Fifty shades of black

I don’t know the truth about Rachel Dolezal or her heritage. And neither do you. Yet an awful lot of people seem quite confident — even as they acknowledge the slipperiness of racial identity and/or the artificiality of race itself — that they know she’s really white. Maybe they’re right. Maybe. But the swiftness with which they’ve reached this judgment should give us pause.

Why, for instance, are people so quick to believe Dolezal’s parents when they say their daughter is lying about her (and by extension, their) race? I’ve got a good friend who, to most people’s eyes, looks white. But that’s not how she thinks of herself. She’s got at least one black ancestor, only two or three generations back. As Laurie Anderson might say, though, this is not a story her people tell. My friend has family members who vehemently deny that their ancestry is “tainted” by blackness, even though they know better. Family members who could potentially “out” my white-looking mixed-race friend as “purely” white, much as Dolezal’s parents have done to her.

And, yes, maybe Dolezal’s parents are telling the truth here. I don’t know, and neither do you. For that matter, neither do they. After all, there’s a very long, very ugly history of “white” folks in the US lying about the blackness they know is in their family tree. The odds are good that enough of those lies have stuck over the years for entire “white” families simply to be unaware of how black they “really” are. The Dolezals can be completely sincere in their belief that they (and thus their daughter) are entirely white, while still being completely wrong about how white they really are.

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