As pretty much everyone knows by now, it’s been revealed that Rachel Dolezal is a white woman who not only has been passing as African American, but is also claiming her adopted brothers are her sons. The story is a complicated mess that brings up issues of race as biology or social construct and authenticity. Social media almost broke itself with memes, but just as quickly, people began questioning the mental health of Dolezal.
It’s striking that wondering about Dolezal’s motivation for passing as African American must include an armchair diagnosis of mental health disorders, as if that is the only reason why a person would want to lead a black life. And it speaks to a larger issue of giving white people who step outside of commonly held moral boundaries the benefit of the doubt.
The United States has a long history of commodifying blackness, from blackface performances to hairstyles. So does passing, or claiming another race or cultural identity as one’s own. The most common example of passing is when a fair-skinned black person with perceived European features lives life as a white person in order to avoid racial discrimination. When a black person passes as white, it’s usually accepted and understood that their lives will be easier as a white person. There are more employment, education, and housing opportunities, and fewer chances of being arrested or killed by police. What could Rachel Dolezal gain by passing as African American in a world where blackness can often mean a life of unfair challenges? For many, it makes no sense; therefore she must have a history of mental illness or be using blackness as a coping mechanism for abuse.
Dolezal has claimed that she was raised in a physically abusive environment and does not acknowledge them as her biological parents. There’s no question that if these allegations are true, her parents need to be held accountable, and she should receive the appropriate help, but we watch celebrities imitate aspects of black American culture daily. Dolezal may have taken her fascination with blackness to an extreme and created a new life for herself, but that doesn’t mean she has a mental health disorder, and it seems to take away from her accepting the consequences of her actions.
Dr. Keisha Bean, HSP, a licensed psychologist, answered questions via email about the likelihood of Dolezal’s life as an African-American woman being the result of trauma or of Dissociative Identity Disorder (formerly known as multiple personality disorder). She explains, “Dissociative Identity Disorder is a severe form of dissociation where a lack of connection exists in a person’s thoughts, feelings, memories, actions, or sense of identity.” Bean advises that DID is usually the result of a traumatic event, as a form of coping, but cautions that there is a lack of consistent data that prevents recognizing patterns of frequency. Based on Dolezal’s defensive reactions to questions about her race and ethnicity, she seems to be aware of the controversy surrounding her passing as black. Would this awareness be expected of a person with DID? “Typically, the person is not consciously aware of the disassociation,” Bean answers.
Bean disagrees with the presumption that someone passing as another racial identity automatically has mental health issues. She explains: “I would not think it to be wise at all that someone passing as another race or ethnicity has a mental illness on that information alone. From a historical perspective, many African Americans would pass for white as a means of coping with racial and civil injustices [and] as a means to stay safe/alive and I would doubt these individuals would be diagnosed with a mental illness.” Bean says other factors would have to be considered, such as behaviors, ability to function daily, ability to cope with daily stressors and other symptoms/indicators for mental illness.
In Bean’s expertise, Dolezal’s “identification as being Black was a very conscious process and therefore would very likely rule out DID.”
It is not unusual to find whiteness in dedicated black spaces (many NAACP leaders are white), so Rachel Dolezal’s decision to live as a black person to elevate herself in such a way is confusing. But that doesn’t mean she has a mental illness. It’s natural to want to understand her reasons, but it also speaks to a larger pattern of wanting to excuse white people with factors beyond their control. When white people commit domestic terrorism via public shooting sprees, they’re often arrested, alive, and given the opportunity to have a psychological evaluation before they are sentenced. However, when police are called for help when dealing with a mentally ill person of color, that person too often is killed.
There are plenty of reasons why someone would want to be black, despite the trauma of blackness in America. A person shouldn’t have to be considered insane to want to be a part of a culture that handles constant discrimination and prejudice with humor and resiliency. We should not rush to excuse her behavior as a mental illness because it does a disservice to those who struggle with such every day. When it was discovered that writer Anatole Broyard had been passing as a white man to further his literary career, there was little to no discussion of his mental health. When Rebecca Hall (Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Iron Man 3), daughter of opera singer Maria Ewing, laughed at the idea of considering herself black, there was no rush to have her evaluated.
And yet even though choosing blackness is not a sign of mental illness, it is important to question Dolezal’s motivation. It seems her desire for social justice left her enamored with a culture that would’ve accepted her as she was, without the spray tans and appropriated hairstyles.
Nichole Perkins is a freelance writer, based in her hometown of Nashville, Tennessee.