What exactly do liberals think about Rachel Dolezal, the white former president of the Spokane chapter of the NAACP who pretended to be black for years?
Some, like University of Miami law professor Osamudia James, have condemned Dolezal for faking “a black identity to gain status and influence in a community that isn’t hers.” Dolezal, the argument goes, hasn’t fully lived the black experience; her claim to black identity is therefore a performance, which can only compound and reify stereotypes. Dolezal, in other words, isn’t a liar, but she is a fake.
Others, like The New Yorker’s Jelani Cobb, are more sympathetic to Dolezal’s claims. Rejecting them, Cobb notes, would align one with feminist Elinor Burkett’s recent anti-transgender polemic, in which Burkett argued that womanhood is about a lot more than what one merely feels oneself to be — like blackness, it is a lived experience. A view like Cobb’s inclines toward assuming that race, like gender, is complicated and historically contingent, both constructs that differ from their corresponding biological counterparts, ancestry and sex. While Dolezal isn’t black, she can help us understand how society defines blackness.