Rachel Dolezal, or the woman who wasn’t black, has been the focus of much media attention over the last few weeks. In a nutshell, she reinvented herself as someone she wasn’t in order to do what she wanted to do. I am writing under the assumption that you, the reader, have come across the most surreal story not written by the onion, but in case you have not, I recommend you read a few articles.
That being said, the fundamental issue I take with the focus of many articles and news reports written on the matter, is that they are far too focused on their own outrage to have any sensible discussion on the real issues. Firstly, what Rachel Dolezal did was undoubtedly wrong, but only because she lied about who she was. Not feeling comfortable the way one is, is a quite common phenomenon. Many of us go running or go to the gym for the purpose of self-improvement. A normal person cannot hope to complete an Iron Man competition. It takes months of training and a different diet to even stand a chance, but on a conceptual level, it is a person radically altering themselves to accomplish a goal.
The difference however is, that while both Dolezal and the triathlete altered their physique, the triathlete harms no one by doing so. Dolezal hurt her cause and those she influenced. The disingenuity of Rachel Dolezal has infected everything she has touched.
For one, the cause she fought for, by all accounts passionately and effectively, has been tarnished. The Spokane NAACP, an organization which would have accepted her as a white woman as well, has become synonymous with the fraud she committed. Had she truly wanted to fight for this cause, she would not have done so under a false persona. Now all she has accomplished will be held under a microscope and for the foreseeable future the Spokane NAACP will be forced to deal with the fallout caused by Dolezal. Resources will have to be dedicated away from a cause ever relevant because one person found it necessary to lie.
Additionally, Dolezal taught classes including “The Black Woman’s Struggle” at Eastern Washington University, while claiming to have personally lived this struggle. Once again it is not uncommon for lecturers of African-American Studies to not be African-American. Whether it is a quality desirable for a lecture on this subject is debatable, but the fact that she deceived her students is highly unethical. Her students were under the assumption that they were learning from someone with personal experiences, which turned out to be a mere fiction.
Lastly, there is the matter of her appearance, which she drastically altered to lend credence to her claims of having a black father. Words like appropriation have been thrown around in regards to this, but it seems that once again the real issue is misunderstood. In a liberal society, changing ones appearance is not a crime and should not be looked down on either. If Rachel Dolezal wishes to become a black woman in appearance as in heart, she has the right to do so. She can change her hair and get a tan, although I must say merely on skin color, John Boehner has a better claim to African heritage than Dolezal. What she cannot do however, is create a myth surrounding herself. The moment she begins to mislead people, the liberal state ceases to protect her.
This, generally speaking is the foundation of the liberal state. Most aptly outlined in John Stuart Mill’s “Harm Principle”, an individual is free to do as they please, as long as no other party is harmed. Granted Mill primarily wrote about the role of the state, but it remains applicable in this scenario. When Rachel Dolezal began to harms others, for example in the case of her students, this harm overrides her wish to change her identity. In effect, she may do as she wishes as long as she is truthful. Only her dishonesty in the end justifies the outrage her actions have caused.