Ex-NAACP leader should admit she lied about being black

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FILE - In this Friday, Jan. 16, 2015, file photo, Rachel Dolezal, center, Spokane's newly-elected NAACP president, smiles as she meets with Joseph M. King, of King's Consulting, left, and Scott Finnie, director and senior professor of Eastern Washington University's Africana Education Program, before the start of a Black Lives Matter Teach-In on Public Safety and Criminal Justice, at EWU, in Cheney, Wash. Dolezal's family members say she has falsely portrayed herself as black for years. (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review via AP, File)

ALTHOUGH LIFE isn't always black-and-white, Rachel Dolezal should be ashamed of herself for misrepresenting herself as something other than what she was.

Her lie was bound to reveal itself, no matter how much liquid tanner she must have used to darken her naturally pale skin. It was only a matter of time until someone - maybe her hair braider or one of her siblings - was going to reveal to the world that she wasn't really African-American as she claimed.

It wound up being her biological parents who outed her, revealing that Dolezal is, in fact, Caucasian. That shocking revelation set off a national discussion about racial identity and what it means to be black in America: Does one only get to claim authentic blackness according to the old one-drop rule? What role, if any, does personal choice have in determining racial identification? Also, in the era of Caitlyn (formerly Bruce) Jenner, could there possibly be such a thing as transracial? (Nah, but more on that later.)

Yesterday, as debate surrounding these third-rail issues swirled, Dolezal, 37, stepped down from her position as head of the Spokane, Wash., branch of the NAACP. In a statement on the group's Facebook page, Dolezal says, "It is with complete allegiance to the cause of racial and social justice and the NAACP that I step aside from the presidency and pass the baton to my vice president."

That hasn't stopped critics from slamming Dolezal for claiming a heritage that not only isn't her birthright - but is one she can never fully understand.

What's fascinating about Dolezal is that, until recently, she was living as a black woman - as much as one can without actually being African-American. As the head of the Spokane branch of the NAACP, she immersed herself in black issues. Dolezal also works part-time as a professor in the Africana Studies program at Eastern Washington University and has a master's in fine arts from historically black Howard University.

But that doesn't mean she has a black card.

Anthea Butler, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania tweeted, "To those of you asking I am not writing about #RachelDolezal. I'm concerned with real black peoples lives, not wannabe pathology."

Sophia Nelson, author of The Woman Code, tweeted: "No white woman knows my experience as a black woman. Period the end. #RachelDolezal."

NBC's "Today" show reportedly has booked the first national TV interview with Dolezal. If she's smart, she'll ditch the curly wig and skin bronzer and just be herself during that and subsequent interviews with Melissa Harris-Perry and the rest. It's high time for Dolezal to quit lying.

Besides, it's not as if she's the first white person to identify closely with the plight of African- Americans. The civil-rights movement owes a debt of gratitude to all the white Americans who not only helped finance the struggle but walked hand-in-hand with black marchers.

Although you don't often hear about it, there have been cases of white people who've chosen to identify as black. Marcia Dawkins, author of Clearly Invisible: Racial Passing and the Color of Cultural Identity, told USA Today: "We have a lot of stories during segregation of people choosing to pass or identify as black in order to promote civil rights and just to help bring attention and awareness in numbers."

As a Howard University graduate, I remember certain people on campus who IDed black - even though outwardly they had all of the physical characteristics typically associated with white Americans. One professor looked about as white as one can look, but claimed African-American ancestry. We undergrads were skeptical, but who were we to question him?

Yesterday I spoke with former U.S. Sen. Harris Llewellyn Wofford Jr., the first Caucasian to graduate from Howard's law school.

"The startling thing was the range of color everybody was," he recalled. "There were several of the so-called black students who were whiter than I was."

Ironically, Dolezal unsuccessfully sued Howard University after her 2002 graduation, alleging that the school discriminated against her for, among other things, being white. So, when it was convenient for her to perhaps get minority status-type financial aid at a black institution, she was OK with being seen as white. But in her current life, girlfriend's switched to black because that's what suits her now. The ability to approximate racial fluidity is what makes Dolezal's so-called black experience completely inauthentic.

"It's a choice available to relatively few and . . . allows a white person to enjoy all of the privileges [group acceptance, social accolades, academic prestige] without actually having to overcome the experience of prejudice and discrimination," Mikhail Lyubansky, an expert on the psychology of race at the University of Illinois, told Yahoo! Health.

We may love the term "transracial," but we're not there yet.

"The best thing is we are having this discussion about what it means to be black or what it means to be white or what it means to be down for the cause," Todd Bernstein, a white man who has devoted his life to civil-rights issues and fighting racism, told me yesterday.

Bernstein, president of Global Citizen and founder/director of the Greater Philadelphia Martin Luther King Day of Service, also said, "I don't necessarily question her sincerity about fighting racism and working for the rights of black folk. The issue for her is one of integrity."

And, no doubt, a healthy dose of crazy.


On Twitter: @JeniceArmstrong

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