“There’s nothing so certain to succeed as imposture, if boldly managed…” Buffalo Courier, 1851
Earlier this summer, the internet exploded with news about the racial imposture of Rachel Dolezal, an activist whose parents publicly denounced her claims to African American ancestry, asserting instead that she was and always had been a white woman. Social media hysteria led to national television coverage, and a wide range of writers and scholars weighed in on the controversy. Many critics were incensed that Dolezal had appropriated black culture to advance her own goals, achieving a leadership position in the Spokane NAACP and lecturing in African American studies at Eastern Washington University. Some observers noted the ways that her claims resembled other famous figures who have also been accused of cultural thievery. Others drew attention to Dolezal’s additional assertion that she is part Native American, linking her to a long history of indigenous appropriation in the United States. Her apparent ethnic fraud subsequently rekindled a long-simmering conversation within Native American and Indigenous Studies about scholars who claim American Indian ancestry despite not being claimed by American Indian communities.
Dolezal’s purported blackness (and Indianness) was not a temporary costume, but was more like the racial shifting that anthropologist Circe Sturm and a number of other writers have outlined and it is not uncommon in the history of the United States. In Real Native Genius, I examine this phenomenon through the lives of Okah Tubbee and Laah Ceil, two apparently non-Native people who remade themselves as Indians during the mid-19th century. Like Dolezal, Laah Ceil was raised as a white woman, and the two cases raise similar questions. Why would a white woman abandon the abundant privileges of whiteness to pass as a racial minority, particularly given the long and brutal histories of white supremacy and settler colonialism that did and do endanger people of color? What combination of fantasy and necessity enabled their transformation? What benefit(s) did/do they derive from their imposture?
Despite the important differences between Dolezal and Ceil, each case is complicated by the impostor’s apparent desire to benefit the people whose identity she was appropriating. Ceil wrote in her autobiography that she “hoped to do good” for her people, the Indians, whom she referred to as “fallen,” reflecting her Mormon upbringing and the special place of the “Lamanites” within Latter-day Saint theology. During her career as a stage performer, she also repeatedly claimed to be raising money to benefit temperance among Native communities, though there’s no direct evidence to that end. For her part, Dolezal appears to have worked hard to advance the political and social causes of the NAACP and applied herself as a teacher of African American studies. And yet, both women created comparatively lucrative careers for themselves, quite literally profiting from the silencing and displacement of those they claimed to represent. To what degree does either woman deserve forgiveness for her imposture and from whom? Can good works outweigh enormous lies?
While Laah Ceil ultimately shed her Indian identity at the end of her long life, Rachel Dolezal shows little sign of backing down. Perhaps most striking is that both women were apparently rather successful, despite considerable evidence to contradict their claims. Laah Ceil was never “outed” as a white woman, choosing instead to abandon her Indian persona when it no longer suited her needs. She even managed to fool generations of scholars who believed her assertions and regarded her as an American Indian. Dolezal succeeded (for a time) in her claims despite the fact that our digital world makes it possible for anyone with internet access to research another person’s background. Understanding the degree to which their relatively unmarked whiteness enabled their “bold” racial passing or shifting is key to unraveling such cases of racial imposture, shedding much needed light on the nature of white privilege then and now.
Angela Pulley Hudson is associate professor of history at Texas A&M University. Her book Real Native Genius: How an Ex-Slave and a White Mormon Became Famous Indians is now available.