The Dolezal Controversy and the Possibility of Transracial Identity
Photo Credit: New York Daily News
By Alvin Cheng-Hin Lim

The Dolezal Controversy and the Possibility of Transracial Identity

Apr. 04, 2017  |     |  0 comments

In June 2015, Rachel Dolezal, a prominent civil rights activist and president of the Spokane, Washington chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), was exposed as having lied about her racial identity. Dolezal had “claimed for years that her heritage is partly black,” but her parents revealed to the press that her racial heritage was instead “Czech, Swedish and German, with some remote Native American ancestry” (Pérez-Peña, 2015; Sharfstein, 2015).

Following the exposé and ensuing media circus, Dolezal was forced to resign from her position with the NAACP and lost her position as an instructor of Africana Studies at Eastern Washington University. As Aitkenhead (2017) recounts, “she has applied for more than 100 jobs, but no one will hire her, not even to stack supermarket shelves.” Despite her struggles, she has doubled down on her chosen racial identity, legally changing her name to the Ibo name Nkechi Amare Diallo, and writing a just-published book, In Full Color: Finding My Place in a Black and White World, in which she discusses the life experiences which led to her choice to become a trans-black person (Dale, 2017; Hassan, 2017).

In a recent interview, Dolezal recounts the “great awakening” that she felt when, as a graduate student, she was exposed to the concept of race as a social construct:

“I felt free, like I was no longer coerced into claiming ‘Whiteness’ because that was the ‘honest’ or right thing to do … But my sense of freedom was somewhat secret and internal, because I still didn’t feel I had permission from society to really live like I actually believed race was a social construct. So, to fit in with what other people already saw me as — my husband and family in particular — I just tucked that powerful idea in the back of my mind until I could more fully integrate it. Once I was free from my marriage and family influences and able to live a self-determined life, I connected the idea of race as a social construct with the philosophy of leaders like Dick Gregory, who said that ‘White isn’t a race, it’s a state of mind.’ I knew White wasn’t my state of mind, and this gave me permission to stop repressing and be exactly who I am” (Dolezal and Morning, 2017).

However, Dale (2017) reminds us that race is not just a social construct, and has an important biological component: “Research suggests that there are meaningful genetic differences among racial groups and that these differences are largely consistent with common racial classifications. Ignoring them can have real-world consequences, too, which is why pharmaceutical companies now have to do drug trials on ethnically diverse populations. If they don’t, certain drugs may be less effective, or even unsafe, in some populations because of genetic differences. It should come as no surprise that the main victims of underpowered pharmaceutical trials historically were African-Americans.”

Does this biological component of race preclude Dolezal from transitioning to a trans-black identity? At the time of the Dolezal exposé, many commentators highlighted the parallels between her case and that of the transgender celebrity Caitlyn Jenner. As with the biological differences between racial groups, there are also — perhaps even more — biological differences between the sexes, including differences in chromosomes, hormones, and sexual anatomy, and these sexual differences form the biological bases for many of the variations in gender identity. Despite such biological differences, however, many of Dolezal’s critics have no difficulty accepting or supporting transgender people. As Dale (2017) observes, “transgender individuals are far more socially accepted than those who engage in passing.” Those critics of Dolezal’s who accepted Caitlyn Jenner’s becoming a transwoman hence face the challenge of explaining their resistance to those who claim transracial identities.

Opponents of the concept of transracial identity may point to the asymmetric power relations in white supremacist society to explain why claims of transracial identity should not be accepted. Under this line of argument, Dolezal’s self-declared identity as a trans-black person is not just impossible but also offensive given that her birth origin as a white person situates her in a privileged position of white supremacy which should prevent her from transitioning to the oppressed positionality of a black person. This however, begs the question, since it is a standard practice for privileged allies of the oppressed to voluntarily abandon their societal privileges to better situate themselves as supportive of the oppressed groups they have allied themselves with.

More significantly, in the realm of gender, allies of transmen and transwomen do not see the asymmetric power relations in patriarchal society as preventing transgendered people from transitioning across gender boundaries. If the structure of power in patriarchal society does not preclude the existence of transmen and transwomen, why should the structure of power in white supremacist society preclude the existence of transracial people? Dolezal’s self-identification as a person of transracial identity hence forces theorists of identity politics into a reductio ad absurdum. If their ideas about transgender identity are correct, then transracial identity is possible, and they should accept Dolezal’s claim to be a trans-black person. If these theorists remain unwilling to accept the possibility of transracial identity, then they may need to break the reductio by rejecting one or more of their ideas about transgender identity.

In global perspective, racial fluidity, which Dolezal has called for greater recognition of, is in fact not uncommon (Dolezal and Maitlis, 2017). While there do exist societies which jealously guard the racial purity of their people, for instance by prohibiting the admission of outsiders into their communities, there also exist other societies which allow people who are not members of their racial lineages to become members, usually on condition that they adopt the appropriate in-group cultural behaviors and practices. The Cham Muslims of the Mekong Delta, for instance, admit outsiders “through marriage and conversion,” while the Cambodian state has long sought to assimilate the indigenous peoples of the Cambodian highlands into the majoritarian Khmer identity as “Khmer Loeu” (Highland Khmer), and the Cham Muslims as “Khmer Islam” (Ehrentraut, 2011, p. 783; Taylor, 2006, p. 58).

Our racial lineages are inescapable parts of our individual facticities, and attempts to ignore this part of our heritage can pull us into bad faith.

Around the world too we find hybrid cultures arising from intermarriage and the cultural mixing of peoples of different racial lineages, including the Chinese-Malay Peranakans of Malaysia, Indonesia, and Singapore; and Hawaii’s hybrid population of “Native Hawaiians, Japanese, Koreans, Filipinos, Polynesians, and other groups” (Lim, 2014, p. 489). However, these cases of racial transformation are performed with acceptance from the host communities. Dolezal’s case is different as those who undergo the same process of transracial change that she went through have the option of doing so covertly, as she herself did, outside of the knowledge of the host community. In the realm of gender, such transracial people resemble the closeted gays, lesbians, transvestites, and transsexuals who express their gender preferences in hidden venues, outside of the gaze of mainstream cisgender society. Indeed, as Sharfstein (2015) highlights, American history, “a history of dark-skinned white people and light-skinned black people,” is rife with cases of non-white persons passing as white, as well as cases of “reverse passing,” in which white persons claimed African, Native American, or other non-white racial identities. Today we could classify such cases as expressions of transracial identity.

While this discussion of transracial identity may seem overly theoretical and of interest only to academics and advocacy groups, the possible recognition of transracial people by the state will certainly have implications for public policy, as can be seen in the parallel case of transgender identity. New York City, for example, currently recognizes the following genders in its civic human rights code: Bi-Gendered, Cross-Dresser, Drag-King, Drag-Queen, Femme Queen, Female-to-Male, FTM, Genderqueer, Male-To-Female, MTF, Non-Op, Hijra, Pangender, Transexual/Transsexual, Trans Person, Woman, Man, Butch, Two-Spirit, Trans, Agender, Third Sex, Gender Fluid, Non-Binary Transgender, Androgyne, Gender-Gifted, Gender Bender, Femme, Person of Transgender Experience, and Androgynous. Discrimination against persons with such gender identities can result in fines of up to USD 250,000, with such acts of discrimination ranging from the “refusal to use an individual’s preferred name, pronoun, or title because they do not conform to gender stereotypes,” to “discriminatory harassment or violence motivated by a person’s actual or perceived gender identity or expression” (NYC Commission on Human Rights, 2015 and 2016).

Likewise, the US federal and state governments under the Obama and Trump administrations have had to grapple with legislation over the rights of transgendered people, including whether they have the right to access single-sex bathrooms which fit their self-selected gender identities instead of their sex as listed on their birth certificates (Allen, 2017). In Canada, a free speech debate has arisen over proposed legislation which could require people to use gender-neutral pronouns which are preferred by transgender people, such as  ‘ze,’ ‘zir,’ and the singular ‘they,’ instead of the standard gender-binary pronouns ‘he’ and ‘she’ (Murphy, 2016). It can be anticipated that state recognition of transracial identity will not only require changes in public policy over how citizens and residents are identified, but also with how the entitlements currently extended to selected minority groups will be distributed to new members transitioning in from other racial groups. Governments may also have to formulate policies to adjudicate disputes between transracial individuals and the racial groups which have rejected them.

To better understand the nuances of transracial identity, I find it useful to go back to Jean-Paul Sartre’s notion of the Being-for-itself, which sees the human being as a temporal ecstasis drawn between the facticity of her past and present, and the transcendence of her possible futures (Lim, 2013, p. 44). The desire of a person like Rachel Dolezal to transition from her racial facticity to become a racial other may be understood in the Sartrean schema as a desire for transcendence. Insofar as the cultural markers of behavior appropriate to the desired racial identity are within the person’s ability to adopt, such transracial transcendence is largely within the person’s ability to achieve (with the caveat that the biological markers of race may not be within the person’s ability to change). This can be seen in the years Dolezal successfully spent as a trans-black person before the truth of her white biological lineage was revealed to the public. To avoid the bad faith that could arise from a transracial person’s refusal to acknowledge the facticity of her racial lineage, she has to accept that she is not just living the transcendence of her desired racial identity, but that her identity has been shaped by the facticity of her having undergone a radical transition from her racial lineage.

Insofar as we are embodied beings, our racial lineages — arising from our genetic connections with our parents, grandparents, and ancestors — are inescapable parts of our individual facticities, and attempts to ignore this part of our heritage can pull us into bad faith. The 2017 live-action remake of the anime classic Ghost in the Shell highlights this tension. [The following passage discusses plot details from the movie.] The movie’s heroine, a cyborg consisting of a robot body controlled by a human brain, suffers existential angst marked by a feeling of disconnection from the world. Over the course of the movie, she discovers that she was originally a teenage Japanese girl who had been kidnapped by a robotics corporation so that her brain could be transplanted from her original human body into a new robot chassis. Wiped clean of its previous memories, a transplanted human brain can control its robot chassis far better than an artificial intelligence can, thus giving this corporation a potentially-lucrative line of advanced cyborg soldiers that it can sell to the government.

However, even before she makes her pivotal discovery, our heroine experiences frequent flashbacks of her previous life, and when she is led to a meeting with her mourning biological mother, her mother recognizes her from her involuntary bodily gestures, even though her current robot chassis looks nothing like her original human body. The physical connection between our heroine’s current robot chassis and her murdered human body is her brain, which has retained traces of her human past despite the corporation’s attempt to erase her memories. At the movie’s end, after the criminal executives of the corporation have been brought to justice, our cyborg heroine is restored both to her past and her human family. She has been brought out of her state of bad faith, when she lived her cyborg transcendence in ignorance of her facticity, and is brought into a state of wholeness which recognizes her human past and her cyborg present and future. The analogy with Dolezal and transracial identity is clear: to avoid the pitfalls of bad faith, a transracial person should acknowledge the facticity of her racial lineage and how the original racial identity she has chosen to abandon has shaped her sense of self, even as she lives in the transcendence of her adopted racial identity.


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Allen, S. (2017, March 30). Why red states are rejecting anti-trans bathroom bills. The Daily Beast. Retrieved from

Dale, H. (2017, March 27). The Changeling—A review of ‘In Full Colour’ by Rachel Doležal. Quillette. Retrieved from

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Murphy, J. (2016, November 4). Toronto professor Jordan Peterson takes on gender-neutral pronouns. BBC News. Retrieved from

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