Rachel Dolezal and Iron Eyes Cody

Rachel Dolezal’s denials of her race are becoming increasingly bizarre, just begging to be parodied:

How can a woman whose very job as the head of the Spokane chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, “the nation’s oldest and largest civil rights organization,” was to advocate for Black people now act as if she is oblivious to the distinctions America draws between Black and White? Even if she identifies herself with Black culture, it now seems very clear that she was born White.

So why not admit that and then shift the focus to how we define race in America:

Is it based on the race of birth parents? If so, Rachel Dolezal is White. Or maybe it’s upbringing? If so, wouldn’t Ezra Dolezal, Rachel’s (light-skinned, but does that matter?) Black, adopted stepbrother, also be White since he was raised by Rachel’s parents?

Ezra seems especially offended by Rachel’s obfuscations, claiming she is engaging in “Blackface.” While maybe literally true in regard to a White (reverse?) passing as Black, “Blackface” evokes many other shadings that are clearly not part of this case. Blackface employs stereotypes to demean Blacks for the entertainment of Whites; plus, the true race of the actors with cork smeared on their faces was never actually in doubt (even when it was sometimes Black performers corking their already Black faces in order to entertain Whites).

Whether or not Rachel Dolezal is Black, she was living as if she were. And the people she interacted with, including in her job with the NAACP, seem to have believed she was Black until the story came out. A recent Washington Post article found this year-old quote from her:

“You choose a side. You can kind of be a bridge, but pretty much you have a home one place or another. And in Mississippi, white culture — I didn’t feel at home there at all.”

Choose a side, yes, even choose a home, but choose one’s race?

If race is a choice, the choice seems to be in the hands of others, not ourselves. Do dark-skinned Blacks really have the option of suddenly declaring themselves White or will other people’s responses always remind them of who they “really” are?

A number of books and movies feature scenes of young boys and girls “discovering” they are Black when taunted by White kids, such as this one described by Godfrey Cambridge in The President’s Analyst:

Godfrey Cambridge also starred in Watermelon Man, about a White man who wakes up one day to find a Black man staring at him from his mirror. The rest of the film details how differently he is treated by others, even as he continues to think of himself as White, at least until the racism radicalizes him.

This all reminds me of an earlier example of racial reinvention.

To people of a certain age, Iron Eyes Cody is the “Crying Indian” in the “Keep America Beautiful” PSA that was aired in the ’70s:

However, after his death in 1999, it was revealed that perhaps the most famous American Indian of his time was actually an Italian American, born Espera DeCorti. That fact is still not acknowledged on the official Iron Eyes Cody website, but does it matter? No one doubts Cody’s devotion to Indian American Rights, for which he advocated for decades.

Nor should Dolezal’s work for racial equality with the NAACP which, by every estimation I’ve read, she was very good at. So let’s not let one individual’s quirky story distract us from the bigger issue of race in America. Let’s follow Dolezal’s own words in her posted resignation, particularly:

“While challenging the construct of race is at the core of evolving human consciousness, we can NOT afford to lose sight of [larger issues] that affect millions, often with a life or death outcome. The movement is larger than a moment in time or a single person’s story, . . .”

Full text:

And remember, racial equality is the responsibility of all races, Black, Brown, Yellow, etc., and White. Most people do not realize it, but the vast majority of the founders of the NAACP were White men and women who were appalled by the lynchings, race and injustice riots of their day.


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