The Rachel Dolezal Story’s Resonance For Jewish Identity

Ijeoma Oluo’s interview with Rachel Dolezal, in The Stranger, is today’s must-read. Yes, Dolezal is the much-discussed white woman who identifies as black. Her again?, you may find yourself thinking, but Oluo’s article goes beyond the oddities of Dolezal’s story, and gets at bigger questions about racism.

The crux of the interview is when Oluo asks what she refers to as “The Question”, which is whether Dolezal will acknowledge her white privilege. (“How is her racial fluidity anything more than a function of her privilege as a white person?”) She won’t. Oluo rephrases the question, and then does so again, and still no, nothing. And it doesn’t seem as if, in this case, the term “privilege” is a source of confusion. Dolezal comes across unconcerned with the feelings of actual black women who find her project, if one could call it that, hurtful: A white person can dabble in blackness in a way a black person can never dabble in whiteness.

The part I found most interesting, though, had nothing to do with whether Dolezal has personally reckoned with her own whiteness, a project that seems, at this point, a lost cause:

I am more than a little skeptical that Dolezal’s identity as the revolutionary strike against the myth of race is anything more than impractical white saviorism — at least when it comes to the ways in which race oppresses black people. Even if there were thousands of Rachel Dolezals in the country, would their claims of blackness do anything to open up the definition of whiteness to those with darker skin, coarser hair, or racialized features? The degree to which you are excluded from white privilege is largely dependent on the degree to which your appearance deviates from whiteness. You can be extremely light-skinned and still be black, but you cannot be extremely or even moderately dark-skinned and be treated as white—ever.

To be clear, neither this passage nor the story more broadly is about Jewish identity. It’s about African-Americans, black women in particular, and a white woman with a book out about identifying as black. I do, however, think the issues raised in Oluo’s piece, and that part especially, may have particular resonance for Jews who’ve ever found themselves pondering the fact that it’s possible to opt into Jewish identity (and it is!) but not — or not necessarily — to opt out. It’s possible to convert to Judaism; it’s not possible for a person born (or otherwise perceived of as) Jewish not to ‘count’ as far as anti-Semites are concerned.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy edits the Sisterhood, and can be reached at bovy@forward.com. She is the author of “The Perils Of ‘Privilege’”, from St. Martin’s Press. Follow her on Twitter, @tweetertation

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The Rachel Dolezal Story’s Resonance For Jewish Identity

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