I remember, with painful clarity, the time I ached to be white. I mean that literally, by the way. I stuck a clothespin on my nose when I was about 6 years old, hoping to shape that flat, Filipino knob of flesh into a more aquiline point. That shit hurt and, even worse, it didn’t work.
This desire to be white was amplified by a commercial for skin-bleaching lotion I saw on TV in the Philippines, where I was raised for a portion of my childhood. Filipinos, like most Asians, are color-struck, equating lighter, fairer skin with wealth, status and capital-B Beauty. Although I was half-white (or mestiza, as Filipinos call it) and the lightest of my cousins, my Southeast Asian features—the dark-brown eyes; the tan skin; the flat, button nose—made whiteness, and white identity, elusive. When I look at pictures of myself as a child now, I’m surprised that I ever felt that way. But back then, whiteness was a thing to fetishize, aspire to and pray for, but never reach.
Reading In Full Color, Rachel Dolezal’s memoir, I was struck by this similarity between her and me. We both grew up fetishizing an other, aching to inhabit a skin that wasn’t our own. But for me, the experience of longing for whiteness, the need to create it and mold myself to it, would always be the reason I could never see myself as a white woman. Not so with Dolezal, who, as her book makes clear, fetishized and exoticized black identity before ultimately conjuring up a version for herself.
In another grotesque twist, with the publication of her memoir, Dolezal has now exerted herself as an expert on racial fluidity. A concept that does exist and a conversation that is necessary—but one that, like blackness, she has no authority to speak on.
A study comparing census responses in 2000 and 2010 shows that approximately 9.8 million people changed their racial classification from one year to the next—a phenomenon labeled “racial churn.” While movement between categories was seen across all races, the most “instability” (that is, the categories in which more people moved in and out of) was seen in people identifying as Native American, Pacific Islander or mixed race.
Researchers don’t fully understand why this movement exists, but one of the study’s authors, Carolyn Liebler, noted to me that those groups historically saw a lot of mixed-race families, which could complicate the idea of where one belongs. Given the ways in which race affects behavior and political attitudes, the fact that almost 10 million Americans struggle to name this aspect of their identity is important to explore in this moment, when anxiety about diversity (that is, the unwhitening of America) is what led many white people to vote for Donald Trump in the first place.
But instead of hearing their stories, we hear Dolezal’s. She trots out sociological theories to mask a racial fantasy—a word I’m borrowing from Dolezal herself—that she claims was born out of trauma.
“In my fantasy,” Dolezal writes in her book, “[my parents] Larry and Ruthanne had kidnapped me, brought me to the United States, and were now raising me against my will in a foreign land. Back home in Africa, I’d possessed the ability to control the weather, but here in Montana my special power didn’t work.”
What becomes clear, early on, is that fetishization defined much of Dolezal’s supposed kinship and identification with blackness: She learns of blackness mostly through National Geographic and Sports Illustrated; images of Jackie Joyner-Kersee and Florence Griffith Joyner in the latter magazine struck her as “the height of human beauty.”
Of these black athletes, Dolezal wrote: “The idealized image of Blackness I’d developed while studying photographs of them never [faded from my consciousness].”
Never once does Dolezal acknowledge that admiration of black bodies or a black aesthetic isn’t unique to black people. In fact, many people who fail to see black humanity haven’t failed to appreciate black bodies. Even more disturbing is the way she collapses black narratives into her biography in baldly self-serving ways—as in this passage, in which Dolezal draws parallels between the lives of slaves and her own: “For black slaves to survive such sustained trauma took an incredible amount of inner fortitude and day-to-day resourcefulness,” Dolezal writes, recounting the ways in which African-American slaves managed to create culture and pass it down through generations.
And then, without any irony: “I developed a similar resourcefulness at a very young age.”
Dolezal goes on to explain how she—ever resourceful—made money by selling homemade candy.
This lack of self-awareness pops up constantly throughout In Full Color, which perhaps isn’t surprising. This is, after all, the same woman who recently said she had experienced more stigma as a “transracial” woman than transgender people have, the one who said she’s the “Pan” in “Pan-African.” The woman who bronzed her skin to, presumably, make her son feel more comfortable; who stoked and accepted assumptions about her black identity (she says) to make black people around her feel more at ease; who took on whiteness because she got woke to its horrors, and yet also absolved herself of the work of dismantling white supremacy as a white woman.
If whiteness has become a kind of shorthand for racial myopia and the inability to acknowledge or actively combat racial blind spots, then Dolezal, through these very actions, has demonstrated a particularly dangerous brand of it.
It’s insulting to posit this as a case study for how racial identity is forged. It’s preposterous that she would sit with the New York Times and field questions from viewers on whether a white person could identify as Asian—a question she evaded with a nebulous answer about not knowing that person’s journey. And in advancing her narrative, she casts into the shadows the stories of millions of Americans who do experience racial fluidity.
Nearly 25 years after that moment of trying to take whiteness into my own hands, I received a DNA test that confirmed that I was genetically slightly more European than Southeast Asian. This did nothing to reverse my understanding of myself as a brown woman—I had learned to love the features I once detested, had been raised by a woman who was unabashedly brown and proud of it, had lived in Asian countries and Latin countries, and found myself, over and over, having to explain and define what it is I was. I have been mistaken for every race (or combination thereof) in the book, been told by black people that I’m merely “light skinned” and been reassured by white people that they didn’t even look at me as Asian.
The concept of racial fluidity is helpful for me and others like me in understanding why we could genetically be one thing but feel another. Equally important, it captures how those feelings could change: how you could be more aware of your biracialness in one moment and more aware of your blackness the next. And while it’s up to us to define how we identify, our family histories matter, and the way others perceive us (even if it’s incomplete) matters. Negotiating the sum of all we’ve inherited and drawing from those parts an authentic self is not easy for anyone. It’s a reckoning, and it has consequences.
It isn’t lost on me that this ability some of us have to define—to, in fact, choose what we are—is a privilege. Of course, Dolezal never really sees it this way.
“Imagining I was a different person living in a different place was one of the few ways—drawing was another—that I could escape the oppressive environment I was raised in,” wrote Dolezal, “and I would stay in this fantasy world as long as I possibly could.”
It seems she’s still there.