The Chronicle Review

What the 1920s Tell Us About Dolezal and Racial Illogic

June 19, 2015

What does it mean to identify across race lines and to claim a racial identity disconnected from background or biology? Why does so-called reverse passing (white to black) generate such extraordinary attention and controversy? The Rachel Dolezal case reveals a conundrum in race debates that remains unresolved.

Dolezal, who evidently has been passing for black for years as an activist and Africana-studies instructor, maintains that she is black because she feels black. She says that she "certainly can’t be seen as white" and be the mother of a black son. She asserts that her choices are "misunderstood" because "race as a construct has a fluid understanding." Her defense of what some dub deception is consistent with social constructionism, which maintains that there is no biological or essential basis to race and that all notions of racial difference are rooted in culture. And this makes her case especially troubling.

While the bulk of commentary on Dolezal has been condemnatory, some observers have described her as a "Voluntary Negro" to indicate that they "admire," as the black female journalist Camille Gear Rich put it, Dolezal’s "choice to live her life as a black person."

The category "Voluntary Negro," however, was never intended for whites. The term was coined in the 1920s to describe — and honor — light-skinned blacks, like the NAACP official Walter White, who looked white but insisted on being identified as black (and had the black ancestry to back that up). Blacks who might have passed for white, but didn’t, were lionized by their community. Voluntary Negroes were those who expressed loyalty to their "own" race, not those who cross-identified. They became exemplars of what was seen as a proper ethical relation to race, an embodiment of the "race pride" that was the heart of "New Negro" sensibilities. They were celebrated as part of a broader cultural argument for affirming blackness in the face of white prejudice, and as part of the larger energies of black self-determination and self-definition that fueled cultural renaissances in Harlem, Chicago, and elsewhere. Voluntary Negroes became icons of what Alain Locke, often considered the "midwife" of the Harlem Renaissance, called "the admirable principle of loyalty."

What if Dolezal is logically right and culturally wrong?

"New Negroes," committed to "racial solidarity," deplored passing almost as much as white racists, who lived in terror of secret infiltrations of their families. And critiques of passing in the defense of blackness, while widespread, were also often riven by contradictions. Every call for racial "loyalty" and "racial solidarity" risked supporting the pernicious notion that race was innate, biological, predetermined, or fixed — the ideology that we call "essentialism" now and that black intellectuals challenged vigorously. Voluntary Negroes like Walter White — as committed an anti-essentialist as the Harlem Renaissance ever produced — had to use their vaunted status carefully to avoid shoring up everything they opposed.

But the adulation accorded Voluntary Negroes gave some whites the idea that they too could — and should — volunteer for blackness. A number of white women passed for black, or claimed blackness, in the 1920s. And even more white women, drawn by myths of black exoticism, expressed a longing or "prayer" to become "yellow … bronze … or black." Many, like Dolezal, felt, in her words, "isolated and alienated" among other whites. The white British heiress Nancy Cunard, for example, wrote that she "longed" for a "white friend with feelings such as mine." Crossing race lines relieved their alienation and afforded feelings of uniqueness, of being a pioneer who could brave what others would not.

Some of the white women who claimed blackness in the 1920s did so as an act of empathy and solidarity, others as a claim for identity’s mutability and flexibility, echoing Dolezal’s view of the "fluidity" of race. Some felt, like Dolezal, that their experiences as anti-racists gave them insight and even authority about "the black experience." "I speak as if I were Negro myself," Cunard proclaimed. Some believed they had been black in previous lives. "I am a Black God," declared Charlotte Osgood Mason, a white Park Avenue philanthropist who supported both Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston.

Others felt they’d experience a stronger sense of community or succeed more easily in the arts in black circles than in white ones. A few white women argued, just as Dolezal has done, that no white mother of black children would still be considered white in a racist society.

When the white Texas artist Josephine Cogdell Schuyler, married to Harlem’s most prominent black journalist, gave birth to their biracial daughter, she noted that she had forfeited her whiteness and achieved a sufficient degree of blackness to write under various black personae. Those included the figure of Julia Jerome, Harlem’s "black" Ann Landers, dispensing advice — including the protocols for black womanhood — to black, female newspaper readers throughout the nation, via Schuyler’s literary passing.

Many of those women argued for their choices in terms that resonate strongly with those who defend Dolezal on the grounds that race is "elective" and that anyone, in Rich’s words, "has a right and dignity to claim the identity of one’s choice." Josephine Cogdell Schuyler, coining a new term to express both institutional racism and social constructionism, dismissed race as a "superstition" to which she owed, in her view, nothing at all. If race was a social fiction and not an essential — or biological — component of being, she and other race-crossing white women maintained, then on what grounds could anyone say that they weren’t black?

Their position, in fact, is logical. And it is hard not to fall back on essentialism ("not your culture"; "you’re appropriating what is not yours") in reply. Cultural experiments like Dolezal’s, or like those of Miss Anne (as Harlem’s white women were called), push hard against all our racial logics. On what grounds can we argue that they’ve transgressed? How do we defend our outrage at their actions? Attempts to do so, and at the same time avoid essentialist or fundamentalist claims for racial difference, often end up leaning on an essentialism that is rarely conceded.

When push comes to shove in debating the ethics of a case like Dolezal’s, it’s difficult not to weave versions of essentialism into narratives of trespass and moral questions of cultural rights and privileges. So these debates can uncomfortably unveil the extent to which the most fervent social constructionists (I am one of them) may harbor hidden essentialisms.

But what if Dolezal and Miss Anne are both logically right and culturally wrong? Even if social constructionism supports Dolezal’s choices, wouldn’t a nuanced understanding of culture suggest that volunteering for an identity is most ethical when — and if — it is also invited, and welcomed, by the community one wishes to join? Recognizing that race is a social construction need not mean believing that race is "elective" or that we can choose to be whatever we want. The same cultural respect that fosters advocacy and activism can help delineate when volunteering slides into imposition and deception.

Ironically, it may be the most difficult and disturbing figures who help to move us forward. As unlikely and sometimes unwelcome as her gestures were in the 1920s, for example, Miss Anne fostered important rearticulations of racial boundaries and possibilities. She lit up contradictions in her culture’s racial thinking. Her messy and often failed attempts to rewrite racial identity served as reminders that the historical illogics of racist ideology cannot be defeated by the logics of racial arguments alone.

Carla Kaplan is a professor of American literature at Northeastern University whose books include Miss Anne in Harlem: The White Women of the Black Renaissance (Harper, 2013), a group biography of white women who crossed race lines in the 1920s, and the 2007 Norton Critical Edition of Passing, the 1929 novel by Nella Larsen.