Did Dolezal do wrong? What makes an acceptable lie

In the light of genuine racial discrimination and injustice, it’s obvious why some have felt offended by Rachael Dolezal. As a rule, we don’t choose our race and have to simply deal with its consequences. Had she been open and proud of her changed identity, we could certainly call her ignorant and insulting. Yet she was not. And so we should examine the nature of her lie. For instance, compare it with someone who has an affair, or someone who commits crime; such people would lie because they seek self-gratification at the expense of others. This is, surely, immorality in its most basic form. Was Dolezal truly “getting off” on living life as a mixed-race person? Was she having fun at the expense of others; was there some selfish reward? The argument that she deliberately and strategically built a career on the lie also seems tenuous, especially as she ‘lived’ the black identity in many other aspects of her life. Furthermore, the lie was just plain odd. Though immoral, other lies, such as infidelity or stealing, still have a place within the spectrum of ‘normality’. Imitating another race does not. It is distinctly abnormal. She had to deal with the fact that no one would ever truly understand the truth. It was surely a source of shame for Dolezal and something that had to remain strictly private.

It appears that Dolezal wished so deeply that she could be someone else that she sought to make it real. Perhaps she hated her white self. Perhaps the thought of being a black person seemed like the only way to truly find happiness. There may have been moments when she was confronted with the ‘whiteness’ of her body and felt frustrated by its inadequacy. So she constructed a story for herself; the unique circumstances that made her, essentially, a black person in a white person’s body.

It would be interesting to discover exactly what Dolezal thinks being white, or being black means. What is it that she wants to escape and what is it she wants to become? She may carry guilt as a member of a racial group that has perpetrated racism. Indeed, we should all appreciate what we have; we should look to help those less well-off; we should be on the lookout for all forms of injustice and immorality and we should heed history’s lessons. But this can all be achieved without also feeling guilty. The cause could also be something more generic; simply the sense of disparity that arises whenever differing cultures meet.

There are certain aspects of our biology, such as race/gender/age, which carry social currency; they inform our social identity. Of course, they tell us something tangible as well. They tell us about our bloodline and its history. But as individuals, we get no choice about what social identity we are ‘handed’ and must navigate our way through; make the best of our little lot. This means managing external interpretations as well as arriving at our own understandings of them.

In many cases, it is possible change a biological feature and thus one’s social identity. For instance, undergo hormonal and surgical procedures to change gender. Of course, those who have changed their gender should be accepted into society and be free to live with dignity and respect from others. However, empirically and semantically speaking, society does not seem able to cut ties completely with what was originally biological fact. A person who has transferred to a different gender than birth is not thought of just as any other female/male; they are labeled ‘transgender’. This label indicates that even if a person’s body is physically altered, society will find a way to reference what we were before. Biology represents fixity and permanence.

On this basis, if, one day, it is acceptable to change one’s race, it seems probable that societal semantics would create a label much like ‘transgender’ which reveal the change in biology.

For better or worse, our social identity will always impact our social intercourse but it is down to us how we incorporate it into our personal sense of identity. In fact, I would suggest that to ourselves, in private, we can never truly be our social self. Without society, to ourselves (i.e. when we have our own space and our own thoughts), it is difficult to ever fully attain the feeling of being a particular race/gender/age. Perhaps it’s terrifying to admit, but surely, ultimately, to ourselves, we are just a complex mix of ‘me’ and trying to make a success of things (and avoid failure and misery) is the primary focus. The effects of dementia or brain damage reveal the fragility of the processes through which we know who we are.

I am not suggesting we face some kind of existential oblivion. We need something to anchor us in society and need to feel that such things are, to some degree, real. However, I would suggest that we remember our spirit of common humanity and let that be the predominant guide to understanding ourselves. Had we entered this world in different circumstances, we would be managing an entirely different set of connotations of our identity.

Dolezal’s desire/attempt to change race reveals our common tendency to try to live and embody our social identity – to ourselves. It is immaterial that Dolezal interpreted ‘whiteness’ negatively and ‘blackness’ positively; the point is, she felt utterly defined by her race. I would suggest that if we can, we should admit to the anonymous person that we know truly inhabits this skin.