Who is Rachel Dolezal?

The 37-year-old was the former president of the Spokane, WA chapter of the NAACP. She resigned on June 15, after controversy about her race arose. 

Dolezal, who has been living as a black woman and has been revealed by her birth parents, who she hasn’t seen in years, as being white, with a heritage that is strictly white-European. 

In an interview with Matt Lauer on June 16, Dolezal said she identifies as black, which is leading to a national discussion about transracism.

What exactly is ‘transracism’?

The literal definition, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is “across or crossing racial boundaries.” In current social and media circles, however, the word is being used to mean “being born one race but identifying as another.”

So who exactly, then, is Rachel Dolezal?

Honestly, it’s hard to say, as this story is still developing, but here’s what he know so far:

She was born in Montana to Lawrence and Ruthanne Dolezal. Photos of her as a child and teenager show a pale complexion, freckles, and straight blonde hair. Current photos show Dolezal with a dark tan complexion and curly hair, varying in color.

She attended Howard University, a predominantly black school, on a scholarship but did not say she was black, because the application had no such option. Her portfolio, however, was full of African-American portraiture. She earned a Master’s of Fine Arts. Incidentally, she attempted to sue the university in 2002, in part because she felt she was being discriminated against for being white.

Dolezal said she identified as black as early as 5, when she began drawing self-portraits with a brown crayon, rather than a peach one. Her parents also adopted four black children, two of whom she ended up adopting herself. She now calls them “sons.”

In past articles written about her, she was identified as “transracial,” “biracial,” and “black,” saying she never corrected or clarified any of those descriptions. She recently identified herself as “multiracial” on an application to join a police oversight commission in Spokane, and on her application to the NAACP, she claimed to be of black, Native American, and white heritage.

What some supporters are saying:

The discussion of transracism falls hot on the heels of Olympian and reality star Bruce Jenner’s transformation into Caitlyn Jenner, who had millions of staunch supporters: “If someone can identify as a different gender, then why can’t someone identify as a different race?”

MSNBC’s Michael Eric Dyson says that race is “more complicated…as a social construct,” and that in some ways, Dolezal would have more support from black people than even Clarence Thomas, because she promotes the NAACP’s agenda.

Basketball legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar wrote a column for Time Magazine called “Let Rachel Dolezal Be as Black as She Wants to Be,” saying that the black community is better off because of her efforts, no matter her actual skin color.

What some detractors are saying: 

Being black is not a requirement to be a part of or lead a chapter of the NAACP; however, some critics accuse her of being a con artist while others say she’s wearing permanent blackface. 

After the recent stories of police brutality against the black community, like the deaths of Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, and Eric Garner, many argue that she’s only worsening public perceptions, rather than helping them, and all her accomplishments now mean less had she just been a white woman who was an advocate for blacks. 

For almost two centuries, some black men and women “passed” as white, in an attempt to live a better life. The current argument involving Rachel, however, is that “being black” means coming from a painful and oppressive history, similar to the one that unites the Jewish community, and that it is not only inappropriate, but impossible, to just appropriate that history for one’s self.