Outspoken civil rights activist Rachel Dolezal has recently come to prominent media attention after it was revealed that she has for years been passing herself off as a black woman - during which time she became the president of the Spokane chapter of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) - when in fact she has two white parents, and is, by the usual definition, as white as white can be.
I have no idea why Dolezal chose to start identifying as a black woman (though I’m intrigued to learn more). A desire better to understand and experience first-hand some of the discrimination experienced by black Americans? A strong affinity felt for some of her black friends, or her adopted black brother? An ulterior motive, perhaps, such as wanting access to better opportunities within the civil rights movement (for the record, though, she’s not the first white leader in the NAACP)? Mental illness? Whichever the case, arguments could be made that her actions may have been callous, insensitive, offensive, deceitful, or worse.
Yet I can’t help feeling that the public outcry about her supposed duplicity reveals something about how arbitrary, naïve, and delusional society’s perceptions of race often are. Ethical questions aside, it really is pretty remarkable that she managed to pass herself off as someone of a different race for a full decade without anyone suspecting something was amiss. After all, as Wikipedia notes, "There is a wide consensus that the racial categories that are common in everyday usage are socially constructed, and that racial groups cannot be biologically defined."
I have zero personal insight into why Dolezal chose to perform race as she did. But the reason that her story is so fascinating to me and to the rest of the world is that it exposes in a disquieting way that our race is performance – that, despite the stark differences in how our races are perceived and privileged (or not) by others, they are all predicated on a myth that the differences are intrinsic and intrinsically perceptible. As Greer wrote, Dolezal “shows us how stupid the construct of ‘race’ is. It can get you killed and it can get you an NAACP presidency.”