Rachel Dolezal is the sum of white America's fears

One of the great fallacies that often arises in public discussions of transgender rights and identity is the idea of “becoming” someone: “becoming” a woman, “becoming” a man, as if the life of a transgender person is just one big bar mitzvah. Given the opportunity to tell their own stories, transgender people often explain that this has never been the case—that they have, rather, been mislabeled from the start, and are only stripping away the layers of false identity that have accrued around them without their consent.

It hardly seems a coincidence that Dolezal used the same phrasing Tuesday in a hotly anticipated interview with Matt Lauer on “Today.” When Lauer asked whether Dolezal was African-American, Dolezal responded, “I identify as black. … This goes back to a very early age, with my self-identification with the black experience.” At five years old, she said, “I was drawing self-portraits with the brown crayon instead of the peach crayon.”

Thinking about Dolezal, one is reminded of Ferdinand Demara and Frank Abagnale, two American men who took on dozens of separate careers and identities, and wanted little nothing more, it seemed, than to simply avoid living without the safety of a mask. Anyone can identify with the desire to be someone—anyone—else, and acknowledging this within ourselves makes it easy for us to understand the people who are actually successful at making these fantasies flesh.