case study into the Asian eyes, white eyes claim—they needed to attempt to ‘white-pass’ so they would not go to the concentration camps for the Japanese.
This is a good example of transracialism as stated by Overall; they attempted to ‘white-pass’ but it was for a reason—to live free. They would, presumably, then blend into society as their chosen race (or unchosen race), showing that one can, indeed, change their race by changing their outward appearance since race in America is partly (or fully depending on your view) based on one’s physical appearance—one’s phenotype, which they have some degree of control over.
Is Dolezal black? No, she is not. She can ‘black-pass’ all she wants, she can say that “We’re all African” all she wants, she can say that police mark her as black all she wants (and while she would be socially ‘black’, which is what she is going for, she is not ‘black’ in the OMB way), she can say that she ticks off the “black/African American’ box on applications, but this would only very weakly mean that she is ‘black.’ In virtue of having NO recent African ancestry, Dolezal is NOT black and is, therefore, running around in blackface. One cannot change their biological race, but it may be possible to change their socialrace—which race society says one is.
The many cases one can find on blacks that ‘white-pass’ and even those blacks that have NO IDEA that they ARE black speaks to the complex nature of ‘race’ in America. Yes, race is partially socially constructed and if we are going plainly off of how Americans in society state what ‘race’ is, just based on appearance, one would be hardpressed to say that Dolezal is not ‘black’—she ‘looks’ it, right? So Dolezal can be said to be ‘black-passing’ just as the woman mentioned above could be said to be ‘white-passing’—but this does not CHANGE THEIR RACE!
The case of blepharoplasties is interesting and further lends something to this discussion—certain Asian groups in America, and back home in their countries, attempted to have the double-eyelid surgery in order to change their appearance—some of them doing so to ‘white-pass’ so that they would not get sent to the concentration camps in America.
Lastly, there was a woman a few years back who had melanin injections in her skin and had botox and whatnot to change the appearance of her lips—her change is shocking, to say the least, and is an example of Overall’s definition of transracialism.
(1) We accept the following premises about trans people and the rights and dignity to which they are entitled; (2) we also accept the following premises about identities and identity change in general; (3) therefore, the common arguments against transracialism fail, and we should accept that there’s little apparent logically coherent reason to deny the possibility of genuine transracialism.