Rachel Dolezal has not been passing as black. She’s been passing as mulatta.
Yes, mulatta — a first-generation mixed woman of African descent. Of course we don’t call ourselves that very often any more. But the cultural mythology around this honey-skinned, wavy-haired, cinnamon-thighed woman still permeates North American media and psyches in the so-called New Millennium.
And this becomes clear in the ways that Dolezal’s “outing” has taken over social media and other media outlets.
Dolezal applied for her position as head of the Spokane, Washington, chapter of the NAACP by listing her race as white, black and Indian. In my grandfather’s time, this was called mulatta. She altered her appearance not to be chocolate-skinned, with tightly curled hair, or to have fuller, more generous nose and lips, but to be a light-tan woman with blonde dreadlocks or fluffy curls.
Many observers have expressed outrage at the privileged positions that Dolezal has occupied in her new (mixed) race as a leader of a prominent civil rights organization and an adjunct professor of Africana studies at Eastern Washington University.
But let’s be clear: Regardless of skin color, black women never have more privileged access to high-profile, high-paying positions than white women do. This is a pernicious anti-affirmative action myth that must be dispelled.
However, compared with our darker-skinned sisters, light-skinned black women including myself are overrepresented in the media, in academia and in leadership positions. In breaking into all three, Dolezal is staking her claim to a visibility associated with light-skinned privilege.
Along with its visibility, the mulatta body is marked by mythical accessibility. She’s imagined as the body everyone wants to enter — sexually and otherwise.
Think of the media drama surrounding first-generation mixed-race actress Halle Berry. Desired by all, she’s had both black and white husbands and has been rumored, with little to no evidence, to have a white female “personal assistant” who is also her lover.
Or think of the historical romance “Belle.” In this 2014 film, the mixed-race woman is chased by white male suitors enchanted by her mixture of “white” refinement and “black” sexiness. She also shares a bedroom and close bond with a white female cousin who seems to want to both be like her and be with her. In the popular imagination, the mulatta body is always open, always permeable. It’s a body anyone can slip into, in any way they want to.
Anyone, that is, except a dark-skinned black woman.
So in entering the skin and body of a mulatta, Dolezal isn’t inventing any kind of new phenomenon — “transracial” or otherwise. She’s only reinventing and taking to the extreme old, anti-black misogyny imaginations that the light-skinned black woman’s body is available for any white person in any way they want it, at any time they want it.
I, like the Rachel Dolezal of her fictional biography, am a woman of African, Indian and European descent. I am a black feminist, my mother is a black feminist and my 5-year-old daughter is a black feminist. As someone who can only imagine life through a black feminist genealogy, we must be committed to laying the mulatta to rest. We must be committed to dispelling the privileges, mythologies and dangers associated with light-skinned black womanhood.
Dolezal’s “passing” does not contribute to this struggle. So, black feminist sisters, I think it’s time to lay her story to rest too.
Omise’eke Natasha Tinsley is an associate professor of African and African diaspora studies at The University of Texas at Austin.
A version of this op-ed appeared in the Austin American Statesman.
To view more op-eds from Texas Perspectives, click here.
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