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Why can’t Rachel Dolezal be black?

Ryan Denison is the Senior Fellow for Theology at Denison Forum, where he contributes writing and research to many of the ministry’s productions.

He is in the final stages of earning his PhD in church history at BH Carroll Theological Institute after having earned his MDiv at Truett Seminary. Ryan has also taught at BH Carroll and Dallas Baptist University.

He and his wife, Candice, live in East Texas and have two children.

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Rachel Dolezal is back in the news after the recent release of her memoir: In Full Color: Finding My Place in a Black and White World. If her name sounds familiar but you’re not quite sure why, Dolezal made headlines back in 2015 when, while serving as president of the NAACP’s Spokane, Washington chapter, it was revealed that she was of strictly Caucasian heritage despite claiming to be black. She resigned shortly thereafter but has never backed down from that belief.

Interestingly, in defense of her reasoning, she appealed to the recent swell of support for transgender issues, arguing that if it’s permissible for people to claim to be born in the wrong body in terms of their gender, it’s only logical that the same thing could happen with a person’s race. After all, both race and sex are, in all but the rarest of occasions, genetically determined by the time a child is born. If people can discover over the course of their lives that their biological sex is different from the gender with which they identify, there’s little reason that the same cannot be true of an individual’s race.

That argument, however, has been largely rejected despite the logic behind it. Among those willing to actually engage with the topic rather than just dismiss the comparison without giving a reason, the primary arguments against Dolezal’s claim usually center on some variation of the same idea; namely that, as Meredith Talusan wrote for The Guardian, changing one’s race is or can be done for personal advantage while changing one’s gender is strictly about becoming the gender you “feel inside.”

That argument, however, seems flawed in that Talusan is basically saying that it would be permissible for Dolezal to claim to be black despite being biologically white if she gained nothing by doing so. While that would, perhaps, remove some of the stigma attached to Dolezal’s claim, it wouldn’t inherently change anything about the validity of her argument. It would simply make that argument more palatable.

As Zeba Blay wrote for the Huffington Post, however, a related but more troubling aspect of Dolezal’s claim is that she can, at any point in time, “take out the box braids and strip off the self-tanner and navigate the world without the stigma tied to actually being black. Her connection to racial oppression is something she has complete control over, a costume she can put on—and take off—as she pleases.” While, again, that explanation doesn’t necessarily show why the biological justification for Dolezal’s situation is different from that of a transgender person, it does explain why so many are reluctant to validate those claims in the same way they did for Caitlyn Jenner or other higher profile transgender examples.

Race, more so than gender, remains a sensitive and loaded subject in our culture. Unfortunately, there are still social, cultural, and economic consequences from one’s race that directly impact the kind of life that an individual can expect to have. Would Dolezal’s situation have been treated differently if she was biologically Asian or Hispanic instead of white? We can’t know for sure, but it seems plausible.

Bruce Jenner was praised for his decision to become a woman in 2015 when he would have been ostracized for it twenty years earlier. That fact doesn’t prove that society has advanced, as many claim, so much as it shows that it’s simply changed. The majority praised him two years ago because it became the socially acceptable thing to do. There’s no reason that the same could not happen for the next Rachel Dolezal twenty years from now, and that fact demonstrates the inherent problem of living in a world where boundaries are defined by popular opinion rather than an absolute set of standards.

Without a moral foundation rooted in something greater than ourselves, we lose the ability to discern right from wrong. There will be times where the majority will walk close enough to the Truth that such a society can endure and even thrive. But it cannot last. As Paul warned, eventually people “will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and turn away from listening to the truth and wonder off into myths” (2 Timothy 4:3–4). That is the fate of everyone, Christian and non-Christian alike, who begins to value the opinions of other fallen people—even when they’re echoed by countless multitudes—over that of the Lord.

Rachel Dolezal can’t be black because she was born white. It really is that simple. While she can identify with aspects of black culture and do great things to help the advancement of black people, she cannot do so as anyone other than the person God created her to be. In fact, as Blay pointed out in her article, she likely could have done even more to help if she had done so as a visibly white person rather than trying to be someone she’s not.

But while there are compelling reasons why Dolezal should not have attempted to portray herself as a black woman, every argument that affirms the choice to switch genders while condemning her attempt to switch races ultimately contains a tinge of hypocrisy. However, that’s the best a culture that rejects the authority of God’s word to speak on situations such as these can do.

As Christians, we have a God-given responsibility to help the world around us understand the flaws inherent to that approach and call them to something better. A quick look at the lives of biblical prophets who remained faithful to that responsibility reminds us that it won’t always be easy, but it’s what our Lord did for each of us (Matthew 18:10–14). Can we really justify acting any differently?