Why do we care so much about Rachel Dolezal, the head of the Spokane, Wash., chapter of the N.A.A.C.P. who apparently misrepresented herself as African-American when, according to her parents, she is Czech, Swedish and German, with some remote Native American ancestry?
In one sense, it’s not at all surprising. Stories of white Americans “passing” as members of other racial and ethnic groups have often captivated the American public — though the cases that have most fascinated us have usually turned on the malicious hypocrisy of the protagonists. In 1965, The Times famously reported that Dan Burros, the Ku Klux Klan’s Grand Dragon in New York State and the former national secretary of the American Nazi Party, was once a Jew who not only was a “star” bar mitzvah student at his shul in Queens but also brought knishes to white-supremacist gatherings. In 1991, an Emory University professor drew headlines by unmasking Forrest Carter, the author of a best-selling Native American “memoir,” as Asa Earl Carter, an Alabama Klansman and a speechwriter for George Wallace, the state’s segregationist governor.
But nowhere in the details that reporters and Internet sleuths have uncovered about Dolezal is there any inkling of personal commitment to white supremacy; her work with the N.A.A.C.P., now finished, and as a professor of Africana studies suggests quite the opposite. Her story spins at a far lower orbit of oddity than the trajectories of Burros and Carter, yet she is attracting a similar level of attention. More puzzling still, her case has gone viral at a moment when we are learning that Rachel Dolezals have been much more common in this country’s history than we once might have thought.