HBCUs Ain’t Handing Out Black Cards | Howard’s Rachel Dolezal + Faux-Blackness

If you’ve been using Rachel Dolezal‘s matriculation at Howard University, one of the nation’s oldest and most prestigious Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), as a measure of her trans-blackness: stop. Just stop. Attending an HBCU doesn’t make a person black, any more than eating apple pie makes one American.

Must it really be explained that while blackness is many things, it is not a certification received along with a diploma at commencement? If it is, this editorial is my formal request for Vanderbilt University, where I spent twice as much time in graduate school than I did at undergrad at Fisk University, to send my long-overdue white card.

Oh, but attending Vanderbilt doesn’t make me white now does it? Even though my paternal ancestry, which I am told has roots in Italy by-way-of Cuba is probably white, I ain’t white. Even though I once mistook my white-ish grandfather, standing proudly next to his golden retriever, for one of those generic black and white images used to sell a photo frame, I ain’t white. I ain’t white because I don’t look white. I’ve long said, in this experience, you are who and what they put the APB out for.

In truth however, I am, like the vast majority of black peoples in the Americas, probably more white than I know or think. But passing as white, is not a privilege I can enjoy. Despite being a social construct to which I should, at least in-part qualify, whiteness is not extended to me because I do not “look white.” You have to look the part, to be extended the privilege associated with it. Passing, in this way, is privilege. Whether black to white, white to black or any other “color” or “race,” and any which way you put it, passing is privilege.

If we stretch the definition of passing beyond the limits of race, it is very clear that everyone enjoys some level of passing’s privilege. “Everybody passes. Not just racial minorities. As Marcia Alesan Dawkins explains, passing has been occurring for millennia, since intercultural and interracial contact began…[In her book Clearly Invisible: Racial Passing and the Color of Cultural Identity,] she explores its old limits and new possibilities: from women passing as men and able-bodied persons passing as disabled to black classics professors passing as Jewish and white supremacists passing as white.”

But not everyone enjoys the same level of privilege. Dolezal, who has hereto not demonstrated any black ancestry whatsoever, has been able to pass herself off as black. “The issue is power: the ability to define reality and have other people respond to your definition as if were their own,” observed Adisa Ajamu. “All these conversations are about kinds of doors, locks, and keys, while white folks fueled by white misanthropy get to decide what is or isn’t a door or if the topic of doors ever comes up in the first place.”

Even so, many black people have asked what is the privilege of passing as black? Damn. Don’t you think being black is something special? ‘Cause I do. If we only see passing as white as privileged, then we have bought into racist precepts that suppose there is inherently less value in blackness or no value in it at all. I don’t know whether or not Dolezal is mentally ill, but wanting to be black, which is as beautiful as it is bastardized, isn’t enough to convince me that she is.

Dolezal, who “since 2010, has been hired at Eastern Washington University on a quarter by quarter basis as an instructor in the Africana Education program,” and who received a full-ride to Howard when she was mistaken for black, fully knows the value of her faux-blackness. Crystal M. Hayes, a doctoral candidate in social work at the University of Connecticut knocked this one out of the park: “Being at the top of the food chain in Black culture is a lot more fun than at the bottom of white supremacy.” It’s especially important to note that Dolezal used hair to occupy “privileged” space as a black woman. “The fact that she used bad curly wigs/weaves to change the texture of her hair to pass as a Black woman,” noted Haynes, “in a world that literally punishes Black women for wearing their hair the way it grows out of their head is at the core of white supremacy.”

My favorite #AskRachel.
My favorite #AskRachel.

“So there’s race as performed and there’s race as projected. These things are fluid but they should also be held in tension. With that said, race isn’t only about the performative. We cannot ignore the historical projection which ties us to this thing called the colonial past,” Tamura A. Lomax, a Clark-Atlanta University alumna and the co-founder of The Feminist Wire. “And so my question regarding Rachel and her blackness is what is her approximation is to the colonial past?”

So what is it Rachel? Is you or ain’t you African-American? An honest answer may have went something this: “I self-identify with [or even ‘as’] black.” Instead, Rachel Dolezal opted to use her privilege to feign confusion and walk away instead of answering, what is a fairly elementary question for a person whose livelihood is tied to thinking about and teaching to others, blackness. Because she failed to do so, Black Twitter has opted to #AskRachel, and it’s a glorious sight of blackness to behold. Everybody [black] knows, getting ribbed is par for the course in the black community. So please miss me with the poor Rachel’s being picked on foolishness.

Meanwhile, we cannot ignore the ways in which Dolezal has privileged herself to blackness as a black studies professor who criticizes white privilege. Dolezal could have worked as a white ally–as a white ally. She could’ve attended Howard as a white ally, married her black ex-husband, be mother to her son, teach Africana studies, and yes, be president of her local NAACP chapter, as a white ally. But Dolezeal didn’t want anyone questioning her privilege to speak on, of, and for blackness. With some of you, she’ll get her wish.

But not with me. As Brother Malcolm X famously said: “Because a cat has kittens in an oven, it don’t make them biscuits.”

Crystal deGregory Headshot 2012A member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc., Crystal A. deGregory, Ph.D. is a graduate of the historic Fisk University ’03. She received her master’s and doctoral degrees in history from Vanderbilt University. She also holds a master of education degree in curriculum and instruction from Tennessee State University, ’14, where she formerly taught in the department of history, geography and political science. A professional historian and passionate HBCU advocate, she is editor-in-chief of the forthcoming The Journal of HBCU Research + Culture. She is also a regular contributor to HBCU Digest, is a co-host of Black Docs radio show, and offers a wide-range of expertise on multiple topics including history, culture, education, black fraternity and sorority life and of course HBCUs. Follow her on twitter at @HBCUstorian, visit her website at http://www.CrystaldeGregory.com, or contact her via email at cadegregory@HBCUstory.com



  1. Nobody had a problem with Rachel Dolezal being Black until she became chairperson of the Spokane Police Oversight Commission. Once she got in position to really assert her adopted racial identity to fight against police brutality, she was attacked in the media and denigrated for being Black. Personally, I’d take a thousand more people Rachel Dolezal who are so connected with the struggle against white supremacy and racism that they think of themselves as Black and no longer white, instead of all these wanna be Uncle Tom Negroes running around trying to be white and against everything Black !

    • Luckily, I was born, bred and I’m going to dead, B L A C K . Chickens do come home to roost. She’s a liar, that has gotten caught in a lie. When we have the race draft, you can choose her in lieu of an “Uncle Tom” which, given these dynamics some may unfortunately see you as qualified for. Kanye shrugs. Thanks for reading + commenting!

      • Dr. DeGregory forgive me for offending you by separating what I see as some good in Rachel Dolezad from her deception. With respect to your comment about “…the race draft…, ” you are right I would chose Dolezal over for example a Clarence Thomas, Ron Christie, Larry Elder or Stacey Dash who fit the moniker of Uncle Toms in my opinion. The remaining portion of your comment “…which, given these dynamics some may unfortunately see you as qualified for. Kayne shrugs…” escapes my comprehension. It would be helpful to me if you would be so kind as to break it down so that I can understand what you were trying to say and respond appropriately. Thanks !

  2. I agree with your article in many aspects, the main point being that the false claims she made were simply unnecessary to be an advocate for blacks in America. I don’t mind anyone who is for the support of our people, but she just didn’t have to lie about her ethnicity, considering many people that aren’t black have been for the aid for blacks throughout the course of history, and this is concept isn’t so foreign because it’s even made its way into some of our literature, i.e. The character Jan Erlone in Richard Wright’s Native Son.

    • AJ,
      You are right. She didn’t have to. But, in many ways she chose it because it was the easier path. She lied straight through and continues to demonstrate no remorse for her lies and/or the cost “the cause” has paid because of it. Thanks for reading + commenting.

  3. it seems you have forgotten about the Dream….Judging the (entire) content of a persons character and not their color. The perspective of this author is especially troubling given the level of her education. Black folks in this country are NOT A PURE AFRICAN RACE; We range from blue black to light almost white – some of us embrace our color and heritage and some run away from it (and pass) There is no malfeasance in this woman’s behavior…her actions were understandable, reasonable and excusable – she wanted to be black. she wanted to help our people.. she wanted to belong. Black folk in this country have a rich history of taking folks in and accepting them as our family, cousins, nephews etc… how many times have heard stories of abandoned children being taken in by a neighbor…Well, even if you don’t…I will take this sister in as my sister, even if you don’t….

    Check yourself, you have become which you have scorned – A RACIST

    • Robert Gregory Miller,
      Where do I begin with you? Let me thank you for reading–I mean, I guess you read. Based on your inane commentary, I really can’t be certain. I could write more, but I’m certain that you either
      a. wouldn’t read it
      b. lack the capacity to understand what I write
      c. all of the above

  4. Crystal- You see this is the problem with our people- Stockholm syndrome and the pathology of White supremacy that would allow people like Robert Gregory Miller to cosign European shenanigans!! To approve of this Culture Vulture 5 dollar African saying that she is Black is just nonsense and is the reason why the White supremacist kills Black people and gets away with because of Black people who they trot out who would take a bullet for them. Robert wants to selectively quote MLK- MLK was for reparations for Black people! What about that Robert?? Black people are so desperate to be accepted-We are the only people whose life goal it to be accepted by White people!We have become the most timid, cow towed, yellow bellied generation of Black people ever!! It is sad, disgusting and not a good look!!

  5. Dr Degregory, I commend you for your education and your frankness. I have a question: in the context of our society today, who’s to say if Mrs Dolezal is or isn’t black? I mean if she felt like she was a man, would you tell her that she’s not a man? I mean, if it’s ok for people to change their gender, then why not their race? Aren’t you worried of coming off as somewhat raciphobic? Thanks!

    • Dear b,
      Is your television on? NINE BLACK LIVES WERE BRUTALLY TAKEN VIS-A-VIS MASS MURDER. This massacre happened in their church, as they had bible study, while they were praying, after the gunman sat in worship for nearly an hour. So, no sir. I am not afraid of being called out of my name. I am too busy vacillating between utter despair and heavenly hopes; I’m to pissed off that this church, its senator-pastor, and members were targeted in an act of terror on their bodies and on all of our souls. I am too aware that blackness in the American experience has always been a burden, bore on the backs of black people, who know, who are black not by own choosing, but by the choice of the divine. I am heart-broken for a five year-old black girl who had to play-dead to survive this deadly encounter with white supremacy and white nationalism. I am too worried that a black man’s two young daughters have joined the ranks of fatherless children. I am worried for the families who dreaded going to sleep last night because someone they love was not ever, ever coming home. I’m worried that you took the time to write this when there are a million other worries on the hearts and minds of people like me, and maybe you too.