Rachel Dolezal appeared on the Today show Tuesday.
  • Anthony Quintano/NBC News
  • Rachel Dolezal appeared on the Today show Tuesday.

Rachel Dolezal is the best op-ed topic to come along in a long time. She’s not just hot copy; she’s actually significant. She raises some really good questions. She’s one of those occasional subjects that remind the lowly pundit what fun it is to think for a living.

So she doesn’t have a single drop of black blood in her! Well, how much black blood would she need? Maybe just that single drop, the drop that was good enough in grandma’s day, especially when grandma was from Mississippi. Or let’s say she’d grown up in Africa, the daughter of the usual missionaries. In that case she’d at least be an African-American, wouldn’t she? Could she then boast of her bona fides instead of lying about them—or would her bona fides remain unacceptable, African African-Americans having no more idea of what it’s like to grow up black in America than a pink-cheeked Caucasian in Montana?

The op-ed texts that inspired me here are by Clarence Page in the Tribune and Neil Steinberg in the Sun-Times. Page endorses the view that Dolezal revolted against white privilege by exercising white privilege—presuming to make herself an ally (and leader, as president of the Spokane chapter of the NAACP) of “people of color” by simple “cosmetic changes and brazen deception.”

Page’s choice of the phrase “people of color” shows how strange this discussion is. People of color—a PC way of saying everybody but honkies—don’t necessarily know any more about growing up black in America than Dolezal does. It’s easier to call Dolezal inauthentic than to say what authentic is, but apparently it’s not enough to say you are because you feel you are.

Yet where does that leave us with the former Bruce Jenner (whose situation has made Dolezal’s twice as interesting)? Can we say we are what we feel we are if we back it up with hormone treatments? Page quotes Meredith Talusan in the Guardian making what Page seems to think is an important distinction: Dolezal merely wants “to be perceived as black,” Talusan (a transgender Asian), writes; “trans people transition in order to be the gender we feel inside.” Talusan concludes with this: “I don’t need to pass as a woman the way Dolezal needs to pass as black, for the simple reason that I am a woman.”

Dolezal is passing as black because she isn’t black, whereas a trans woman is a woman through and through. It’s a question of authenticity. Yet the transgendered become the people they felt they already were despite physical evidence to the contrary that to many an observer is as persuasive as Dolezal’s ancestry. And even though Talusan says Dolezal can merely pass as black, she actually writes that “race is a social construction originally designed to separate and justify the subjugation of darker peoples for the purposes of European supremacy.”

Race is just a “social construction.” Yet it’s immutable.

Steinberg is reliably contrarian. So Jenner can jump ship but Dolezal can’t? he marvels. “Biologically, it should be the other way around, since there is are huge chromosomal difference between men and women (XY for men, XX for women, if you are keeping score) while the genetic shift between races is far more subtle.”

Steinberg focuses on “cultural identity” as the big reason we can’t lightly claim a different religion, or race—or sex for that matter. We grow up to be one thing or another. But there are always pioneers testing the boundaries that constrain us. Jenner is one; Dolezal might be another. “Whether Rachel Dolezal is an anomaly or a pioneer will depend on whether others start wanting to change their race,” says Steinberg. “I have a hard time imagining that, but the future is always tough to imagine.”

I suspect many blacks who are appalled by Dolezal see themselves at the barricades. Having thoroughly lost the battle to keep various appurtenances of black culture from being coopted by white culture, they now face the possibility that pushy whites intend to confiscate the whole shebang. “We make better black people than you black people do,” they hear as Dolezal’s unspoken message, “and it’s high time we showed you how to do it.”

But a sufficient defense against this threat would be a sense of humor.