In the days since this story broke, many people have been quick to point out that race is merely a social construct — as if that fact changes the very real impact of race on the lives of minorities. The persistence of systemic racism means there are penalties for blackness in America.
Black women — real ones — live at the nexus of that oppression and enduring sexism. The gender pay gap is steeper for them. They are more likely than their white counterparts to live in poverty, to be victims of domestic homicide and sexual assault. If Tyisha Miller or Rekia Boyd, black women who were victims of extrajudicial violence, had been able to slide into whiteness — for just a moment — they might still be alive. (Perplexingly, Ms. Dolezal told Matt Lauer that her decision to identify as black was a matter of “survival.” That is rich, indeed.) But racial oppression is not as easy to shrug off as racial advantage. This is partly because America has spent centuries ensuring that certain people can never be white.
Being able to shift one’s race is a privilege. Ms. Dolezal’s masquerade illustrates that however much she may empathize with African-Americans, she is not one, because black people in America cannot shed their race. We cannot proclaim the black race a nebulous concept, while strictly policing whiteness and the privileges of that identity. I will accept Ms. Dolezal as black like me only when society can accept me as white like her.