White woman who lied about race forced down but not out

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Rachel Dolezal resigned Monday as president of the Spokane chapter of the NAACP. | AP Photo

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Rachel Dolezal isn’t the first white person to ignite a firestorm by pretending to be black. But she might be the first one to misappropriate a black identity because it is a better fit.

This bizarre story of the white-woman-who-wanted-to-be-black has been burning up the Internet since Friday.

The controversy forced Dolezal out as the head of the NAACP chapter in Spokane, Washington, on Monday.

“Many issues face us now that drive at the theme of urgency. Police brutality, biased curriculum in school, economic disenfranchisement, health inequities, and a lack of pro-justice political representation … And yet, the dialogue has unexpectedly shifted internationally to my personal identity in the context of defining race and ethnicity,” she wrote in a letter posted on the chapter’s Facebook page.

Well, yeah.

OPINION

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We’re not talking about the Iggy Azalea kind of pretend (although people are still wondering how the blonde Australian became the biggest star on the hip-hop scene).

Dolezal, 37, went so far as to dump her white family and publicly claim to be a black person.

Apparently a feud between Dolezal and her estranged parents led to the bombshell about Dolezal’s race.

Last week, a reporter ambushed the woman and asked her point-blank if she was African-American.

Instead of answering, she walked away.

Appearing on “Good Morning America,” Lawrence and Ruthanne, Dolezal’s white parents, called their daughter’s identity switch “puzzling” and “baffling.”

But besides having another biological child, the Dolezals adopted four African-American boys. Frankly I can see how Dolezal would think racial identity is no big deal.

Still, it isn’t possible to change your ethnicity by putting on dark makeup and changing your hairstyle. We are shaped by our experiences that include familial, racial and ethnic history.

Dolezal’s plight makes me question the future role of racial identity. This white woman went to Howard University, a historically black college, was part of a racial reconciliation community development project in Jackson, Mississippi, and is a professor of African-American studies at Eastern Washington University.

It is unfortunate Dolezal apparently felt she had to assume a black identity to be taken seriously as a black activist or civil rights leader. We used to call women like her “blue-eyed soul sisters.”

Obviously some of the people who appreciated her efforts are turned off by the deception. And I suspect some of the furor outside the black community stems from Dolezal denying her whiteness.

Hopefully something more meaningful than the hilarious roasting Dolezal is getting at #AskRachel can come out of this.

White journalist John Howard Griffin in 1959 underwent a skin-darkening procedure so that he could travel the South and record what the experience was like for black men.

“Black Like Me” was published in 1961 and later became a movie.

Before Griffin’s exploits, another white journalist, Ray Sprigle of the Post-Gazette, disguised as a black man, wrote a 21-part newspaper series about the segregated South.

The writer wanted to “see for himself how the South’s 10 million mostly poor, mostly uneducated black people endured the petty humiliations and legal oppressions of Jim Crow.”

Dolezal’s experiences as a black woman could prove to be just as valuable.

At the very least, Dolezal gave us a new way to look at race.

Follow Mary Mitchell on Twitter: @MaryMitchellCST

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