The Dolezal Controversy: Passing – or Choosing?

Regarding the recent controversy over a women, Rachel Dolezal, claiming to be black despite having parents who say they are white and that she is too, and despite having been white as a child, is interesting to consider. Set aside that this case involved various kinds of lying, etc. Indeed, set aside this case, per se, entirely. Consider a hypothetical person who is part of some particular cultural community – Black, Latino, Jewish, Catholic, Cherokee, or whatever – in a good society – which is of course another leap away from the specifics of this case.

Is what determines this person’s community an objective determination based upon something biological that the person has wired in? If so, then it is wholly dependent on birth parents. The widespread discussion of the Dolezal controversy seems to implicitly take for granted that to be one thing, at one time, and then another thing, at a later time, has to involve something called “passing” – which is to say, fooling folks into accepting a false claim.

Suppose a Jewish person decides to become Catholic or vice versa. Setting aside the precise details, broadly what does it take? It seems to me the answer is (a) wanting it, and (b) fulfilling certain levels of involvement or commitment or knowledge. In fact, isn’t it rather like moving from being French to being Italian, German, or American. Remember, people celebrate and also kill over all these things. Indeed, most people get quite a lot, and often maybe more, from their national identification than from a religion, say, or often even from a race, depending on the time and place.

Surely we can agree that if I, who have been Jewish by virtue of my mother having been Jewish, and her mother, and so on, plus my having a little awareness of the heritage – instead decide to become Catholic, likely with a lot more commitment to the new culture and heritage, as otherwise why bother switching – that should be okay. And vice versa, of course. Indeed, maybe we can even agree that a cultural community ought to allow exit and entry as a quite minimal condition of having healthy cultural and community relations. I certainly think that is the case.

But if that is true for nationality/citizenship, and if it is true for religion, why shouldn’t it be true for something called race?

The only credible answer would be biology. I might prefer to be a squirrel than a human, but it would make no sense to say that being a squirrel is a choice I can make because it simply isn’t. To say that a person is what their parents were/are and cannot be otherwise only makes sense at all, I think, if the attribute we are talking about is wired into the genes that the person got from the parents, like being a person and not a squirrel. (And even in the case, regarding gender/sexuality, where genetics really does play a huge roll, interestingly we are okay with people making choices to change gender.)

So the critical point is, as far as I know, and as far as science reports, race is not biological. There is no genetic boundary between races, much less a boundary that bears on the “stuff” that actually gives a person a racial cultural heritage. It is all social, all historical, very powerful, to be sure, and very oppressive in racist societies, to be sure, but not biological. So, why shouldn’t a person, as they grow up, in a good society, be able to choose their race just like choosing their religion or nationality, much less their gender? Indeed, why shouldn’t preventing that kind of freedom be seen as a horribly oppressive violation of people’s right to determine their own values and community allegiances?

If we set aside the lying in the Dolezal case, or if we charitably decide that it was a function of the exterior social context putting constraints on her cultural choices, and we of course understand the racist context, what remains controversial and worth thinking about? Maybe it is not the behavior of “passing” even when it is to join the oppressed rather than privileged community. Maybe instead what is controversial is the fact that most people regard “passing” as intrinsically a lie, rather than a choice.


  1. avatar
    Michael Albert June 19, 2015 2:59 pm 

    Hi Santos,

    There seem to be two possible issues arousing concern – that an individual did lie to various people, per se. And that she deemed herself Black.

    The first cause of concern is warranted, but clearly taken alone, not a national story, etc. Also, given her admirable record which no one has challenged, I would think the response to the lying would be to ask why…what in the context made her feel she had to it.

    The second matter is where the complexity lies. Passing, the familiar term for it, is a lie by definition IF one is claiming to be something one simply cannot be – my partly sarcastic example of claiming to be a squirrel. But if one is claiming to be something one could be – then it is not intrinsically lying, though it may be mistaken, or in certain contexts it may require lying due to social context. But in this case, no one has said she didn’t fit in the Black community, so to speak. No one has said she had values and commitments contrary to the black community. Quite the contrary, on both counts. Those questioning her calling herself black seem to be taking for granted that her views, actions, etc., no matter how rooted in the values and culture of the black community, indeed no matter how committed to reducing and eliminating racism, simply have no bearing. She isn’t, and can’t be black, period. This is the view I was questioning…in the essay.

    I also agree with you about the bandwagon denigration – it is pretty ugly, I think.

    Finally, having two lungs and needing to breathe air is part of human nature. Jumping on a denigration bandwagon, so to speak, is clearly not, or you too would be on board. Is it allowed by human nature, yes, clearly, because some are on board.

  2. avatar
    Santos June 18, 2015 5:49 pm 

    I agree with what you say regarding race being socially constructed, so no argument there.

    What I find puzzling and a little disturbing about this whole incident are two things:
    1) A white person trying to “pass” as black (like Vanilla Ice and Dolezal) is instantly perceived as comical and absurd. It never occurred to me to wonder why, until I told my Philippina wife about the story and she didn’t get what was funny or interesting about it.
    That’s the puzzling part.

    2) The disturbing part for me is seeing all sorts of media celebrities (John Stewart, The Young Turks etc.) jumping on the public ridicule and humiliation bandwagon. This is the kind of online bullying teenage kids commit suicide over.
    What exactly is going on in our society that makes this type of gratuitous grade school sadism so popular?
    Are we really that miserable a people that we need to jump at the chance of humiliating the weak ones in the herd at every opportunity? What is the mass psychology at work here? I can’t bring myself to believe this is just “human nature”, this is human nature in a very specific type of social environment.

  3. avatar
    Michael June 18, 2015 5:39 pm 

    I agree. There is much more to consider in this case than is not being addressed in the media. There is much that I do not yet know about this case, but in this country where race is so central to our history, past and present, and where we are still so largely segregated in so many ways, we need to think in much larger terms. From what I know so far, I feel that if one is committed to a community, we must go beyond only biological factors for identification.

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