Sadly, her name will be remembered for all the wrong reasons. We will forget whatever good she did as head of the NAACP’s Spokane chapter and instead recall a deception that has, at turns, intrigued and repelled a nation. An unfortunate waste, that. Surely we can learn something from a woman who passed herself off as someone she believes she is but that society adamantly defines as not. Her bizarre case has forced us to think about race and identity, biology and genealogy in a way that is different from the usual vitriol.
The Dolezal saga is particularly important at a time when racial tensions have flared up in an alarming way. At a time when a country grieves for nine black people massacred by a 21-year-old white supremacist in a historic Charleston church. When conflicts between law enforcement and community have left several unarmed black men dead. When investigative stories, including recent reports by CBS4’s Jim Defede, show how some cops unfairly target blacks. When the gaping wound that is discrimination continues to fester.
But first things first. Dolezal was wrong to mislead people, wrong to lie about a minority experience that was not hers. She has described herself as “transracial’’ and proclaimed on national television: "Well, I definitely am not white. Nothing about being white describes who I am."
But she grew up white, experienced whiteness and enjoyed its privileges. To claim “blackness” as her own is a betrayal of those who have been enslaved, lynched and oppressed because of skin color. Feeling affinity for a cause or a people, no matter how genuine and fierce that empathy is, can never translate to the actual experience. Dolezal can abandon her blackness. She can leave behind the accompanying tapestry of prejudice at any time. People of color — black or brown — can’t.
Ever heard the word aplatanado? It’s a term Cubans and Dominicans use to identify those who have gone native, those who adopt and adapt to the quirks of island culture. Dolezal, in my part of the world, would have been referred to as such. Aplatanada. No one knows, however, if she would’ve still felt a need to usurp a life and a lineage that were not hers to take.
As the Dolezal story grew more entangled, some argued, sometimes too assiduously, that the color of our skin has ceased to matter in this country, that race and ethnicity and whatever identifying physical traits we wear as a gift from our ancestors are no longer obstacles. She served as their example. But we’re a long way from that and this fairy tale of a post-racial society negates reality. Racism and hatred are alive and well. Dylann Roof, intent on starting a race war, reminded us of that last week in South Carolina. His photos and manifesto go beyond the usual hideous and cringe-worthy website.
Yet, as weird as it sounds, Dolezal’s explanation — “I identify as black’’ — resonates with the possibility of truth. Her self-identification raises issues about ethnic and racial identity in a country that is becoming increasingly multi-racial. A recent report from the Pew Research Center revealed that the number of Americans with at least two races in their background is growing three times faster than the U.S. population in general.
Is her story a peek at a future where identity is fluid? Will the color of our skin, the slant of our eyes, the shape of our nose ever not matter? Will race one day become a trait we choose and not one imposed by society?
These are questions that Dolezal’s drama hints at but that we’re far from answering.
Follow Ana on Twitter @AnaVeciana.