White People Have Been Passing for Black for Centuries…A Historian Explains

Rachel Dolezal — the now-former Spokane NAACP president
Rachel Dolezal — former NAACP president.

The story of Rachel Dolezal — the now-former Spokane NAACP president whose parents have claimed she's white — has opened up an enormously complicated debate about race and identity in general, and blackness in America in particular.

Dolezal has presented herself as "black, white, and American Indian/Alaskan Native," but her estranged parents say she's simply white and has been trying to deceive everyone. When the scandal attracted national attention, Dolezal resigned from her NAACP presidency — without saying anything about her race.

Examples of white people passing as black are much less common than the reverse, but there's still historical precedent for what Dolezal did. Baz Dreisinger, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, traced the history of white passing in a 2008 book called Near Black. I talked to Dreisinger about how white passing has worked over time, and asked her whether there is ever a legitimate way to "cross-identify" with black culture.

Dara Lind:

Can you give us a brief rundown of the history of white people passing as black in America?

Baz Dreisinger:

It's not like this was a massive chapter in American history, like traditional racial passing, which is a massive chapter. But I think people are shocked to discover that there is actually this history of white people who've passed as black and that Rachel Dolezal is hardly the first person to come along and do it, and in fact the way that she did it is in line with a number of historical examples.

In the context of slavery, there are both real and fictional accounts of white people who became enslaved — sometimes white people from the North who are kidnapped and sold into slavery as black. In a sense, passing for black becomes secondary to passing for slave. The idea is that the economic basis of this trumps the racial basis — not that they're separate.

In that context, obviously, there was no change of appearance necessary. But in the 20th century, there's a technology of passing that has to happen in order for the passing to be successful. Some people dyed their skin black and passed as black — the most famous example of that is John Howard Griffin, who wrote a memoir of his experience passing for a black man in the South during the era of Jim Crow. It's called Black Like Me. He did it for a temporary experiment; he literally sat under the sun lamp and darkened his skin in order to do that. And there's a woman who did a similar experiment to Griffin, whose name was Grace Halsell, who actually spent much of her life doing experimental passings — she passed as Native American, she passed as working-class — in order again to write exposés about what it's like to be those things. So she wrote a memoir in the '60s called Soul Sister, where she went through the same experiment Griffin did, only 10 years later, she's in the North in Harlem as well as in the South, and her whole concept was, "I want to see what it's like as a woman to do this."

I think music is the most powerful place where we've seen this sort of passing happen, and also cultural appropriation — in many ways, my book is as much about cultural appropriation as it is about passing. You have a character like Eminem who's clearly not passing, but is bringing up all these questions about cultural ownership and cross-racial identification — what does it mean to own a culture? Is there such a thing as owning a culture? Passing is a difficult thing to do today, given the legacies of cultural appropriation, of the metaphorical ripping off of black culture that we've seen — and, especially in music, appropriation where there's literally not a credit being given and also not financial remuneration being given for cultural products that were inventions of nonwhite people.

Dara Lind:

You've written about the idea that "proximity" to black people can make someone black by association, and that seems relevant here. How has that worked?

Baz Dreisinger:

Proximity gets defined differently as the generations proceed. First it was used as a racist trope: this notion that if you were too physically close to black people it would become contagious. And this is something that grows up during the slave era in the context of anxiety around being physically close to black people. Especially with the end of slavery there's this anxiety about "what's going to separate poor white from black, now that we don't have slavery as an institution anymore, and that there is this physical proximity in neighborhoods?" And so you had to impose physical distance by way of segregation in order to assert that there is this physical difference between the two.

But then part of what I argue with the book is that this same idea around proximity, literal and metaphorical closeness to black people, having the power to turn a white person black — becomes part of the fantasy that develops later. Such that people gain the right to say, "Hey, I identify with black because I grew up in a black neighborhood." Or in the case of Grace Halsell and women who pass, there's usually a man involved in the story: I married a black man or I got involved with black men, I had that sort of proximity.

We use this language to talk about it all the time: someone who grew up in a particular neighborhood has rights to a culture more than someone who didn't. I think we take that for granted. It becomes a big controversy in hip-hop all the time, that so-and-so has right to hip-hop culture because he or she comes from here, but so-and-so actually grew up in the suburbs so doesn't have a right to this culture. Proximity shapes the way that we talk about authenticity.

Dara Lind:

One of the objections I've heard to the case of Rachel Dolezal in particular is that she actually took spaces that could have gone to real black women. Can you talk about that?

Baz Dreisinger:

There's so much that we don't really know. She hasn't really spoken. There's so much hearsay going around, and we've seen interviews with her parents, but we still haven't seen an authentic discussion with her about this. And clearly there's a problem that there has been deception — lies are lies, and there's no way around that fact.

I don't know what to believe of what I'm reading. But I read, for instance, that she benefited from scholarships to Howard around being identified as a black person. [If she isn't black] that's just appropriation on the most literal level possible. It's like the cover phenomenon around rock 'n' roll around the birth of rock 'n' roll — literally, a white artist could steal a song, cover it, and make money that the black artist who created the song or recorded the song initially did not get. And those are cases where it's so easy for us to wag our fingers at someone, because that's literal theft, that's literally taking money out of someone else's pocket. Here you have this instance of her clearly benefiting from being black in a literal way.

The rest of how she benefited is much more complicated and harder to dismiss. Because she's not some supermillionaire who managed to become some superstar based on being black.

Dara Lind:

Beyond the question of benefits, what strikes you about the Rachel Dolezal case?

Baz Dreisinger:

A lot of the critique of Rachel has been that, "Oh, she could just claim it for a time and when it doesn't suit her anymore, she can dispose of it." Which is the ultimate privilege of whiteness: getting to try on identities and then getting to discard them after you get tired of them. Or after you outgrow them — in a lot of the cases in my book we're talking about adolescents who tried it on just during the time of adolescence, and then when they want to claim privilege again they claim it. So the very disposability of this kind of passing is, of course, part of the problem, because it speaks to some of the privilege behind it.

But Rachel's case is pretty fascinating in that it's not that simple. This isn't a scenario of the quote-unquote wigger, which there are so many parodies of in pop culture: the young white boy who decides he's black after watching three hours of BET, or 10 hours of BET, or 10 years of BET.

I have been a little disappointed that it isn't creating a richer discussion about what it means to cross-identify, and what makes someone legitimately of a culture. It's unfortunate that she had this case of literal deception. And then the bizarreness around the claims of abuse, and talk of slavery in her household, which muddies the whole situation in a terrible way.

Dara Lind:

It's like this idea in law, that "messy cases make bad law." What sort of case do you think would be a better basis for the rich discussion you're talking about?

Baz Dreisinger:

For instance, if she had never actually claimed it but had just been taken as it, it would say some profound things about this. Suppose we did find an ancestor in her lineage five generations back. Would that suddenly legitimize her? We have to question the one-drop rule that underlies all racial identifications because it's so problematic. But because of the level of absurdity of the claims, and again the literal theft that happened in terms of her deception, I don't know that we're getting to the place of a really useful discourse on this — and the useful discourse of are there ways to legitimately be, what's the term used, "transracial" that do make sense to us in this day and age, given how permeable cultural lines are.

Without getting into the Caitlyn Jenner comparisons that are going around: there is a term, that is trans, so it's a different identity that's in some sense you're not just saying "I am traditional female" but "I am trans." I do think "transracial" is a useful term for thinking about cross-racial identification.

I believe in the idea of creating identities. There are legitimate ways to cross-identify culturally. Absolutely. I'm comfortable saying that. In surveying this cultural history of white people passing for black there are some passers whose desire to pass strikes me as more understandable than others.

But how we draw the lines of what that legitimacy is, that's the conversation we need to have. And the ways you present. And we start to identify lying, and deception, literal theft and taking benefit — then you start to mess up the progressive moves you could potentially be making.

Dara Lind:

What would a more legitimate form of passing be?

Baz Dreisinger:

One of the things I differentiate between is this idea of passing for a character or a caricature. When someone is performing a caricatured idea of blackness that's not rooted in any sort of cultural experience with however one defines blackness, that's clearly very different than someone who's perhaps grown up in this community, is rooted in an identification with it that extends beyond just a little phase in their life, that extends a into a deeper affiliation with that culture. So I don't think we should be afraid to say there are some ways to identify that make more sense to us than others.

When I read of Rachel's case I thought of the founder of one of the first black newspapers in New Orleans, Jean-Charles Houzeau, whom I mention in my book. He himself admitted that he "never sought to deny the rumor that I had black blood." And he didn't, in fact. Of course, given the legacy of Creoles in New Orleans that was easy for him to do! But his identification was based on him being an activist, involved in politics, involved in the abolitionist movement, and involved in black rights. Can we differentiate that from the scenario of the kid who's just watching a lot of hip-hop videos? You're identifying based on something that has more substance, that is based on experience and knowledge and intellectual understanding, perhaps a social and cultural understanding.

Dara Lind:

On the other hand, that gets into another criticism — that in order to make white people care about black issues, it takes a white person pretending to be black.

Baz Dreisinger:

Of course! That's the criticism that's leveled at John Howard Griffin all the time. Frankly the same thing is true of so many experiences. We think about the success of Orange Is The New Black — no criticism of that book per se, but how many prison memoirs are there by nonwhite people who are incarcerated that didn't get that level of attention? This happens all the time, that it takes a white person to translate for a white mainstream audience. That's partly why John Howard Griffin, I think, fell out of favor. because it was like, "We don't need that translator anymore." So it's certainly a big problem.

It would have been a far more radical thing for her to just say, "Hi, I'm white, and I identify with these causes, with this culture, in whatever way that I do; yes, I teach Africana studies and I'm not of that descent, because it doesn't take being of that descent to care about these issues on an intellectual, cultural, or moral basis." That would be a far more radical thing to do, because it's saying you don't have to be it to care about it. I don't have to be female to care about women's rights issues. I don't have to be black to care about black rights issues. I don't have to be incarcerated in order to care about issues around incarceration. I bring that up because that's the primary work I do now, and my next book is about global mass incarceration. I've never been incarcerated, I don't have family members who are incarcerated. I have friends who are, but I think most people do in this day and age. But that doesn't mean that I can't care about it in a profound way.

Dara Lind:

You're talking to a woman who writes about immigration and criminal justice as a nice white Jewish girl.

Baz Dreisinger:

Right, so you know! There's something radical in that, which is to say, "I don't have to be it in order to be that passionate about it — to devote my life to it, even." That there's something inherently immoral about racism and mass criminalization.

I always find it fascinating when people ask me, "Why did you study African-American studies?" If I were to say I study Shakespeare, no one would say, "Why did you study that?" This is a legitimate, profound area of study. Why, being that I'm not African-American, would you think to ask me why I studied that and not why I studied Italian literature?

Written by Dara Lind | http://www.vox.com

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