Passing for black? Now that's a twist

Story highlights

  • Rachel Dolezal is accused of misrepresenting herself as black
  • The concept of "passing" is well-known in the black community
  • Dolezal's story has added a new chapter to discussions about race and appropriation

Lisa Respers France is a senior producer for CNN Digital and host of the "Lisa's Desk" video franchise.

(CNN)"In this day and age who in the world willingly wants to be black?"

I jokingly said that to my husband when news about Rachel Dolezal broke.
Dolezal, 37, is president of the Spokane, Washington, chapter of the NAACP whose racial identity is being questioned, now that her parents have produced what they say is her birth certificate. It appears to show that she is white.
    They said their daughter, who reportedly earned a master's degree from the historically black Howard University in Washington, D.C., and is a professor of Africana Studies at Eastern Washington University, began to "disguise herself" as black after the family adopted four African-American children.
    Don't get me wrong, I am a proud black woman who grew up in a family that is incredibly diverse and has such a heritage of hues that my parents were once questioned in a store as to where they "got that white baby from," as they carted around my fair-skinned and light-eyed infant nephew.
    But with all the heated debate over race relations and the treatment of minorities by law enforcement, which has resulted in unrest and more than a few black mothers burying their sons and daughters, I was both flabbergasted and intrigued by any claim that a white woman would willingly pass as black.

    Race isn't necessarily skin color

    The concept of "passing" is something many African-Americans are familiar with. Some members of my own family were so light-skinned, with European features, that they willingly chose to live as white rather than deal with the discrimination of being black in America.
    My mother, Patricia, who is fair and has greenish-gray eyes, tells the story of when her grandmother arrived at the bank where my mother worked after it closed. My biracial great-grandmother, Rose Evans, knocked on the window as my mother stood next to her white co-worker, counting out their drawer.
    "There's a woman trying to get your attention," the co-worker told my mother.
    When my mother responded "I know. That's just my grandmother," the co-worker continued: "No. There's a white woman trying to get your attention." "No. That's my grandmother," my mother repeated as her co-worker turned bright red with embarrassment.
    The truth of the matter is that when it comes to race, you just can't tell from looking.
    One of my closest friends, Jill Hudson, is a stunning woman and the product of two African-American parents. Yet she is so light, with straight hair, that when I excitedly shared with Baltimore Sun co-workers that "a new, black reporter" had been hired to cover police in Howard County, I was asked, when she showed up for her first day on the job: "Where is the new black reporter?"

    'Passing' has its privileges and pitfalls

    With her bright blue eyes, white skin and sandy colored hair, my great-grandmother could have chosen to walk away from her family and pursue a life where no one need ever know that she was a black woman. Instead, she chose to marry (more than once) black men and give birth to children who ranged from "white looking" to brown.
    Not all took that path.
    In her book "A Chosen Exile: A History of Racial Passing in American Life," historian Allyson Hobbs tells the stories of those who shunned family and heritage for the perceived better life that being white offered. She wrote the book, Hobbs told NPR, after learning she had a cousin she never knew whose mother sent her from Chicago to California in search of a better life because she could pass for white. The plan was so successful that when the cousin learned her father had died, she declined to come to the funeral, telling her family, "I can't. I'm a white woman now."
    "Her mother really felt that this was the very best thing she could do for her daughter," Hobbs told NPR. "She felt this was a way to offer opportunities to her daughter that she wouldn't have living as a black woman on the South Side of Chicago."
    Suffice it to say those are some of the tangled roots from which the collective black family tree springs, and this is why Dolezal's story has sparked everything from outrage to amusement to praise for her being an "ally" of the black community.
    But to some, even the conversation surrounding Dolezal felt like just another example of white privilege. As one person tweeted, "Only a white person could get this much attention for being black."
    Beyond all this, there are many questions surrounding Dolezal.
    Is she in fact white, or is there a family secret, a la Lacey Schwartz, a Harvard Law School graduate turned filmmaker who grew up believing she was white and Jewish before learning she was actually black? (Schwartz tells her story in her documentary "Little White Lie.")
    Or was this some type of years-long social experiment, as my Facebook friend Robin Greene dubbed it --"Black Like Me: The new Millennia Edition," referencing the book by white journalist John Howard Griffin who in the 1950s disguised himself as a black man and traveled through the racially segregated South?
    At the very least, Dolezal has added a new chapter to the already heated discussions about race and appropriation of black culture that has dogged celebrities for years, most recently rapper Iggy Azalea.
    A native Australian, Azalea has become the new poster girl for the complaint that white artists are quick to snatch up black art forms (hip-hop for her, R&B for Elvis), sanitize them to make them more appealing for the masses (read "white") and laugh all the way to the bank.
    "White rappers are always difficult to comprehend, difficult to deal with," Amy Zimmerman wrote for The Daily Beast. "Eminem pissed off a lot of people by using the N-word, and you're not a real hip-hop fan if you're not still processing Kendrick Lamar's 2013 Grammy defeat at the extremely white hands of Macklemore. But Iggy Azalea is a special case: her story falls at the intersection of race, gender, commodification and co-option, and speaks to a history of black erasure that many artists feel they can no longer afford to ignore."
    As with anything connected to race, the story of Dolezal is complicated. Our times are touted as "post-racial," even as economic disparity between the races remains plain to see and we continue to debate "the n-word" -- most recently, for example, when actor Tom Hanks' son Chester Hanks went on a rant defending his use of the racial epithet.
    If Dolezal did indeed successfully pass as a black woman for years, many will resent her, and this is easily understandable. In doing so, she will have provided further credence to the conservative narrative that affirmative action and attempts to level the racial playing field have clearly given blacks some type of advantage over others.
    Then there is the issue of how being "transracial" is not an option readily available to most of us of color who must still live our lives in a society where some continue to view us as "less than."
    Don't look for Dolezal to get a pass from black people on this one.