So Rachel Dolezal has been passing as black. There’s been a lot of hoo-haw about this and that, comparisons with transgender people, etc. I see the comparison with Bruce Jenner — if someone can simply declare that they, as a person, feel that their actual person is in direct defiance of biology, and can alter their appearance to fit the inside, then Dolezal is 1000% within that realm. But.
Passing has a long history in America. Starting from the start of America up until the end of Jim Crow, it went one direction: black people (remember, this is in the era of the one-drop rule) passing as white people. They passed for a simple reason — institutional racism in our culture imposed terrible burdens on them, preventing them from practicing a trade or leading a normal life while in their birth race. The people who passed didn’t have something wrong with them — it was a rational response to the irrational barriers our culture imposed on them.
Virtually no one black passes as white anymore. Other than our justice system, institutional racism is gone. You don’t need to be white to hold certain jobs or live in certain neighborhoods anymore. You can get the job you want and are competent at, and you can live where you want if you are black.
Rachel Dolezal, on the other hand, was in a situation like the pre-Jim Crow black person. There is no doubt that she has had a life-long yearning for black culture. She did her graduate studies in African American art at Howard University, a historically black college. And she did it as a white woman — and experienced what she felt was discrimination from that institution. Whether that was actually it or not, she certainly felt that way.
She married a black man. She has black adopted brothers. She was active in the NAACP and taught college courses on African studies. There is no doubt that she is steeped in black culture. And, at some point, like the black Americans of yore, the pressure of institutional racism against white people in those fields convinced her to start passing.
It’s as tragic as it was before the civil rights movement. Even thought it is undeserved, human beings still feel shame when they are forced into that. And just like when blacks passed as whites, when whites pass as blacks, it is because of institutional racism in the culture that they participate in. Now the institutional racism is in black academia, and it is those racist institutions that should feel that shame.