OPINION: Rachel Dolezal and light skin
There were moments in the apartheid Parliament proceedings when someone would stand up and read from a list of people who had been racially reclassified under the Population Registration Act of 1950, in the impossible political project of policing race. Many people were destined to, on the basis of their skin colour and several 'tests', live lives that were worlds apart from their family members and communities.
For some, these new lives were of their own choosing, as they had chosen to 'pass' as white or coloured to escape oppression, and for material gain. But for others, this choice was never an option, as they felt the weight of being inescapably trapped in the racial designations that would define their lives. The weight of the pre-determined fate of their melanin. Mixed-raced or coloured people, in particular, are often familiar with what Fanon describes as being: 'responsible for my body, responsible for my race, responsible for my ancestors'.
The fascinating and bizarre story of Rachel Dolezal has launched thousands of think pieces. Outed as a white women in the United States, by her parents, Dolezal is a civil rights activist who has lived as a black women for the last decade: pretended an African American man was her father; is a professor of Africana Studies, claims to have been born in a tepee and beaten by her parents with a sjambok on the basis of skin complexion, and is the president of the Spokane Chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Her story has reignited global discussions about race and in particular the issue of racial passing.
While Gary Younge wrote that ''Racially 'passing' or 'performing whiteness' in America is older than the United States itself", it is a phenomenon experienced beyond the American context. It has resonance in every space where mixed raced people have had to navigate their identity and live in the existential middle-ground with its anxieties, relative privileges, internalised oppression and vastly different experiences within families and communities. In our South African context, it is a phenomenon that coloured people are all too familiar with.
Rachel Dolezal has opted into a light-skinned experience that plays in this space, but without the historical baggage that punctuates it, and lived experience that echoes from birth into childhood and remains a feature of adulthood. Without the unescapable reminders of living in a skin that has historically required constant navigation. She occupies in this space, always with the option of escaping it - which is a choice that does not easily present itself to people defined by it.
Light-skin has often placed mixed-raced people across the world with the choice and effects of 'Playing in the dark/Playing in the light', to quote a piece on Zoe Wicomb's work. In our context, coloured identity remains often reduced to being 'not black, nor white, yet both', which relies on the idea of racial authenticity, essentialism and purity, and often ignores that "through a combination of resilience, borrowings from other cultures, ingenuity and creativity, coloureds have produced practises distinctly theirs", as Grant Farred writes.
The existential echoes of what the poet Arthur Nortje once described as 'he who belongs to nothing/is to nothing/deeply attached' are uniquely felt by coloured people, who have often had to make sense of an identity and belonging that is built on a constant consciousness of being defined by blackness and whiteness. Younge cites Professor Paul Gilroy's remark that, in terms of race: "Everybody is mixed, but not everybody counts as mixed." Counting as mixed is a unique experience, with multiple sides - and seeing someone opt into that experience has been a strange, unsettling thing to witness.
We bring ourselves and the weight of our own experiences to everything that we encounter. Dolezal's story brings many uncomfortably familiar things to the fore, among them issues of race policing, identity politics, and belonging - which are key markers of the mixed raced experience.
There have been misplaced comparison to transgender identities, with the emergence of the idea of 'transracialism', which relies on a false equivalence, and importantly, does not recognise the fact that Dolezal has not explained her self-identification in these terms, or terms that are comprehensible in this way. Many of the defences of Dolezal's creation of a black identity are constructed and crafted out of speculation and hypotheses.
Steve W Thrasher writes that Dolezar's story 'exposes in a disquieting way that our race is performance…Not everyone has a conscious choice in performing race, or which race they're allowed to perform'. And when this choice is an option, afforded by light-skin, it is often accompanied by an inescapable anxiety and loss.
As Stanford historian Allison Hobbes, the author of A Chosen Exile: The History of Racial Passing in American Life comments: "To write a history of passing is to write a history of loss… Loss of self. Loss of family. Loss of community." It is a history of pencil tests, eyelid tests, the one drop rule, brown paper bag test, and constant race policing, from within and without.
The privileges of light skin sit right next to many of the anxieties. Race is a messy concept, and for mixed-raced people, it has always been slippery, insufficient, ill-defined, confusing and problematic. In South Africa, it has been accompanied by a history of acute policing, wrestling with the political economy of race, and psychological and emotional anxieties that shadow experience.
I self-identify as simultaneously black and coloured: the one a political choice, and the other a cultural experience, with both speaking to my personal construction of my identity. But I always have to be aware of the historical privileges of colouredness that remain salient, and the difference of my experience to my dark-skinned family members and the black majority of this country, and can never speak on behalf of them or voice their stories. It requires constantly being aware of the many unearned advantages of 'playing in the light', whether I choose it, or not.
In many ways my light skin and light eyes allows me an uncomfortable escape hatch - the ability to slip so easily into a different life, another experience, an alternate reality. My race can be read differently from one moment to the next. My experience can be remarkably different from one moment to the next.
The policing is constant and exhausting, strangers enquire about what race I am, from grocery stores to streets and offices. There is never full, complete access to one race and one experience. The fact of this racial mobility acutely punctuates the experiences of life within light skin - a historical and personal experience that Dolezal has never had to feel the full weight of.
In _The Souls of Black Folk _WEB du Bois wrote that 'the problem of the 20th century is the problem of the colour line', but that line remains relevant in dictating people's experiences in many ways, across space, place and time. For coloured or mixed-raced people, that line remains an ill-defined one that often allows the ability to slip into other experiences, mutate into a different form and assume a different life, where losses and gains sit side-by-side. It is this story, among many others, that Dolezar's can never tell, in all its complexity, colour and history.
Danielle Bowler holds a master's degree from Rhodes University and is a Mandela Rhodes scholar. She is currently an assistant researcher at Mistra and a member of Feminist Stokvel. She likes to think critically about the world around her, which often includes making complex political arguments about pop culture and Beyonce. Follow her on Twitter: @daniellebowler