Shades of Complexity: A History of Racial Passing

Posted in Articles, History, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2018-01-25 03:54Z by Steven

Shades of Complexity: A History of Racial Passing

Literature and Digital Diversity
Department of English
Northeastern University, Boston, Massachusetts

Elizabeth Maddock Dillon, Professor of English

Sarah Connell, Assistant Director, Women Writers Project

This archival exhibit was created by Vanessa Gregorchik in Literature and Digital Diversity, fall 2017.


On the surface, race appears as a simple category to quantify—the color of one’s skin, the box one circles on the census, even the percentage that appears on an at-home DNA testing kit. But the reality of one’s racial identity is hardly objective. This archive outlines the stories of individuals who chose to “pass” as a different race, or as a portion of their racial background, often in pursuit of societal advancement that their given race prevented them from obtaining. The decision to accept or deny any aspect of one’s identity is a complex and difficult decision, and this collection aims to educate the public on those challenges and intricacies faced by those of multiracial backgrounds in both the era of segregation and today.


This archive is structured around the environments and dominant factors in each individual’s decision to pass—including emancipation, education, and employment. This division is not intended to claim that these are the sole or even intentional reasons to racially pass, but rather to thematically organize stories that share similar domains. To best tell the narrative of both the individuals and the broader social climate they lived in, I collected individual and family portraits, illustrations, and newspaper clippings. I aimed to represent both the singular person and the communities they were joining or leaving…

Read this entire digital archive here.

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The Pedagogy and Politics of Racial Passing: Examining Media Literacy in Turn-of-the-Century Activist Periodicals

Posted in Articles, Communications/Media Studies, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2017-12-29 19:16Z by Steven

The Pedagogy and Politics of Racial Passing: Examining Media Literacy in Turn-of-the-Century Activist Periodicals

Dialogue: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogy
Volume 4, Issue 1 (Winter 2017)

Tara Propper, Senior Lecturer
Department of Literature and Languages
University of Texas, Tyler

This article explores how we can use African American activist media to theorize the role of pedagogy in the public sphere. Focusing on how racial passing stories expose the limiting (and often tropic) binaries through which racial identity is deciphered, this analysis further highlights the extent to which these binary constructions of identity are learned through media narration.

Using the December, 1912, issue of W.E.B. Du Bois’s Crisis Magazine as a touchstone for investigation, this analysis considers how pedagogy is taken up as both a theme and project in the magazine. Foregrounding the degree to which Crisis critiques and counternarrates the demeaning and derogatory portrayals of African American identity in early twentieth-century media, this article suggests that Du Bois’s magazine not only indicts dominant visual systems of seeing and evaluating African American identity but also reveals the extent to which such systems of seeing and interpreting blackness are learned and can be remediated through media intervention.

The ultimate aim of this article is to derive an interpretive framework that understands pedagogy as not simply a method for inscribing pre-existent dominant norms but rather as a means for intervening, questioning, and challenging dominant systems of representation and public articulation. Moreover, this analysis intends to reveal the hidden pedagogies within dominant cultural paraphernalia for the purposes of advancing an approach to media literacy that recognizes and endeavors to transform the tropes and archetypes applied to marginal and minority communities.

Read the entire article in PDF or HTML format.

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Rachel Dolezal is now an artisanal lollipop saleswoman

Posted in Articles, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2017-11-28 23:35Z by Steven

Rachel Dolezal is now an artisanal lollipop saleswoman

The New York Post

Rachel Dolezal has a line of homemade lollipops. Polaris

Rachel Dolezal wants to sweeten her image.

The disgraced NAACP activist — who claimed to be of African-American descent, though she’s a white woman — is now hawking homemade lollipops for extra cash…

Read the entire article here.

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Why Do People Pass?: The Complex Journeys of Belonging and Identity in America

Posted in Articles, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2017-11-27 03:13Z by Steven

Why Do People Pass?: The Complex Journeys of Belonging and Identity in America

Beacon Broadside

Brando Skyhorse, Associate Professor of English
Indiana University, Bloomington

Lisa Page, Acting Director of Creative Writing
George Washington University, Washington, D.C.

Image credit: Bob Kosturko

America has a long and complicated history of passing. We’re familiar with the stories of African Americans who passed as white in the past in order to improve their social mobility. Nowadays, we are hearing a variety of personal experiences about passing that transcends additional modes of identity—class, religion, gender, sexuality, and more. Writers Brando Skyhorse and Lisa Page have brought together some of these stories in their new essay anthology We Wear the Mask: 15 True Stories of Passing in America. As they point out in the introduction of the book, excerpted below, there have always been many ways in which people pass, and many reasons to do so.

In June 2015 a surprising number of Americans stopped to gawk at a thirty-seven-year-old “African American” woman named Rachel Dolezal who, after an almost decade-long act, was outed by her parents as a white woman who chose to pass as black. The national response, culminating in a Today Show appearance, was extreme. Some were outraged by her deception, while others drew parallels between her right to live her “truth” the same way Caitlyn Jenner embodies hers.

Rachel—or “#BlackRachel” as she trended online—never once “broke character.”

Later that month, the Daily Beast reported on Andrea Smith, an Anglo woman and esteemed professor of Native American studies at the University of California, Riverside, who presented as Cherokee for over twenty years. She had a long history of American Indian activism and published articles and books purporting to speak on Indian issues as an American Indian despite not a trace of Indian ancestry being found after two rounds of genealogical research.

If you’re looking for historical precedent, how about jazz clarinetist Mezz Mezzrow? A middle-class Jewish kid from Chicago, he married a black woman, moved to Harlem, self-identified in the 1940s as a “white Negro” and was listed by his draft board as “Negro.” His understanding of being a black American was an odd brew of sincere cultural musical appreciation and promoting the oversimplified “shuck and jive” stereotypes. Go back further and you’ll find Clarence King, a nineteenth-century blue-eyed white scientist and best-selling author who thrilled in “slumming.” For thirteen years, King passed as a black Pullman porter, complete with a black common-law wife and five mixed-race children.

American history is filled with innumerable examples like these. Why, then, did “#BlackRachel” fascinate and outrage so many of us? The answer lies in the complex phenomenon of passing…

Read the entire article here.

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Black Twitter Asks Rachel: Racial Identity Theft in “Post-Racial” America

Posted in Articles, Communications/Media Studies, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2017-09-06 04:41Z by Steven

Black Twitter Asks Rachel: Racial Identity Theft in “Post-Racial” America

Howard Journal of Communications
Published online: 2017-08-18
pages 1-17
DOI: 10.1080/10646175.2017.1354789

Leslie Stevens
Department of Rhetoric & Communication Studies
University of Richmond, Richmond, Virginia

Nicole Maurantonio, Associate Professor
Department of Rhetoric & Communication Studies
University of Richmond, Richmond, Virginia

On Monday, June 15, 2015, Rachel Dolezal resigned from her post as president of the Spokane chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People amid allegations that she had been lying about her race. Dolezal, her White parents claimed, had been “presenting herself as a black person when she is not.” This article explores Black Twitter’s response to Dolezal’s “outing” as a White woman with particular emphasis on the #AskRachel hashtag, to which users posted a series of questions intended to discern Dolezal’s “true” racial identity. Although the hashtag has been alternately praised for its wit and critiqued for its cruelty, this article suggests that both critiques underestimate the hashtag’s significance. This article argues that the hashtag provided a site for the articulation, contestation, and negotiation of Blackness, capturing larger cultural anxieties surrounding racial identity in a “post-racial” United States.

Read the entire article here.

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The Changeling — A Review of ‘In Full Colour’ by Rachel Doležal

Posted in Autobiography, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2017-08-23 15:09Z by Steven

The Changeling — A Review of ‘In Full Colour’ by Rachel Doležal


Helen Dale

A review of In Full Color by Rachel Doležal. BenBella Books, Dallas, Texas (April 2017) 282 pages.

When I was a girl, my mother said wanting something too much often led to its opposite. It could mean I’d get something almost – but not completely – unrelated to what I desired, even something I hated. If this happened, she would say and that’s what the fairies sent you.

The fairies sent things and took them away all the time among my Irish kin, none more distressingly than changelings, where newborn natural children were stolen and replaced with fairy children. Fairy changelings were not like their parents, were greedy, and always unwanted. Changeling stories – present in Ireland, Scotland, Germany, Scandinavia, and among the Igbo people of Nigeria – seldom show the fairy child growing up to be loved and accepted by its human family.

Usually it is killed, but only after being beaten, dunked in the river, or left on a hot stovetop. Its parents complain about its ravenous hunger, its odd appearance, its sickliness, its colour, or its failure to speak. In Scotland, the fairies would often take blond or red headed children, leaving dark fairy children in their place.

Sometimes, an exchange could be made, but if so human children would return from fairyland bearing strange traces of their time there. Some never grew old, but still died at the appointed time. Others grew old but never died, like the Sybil of Roman myth. She shrivelled with age until she had to store herself in a glass jar. This was because, when Apollo granted her a wish, she forgot to ask him for eternal youth after asking for eternal life.

Of course, there’s more to the changeling myth than mere spookiness. It has with justice been described as Ireland’s most sinister superstition and there is evidence those called changelings were often disabled or of dubious parentage. Unable to contribute economically to the household, the ‘changeling’ label allowed parents to kill them, a crime that now goes by the name infanticide and was historically the fate of roughly 25 per cent of live births.

That’s what the fairies sent you

Rachel Doležal is a changeling in both directions. Her parents did not want what the fairies sent them. ‘I’d nearly killed Ruthanne as she’d laboured to deliver me,’ she says in her book, ‘and my hair at birth was almost black and my skin was much darker than my brother’s’…

Read the entire review here.

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Rachel Dolezal represents everything I ever feared people would think about me when I told them I was half Nigerian-half Austrian.

Posted in Excerpts/Quotes on 2017-07-16 03:39Z by Steven

Rachel Dolezal represents everything I ever feared people would think about me when I told them I was half Nigerian-half Austrian. She embodies the cause of the doubt I first see flash across people’s faces when I tell them that yes, my biological mother is black, my father is white and I am a product of the two. The idea that someone would ever associate the two of us makes me feel ill and yet as I read about her I wonder increasingly where this leaves me. Where my voice fits into this story and whether or not I have the right to comment.

Nina Grossfurthner, ““So If You’re From Africa, Why Are You White?”,“ FLY (Freedom. Love. You.), March 16, 2017.

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“So If You’re From Africa, Why Are You White?”

Posted in Africa, Articles, Autobiography, Media Archive, Passing on 2017-07-16 00:40Z by Steven

“So If You’re From Africa, Why Are You White?”

FLY: (Freedom. Love. You.)
Cambridge University

Nina Grossfurthner

I woke up a week ago and started my day eating breakfast and scrolling through Facebook. I usually read my Bible in the morning, but on that particular day I had a lot to get through before mid-day lectures so I decided I would leave it to the evening. Thinking back now, perhaps skimming through a quick verse would have allowed me to approach what happened next with a bit more grace. I don’t know how many of you have been keeping up with the story of Rachel Dolezal, in all honesty I don’t encourage you to do so. But, for those of you who haven’t I will briefly outline who this woman is and why I needed to write about her, a decision that didn’t come easy because I didn’t want to assign her any more space than that which she has so carelessly claimed.

Rachel Dolezal blew up on the internet a few years ago by claiming that she, a fully Caucasian woman, identified as ‘black’. When I first came across the story, I quickly scrolled past because I didn’t think it worth my time to hear her try and justify why she should appropriately be called black. However, what made me stop scrolling that morning, was the recent name change which Dolezal has undertaken.

Adding insult to injury, Rachel Dolezal recently made the decision to change her name to Nkechi Diallo – a confusing medley of both the Igbo language of southern Nigeria and that of the Fulani tribe whose people can be found in many West African nations (because African nations were effectively decided by white men using a ruler and a pen). Setting aside the obvious disturbance of taking on an ‘African sounding’ name, the seeming thoughtlessness behind picking whatever name she felt suited her reflects the same precarious attitude with which she chooses to engage with the ‘black’ identity…

Read the entire article here.

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As a white supremacist society, the United States privileges Dolezal’s challenging ethnoracial boundaries.

Posted in Excerpts/Quotes on 2017-05-28 21:14Z by Steven

As a white supremacist society, the United States privileges [Rachel] Dolezal’s challenging ethnoracial boundaries. This is so unlike the thousands of blacks who quietly dissolved into the white population a century ago. A media stir would have cost them their lives. Even Anatole Broyard, the New York Times film critic who passed away in 1990 took his hidden blackness to the grave to be taken seriously in his career as a writer. At the same time, unlike the acceptance that many Afro-Brazilians have for their negra frustradas, many Afro-Americans find her problematic at best. Their relatives and ancestors who passed as white (or do so now) do not receive the same rewards. Instead, it has to be quiet without any fuss, for fear of upsetting the status quo.

Chinyere Osuji, Ph.D., “Rachel Dolezal: ‘Negra Frustrada’ (Frustrated Black Woman),” Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, May 24, 2017.

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Rachel Dolezal: ‘Negra Frustrada’ (Frustrated Black Woman)

Posted in Articles, Brazil, Caribbean/Latin America, Communications/Media Studies, Media Archive, Passing, Social Justice, United States on 2017-05-25 01:25Z by Steven

Rachel Dolezal: ‘Negra Frustrada’ (Frustrated Black Woman)

Chinyere Osuji
Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey

Chinyere Osuji, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Sociology
Rutgers University, Camden

Rachel Dolezal

Race is a social construction. We have heard that phrase over and over again to the point that it has become a bit hackneyed. When I teach my sociology students, I tell them, “Sociologists study what people do together: we create families, schools, economic systems.” All of these things are social constructions that are produced, reproduced, and even demolished because people together make it so.

And then Rachel Dolezal comes along…

Read the entire article here.

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