Reverse Passing: From Rachel Dolezal to Vijay Chokalingam

When I first heard Rachel Dolezal’s claim that she was African American because she identified with African American culture, and then Mindy Kailing’s brother Vijay Chokalingam’s confession that he pretended to be African American in order to get into medical school, I was livid. I was jealous. And then there is Verda Byrd, who had been adopted and raised by African-American parents, and did not learn until she was past the age of 70 that her biological parents were white. Byrd, believing she was black her entire life, said that she “still feels black and that’s not going to change,” even after seeing the adoption papers which labeled her as “white.”

The fluidity of identity has always fascinated me, that a person can choose to be another race. In the case of Byrd, her racial passing was unintentional. This fascination stems from my own bi-racial heritage. With a Pakistani father and an African American mother, it is a challenge to get people to believe I am half African American. Dolezal and Chokalingam’s revelations seem to suggest that today being bi-racial is a fashion statement, a status one can use to gain leverage in society by “passing.” As my cousin Danne would say, “you and your sisters are designer babies,” meaning my sister and I have come to represent an ideal in contemporary society. Another one of my cousins, Narah, believes that most people do not want to be mono-racial anymore; it’s neither interesting nor exotic, she claims.

The media bears some responsibility for this. Glamorizing celebrities who are racially ambiguous increases the market value for the person and allows more fans to identify with the artist, expanding their fan base. Mariah Carey is one of many entertainers whose record label marketed them as racially ambiguous, bringing attention that helped to boost her career.

While it’s a good thing that America’s racial lines are bending and that people are more accepting of interracial relationships, I do find it somewhat pretentious when I hear someone say, “I want to marry an African American guy so I can have a mixed baby,” as though mixed children are a commodity above all others. I heard such a statement in the seventh grade in the girl’s locker room. There was a time when racial passing was done to escape the travesties of racism, but as my classmate expressed, now it has become the “cool” thing to do.

It is one thing to be attracted to a certain race for its positive attributes but it’s quite another to take an identity because of what it can get for you. Rachel Dolezal passed herself off as African American and attended Howard University, a Historically Black College. She then went on to becoming the President of the NAACP chapter of Spokane Washington. Chokalingam was equally self-seeking. He wanted to play the “race game” to get into medical school. Yet, he was not the first to challenge the inner-workings of affirmative action. The Bakke Case challenged racial privilege in college admissions. The Supreme Court ruled on June 28, 1978 that the use of racial quotas in admissions by the University of California-Davis was constitutional.

Richard Rodriquez made the fault lines of affirmative action even more glaring in Hunger of Memory (1982). Rodriquez’s book narrates his struggle of defining his Mexican American identity in America. Rodriquez expresses his distaste for affirmative action, arguing that it only benefits middle class minorities and not poor minorities and that middle class minorities would be successful regardless of any systematic help. Affirmative action continues to be heavily debated in colleges as a legitimate method of promoting racial diversity, just as it continues to stigmatize some minority students who believe they are admitted only because of their race. Abigail Fisher, a white woman, believed she was denied admission to the University of Texas because of their affirmative action program, which in her words admitted “less qualified minorities” in place of her. It is disappointing to see people uncomfortable with their ethnicity and academic skills. Affirmative action may not be the ideal system to promote diversity, but no prospective student should feel insecure about getting into college due to their race or feel they got in because their college needed to reach a certain quota.

John Howard Griffin, a journalist living in Texas, wrote Black Like Me (1961) after going undercover in the deep south. In order to document the life of African Americans under Jim Crow Laws, he did something unheard of: he passed for black in the late 1950s. This reverse form of racial passing allowed him to walk in the shoes of the black man in order to undergo the real experience. The assumption was, and perhaps still is, that it was not sufficient to have black people tell their own story. Someone else had to authorize it, to make it real, to bring notable attention to it in the media. Forest Whittaker mentioned in an interview how imperative it is that people be able to tell their own story. History consists of numerous voices that need to be heard. “We have to not limit ourselves,” Whittaker said, “to just a color palette…people of that culture should be allowed the opportunity to be able to tell those stories.”

When I hear stories about people like Rachel Dolezal passing to be black because she feels black or Vijay Chokalingam taking a college admission spot from a potential African American student, it is quite frustrating to me in many ways. Racial identification has long been dominated by visual markers. Because I don’t look black, people don’t believe I am black even though I identify as such.
It is good that society is coming to embrace the blurring of racial boundaries and the multiplicity of identity, and it is flattering that people like Dolezal enjoy black culture so much that they want to be black. But at what point is this cultural appropriation detrimental?

The first step in addressing the race problem is being comfortable with who you are and who your neighbor is. We are all human. As Verda Byrd’s biological sister said after being reunited with Verda: “It’s not the color of Verda that shocked us, but the fact that we have found a long lost sister…She could have been purple as far as I care.”

[by Mona Ahmed]

Mona is a sophomore at the University of Kansas majoring in journalism. A Lawrence, Kansas native, Mona wishes to attend law school to study immigration law.