Rachel Dolezal and the History of Passing for Black

A scholar of race and American culture puts the case of the former Spokane NAACP president in context.

Nicholas K. Geranios / AP

On Monday, Rachel Dolezal resigned from her post as president of the Spokane, Washington, NAACP. It capped a tumultuous week for Dolezal, after the Couer d’Alene Press published a report raising questions about her background, and the Spokane Spokesman-Review picked up its claims that she had “been falsely portraying herself as black for years.” Her parents volunteered photos of her as a young woman that contrasted sharply with her current self-presentation. Asked for an explanation, Dolezal told one reporter, “We’re all from the African continent.” Critics charged that Dolezal, who also teaches Africana studies at Eastern Washington University and chairs Spokane’s Police Ombudsman’s Commission, had also fabricated or exaggerated incidents she had reported as hate crimes.

In a statement on Monday announcing her resignation, Dolezal reaffirmed her belief that “challenging the construct of race is at the core of evolving human consciousness,” while  voicing concern that “the dialogue has unexpectedly shifted internationally to my personal identity in the context of defining race and ethnicity.”

​The allegations prompted reflections on gaining the benefits of blackness without its burdens, on how Dolezal had taken advantage of the black community’s tradition of acceptance, and the constructed nature of race.

​One reason the story may have drawn so much attention was its inversion of the classic narrative of racial passing, in which African Americans seek to evade racial discrimination by presenting themselves as white. But passing for black, it turns out, has its own complicated history. To find out more, I turned to Baz Dreisinger, an associate professor of English at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, and author of Near Black: White-to-Black Passing in American Culture. What follows is an edited, condensed transcript of our conversation.

Yoni Appelbaum: What are the earliest cases in the historical or literary record of white people passing for black?

Baz Dreisinger: The earliest cases that I look at are from the slave era. There are cases of white people who are kidnapped and sold into slavery, and which therefore are cases of involuntary passing. There’s also a fictional account by Mark Twain, Pudd’nhead Wilson, about two brothers, one slave and one free, who are switched at birth. That’s as early as I’ve located.

Appelbaum: So that’s involuntary. In the early nineteenth century, it’s almost more of a nightmare than a fantasy.

Dreisinger: The concept of white passing is actually born more out of anxiety than fantasy. I use the concept of proximity in my book a lot—hence the title, Near Black—that closeness to blackness has the potential to turn one black. You have post-slavery scenarios involving anxiety around the lack of slave/free distinctions between people, because if you don’t have this slave/free divide, then what is to separate poor white from black? So these nightmares, these anxious scenarios, in which white people end up becoming black in a terrifying way for them, both real and fictional.

Appelbaum: In Jazz Age cities, whites and blacks mixed together, particularly in nightclubs and other musical venues. And that interaction opened the way for a new kind of mixing. Why did that happen?

Dreisinger: There has always been within White America a kind of fetishizing of blackness, and of things associated with black culture, with music, and so on. So you have cases of non-black people engaging with those activities, particularly with music, who are passing themselves off—whether for a period of time, whether for life—in many different contexts. Whether actively passing, or just not refuting what they’re getting taken as, in the context of music. And the fantasy becomes, if you’re close enough to black culture, in the literal or metaphorical sense, then you can somehow become black.

Appelbaum: In mixed marriages through the middle of the twentieth century, you’ve written, the white spouses often found it simplest to pass as black, so as to have their marriages accepted. Were there other circumstances in which passing for black might have been advantageous?

Dreisinger: Anytime you’re talking about the cultural domain, it certainly can be advantageous to pass as black. In many ways, particularly when you’re talking about the discourse around authenticity in jazz, the most authentic jazz players had to be black. And so if you’re a white jazz player who believes that—and that’s the paradoxical irony of being a white jazz musician, is that many of them were quite traditional in their sense that it’s an authentically black music, and so a black person must play it—but what do I do, because I’m not black?

Certainly, then, because we’re talking about the era of Jim Crow, that means subjecting yourself to all kinds of racism and segregation and putting yourself in that boat, but ultimately it’s an advantageous thing from the perspective of authenticity within the arts.

Appelbaum: There are two constructed notions of race interacting in each of these cases, though, because to pass as black means to reject another, prior identity. What do these cases tell us about what it means to be white?

Dreisinger: The notion at the beginning of the phenomenon of white passing is that whiteness is a dangerously at-risk entity, that it can become black at any point. And again, this goes back to the anxieties surrounding nineteenth-century scenarios of passing, that whiteness is vulnerable, that with too much contact with blackness in any capacity it can get lost, it’s weak, it can be taken off.

That changes, with time, as white passing becomes advantageous, and whiteness becomes a much more stubborn entity that can’t be gotten rid of so easily, and requires a lot of finesse.

Appelbaum: The case of Rachel Dolezal has received enormous attention. Is there a way in which this broader context ought to inform our understanding of it?

Dreisinger: Definitely. For one, it is important to recognize that her passing does have a history—it’s not just this lone incident, which is often how it’s being portrayed. Not to say that this history is as deeply rooted in American history as the traditional form of passing. I’m not the only one who’s written about it. But my book is as much about racial appropriation as it is about racial passing, and racial cross-identification, or what she’s calling “trans-raciality.”

I think it’s critical to recognize the ways in which American whites have a long legacy of fetishizing blackness, whether they’re literally passing or not, but the ways in which their notions of blackness are based upon caricatures, and not characters. They’re based on idealized or cartoonish notions of what blackness is.

Appelbaum: And Dolezal?

Dreisinger: We haven’t heard from her, but some of the discussion is obscuring the potential touchstone moments here and the potential for talking in a really serious intellectual way about the concept of trans-raciality, and about the one-drop rule, and about how malleable and subject to perception race is in American culture.

The last thing I would say is that it’s disappointing that it seems to be that Rachel couldn’t envision a cross-racial identification or a cross-cultural identification that didn’t involve passing and what’s being called “blackface” or the performance of blackness. Is it not possible to identify with a culture, to adopt elements of it, to believe in pushing for racial justice without having to pass? It erases the possibility of a cross-racial identification that transcends racial lines. And that’s an unfortunate thing.

All of the work she did as a “black woman,” she could have done as a white woman. And in some ways, maybe that would be more radical, because it’d be a statement that, “I don’t have to be it, to be of it.”