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Rachel Dolezal and Andrea Smith: Integrity, Ethics, Accountability, Identity


The politics of racial shifting in anti-racist feminist organizing has been made anew in recent debates over the cases of Rachel Dolezal (formerly known as Black) and Andrea Smith (formerly known as Cherokee).

I want to think—out loud— through these cases together and the incredibly different ways that people have responded to them. For myself, I am trying to understand the differences in the cultural and social expectations and claims on Blackness and Indigeneity that they mark and how those expectations and claims operate so differently within and for Black and Native communities. I have more questions than answers.

Dolezal Today

Dolezal’s parents, Ruthanne and Lawrence (Larry), reveal to local journalists and NBC news anchors that their daughter, Rachel, has been lying about her ancestry (see reports from June 15June 16, and June 17). On June 15, under pressure from the NAACP, Rachel Dolezal resigns as President of the Spokane chapter of the NAACP, and subsequently loses her faculty position in the Africana Education program at Eastern Washington University. According to some reports, linked above, she is being investigated by the City of Spokane’s Ethics Commission for ethics violations in misrepresenting herself as Black on an application to serve on the City’s Police Oversight Board.

In a June 16 interview with Matt Lauer on the Today Show, Dolezal attempted to counter her parent’s statements by asserting her right of “self-identification.”

“Dolezal: Well, first of all, I really don’t see why they’re [her parents] in such a rush to whitewash some of the work that I have done, and who I am, and how I’ve identified, and this goes back to a very early age, with my self-identification with the black experience as a very young child. Lauer: When did it start? Dolezal: I would say about 5 years old. Lauer: You began identifying yourself as African-American? Dolezal: I was drawing self-portraits with the brown crayon instead of the peach crayon and black, curly, hair, you know, yeah. That was how I was portraying myself. Lauer: So it started way back then. Rachel, when did you start—and I’ll use the word, you can correct me if you don’t like it—when did you start deceiving people and telling them you were black when you knew their questions were pointed in a different direction? When someone said to you, back then, “Are you black or white?” and you’d say “I’m black,” you wouldn’t say, “I identify as black,” you’d say, “I’m black.” When did you start deceiving people? Dolezal: Well, I do take exception to that, because it’s a little more complex than me identifying as black or answering a question of “Are you black or white?” I was actually identified when I was doing human rights work in north Idaho as, first, trans-racial, and then when some of the opposition to some of the human rights work I was doing came forward, the next day’s newspaper article identified me as being a biracial woman, and then the next article when there were actually burglaries, nooses, etcetera, was, this is happening to a black woman. And I never corrected— Lauer: Well, why didn’t you correct it if you knew it wasn’t true? Dolezal: Because it’s more complex than, you know, being true or false in that particular instance. [After questions about the ways she has changed her appearance.] Dolezal: Absolutely. Absolutely. I have a huge issue with blackface. This is not some freak, Birth of a Nation mockery blackface performance. This is on a very real connected level, how I’ve actually had to go there with the experience, not just the visible representation, but with the experience, and the point at which that really solidified was when I got full custody of Izaiah. And he said, “you’re my real mom,” and he’s in high school, and for that to be something that is plausible, I certainly can’t be seen as white and be Izaiah’s mom. [After questions about misrepresenting her father as a Black man.] Dolezal: Albert Wilkerson is my dad. Every man can be a father, not every man can be a dad. Lauer: Your lawsuit in 2002 against Howard University, where you claim you were discriminated against because you were a pregnant white woman. Do you understand how people could hear that and say, “Here’s another example—she says she identified herself as being African-American or black from a young age, but here’s a case where she identified herself as a white woman because it worked for her under the circumstances.” Dolezal: The reasons for my full-tuition scholarship being removed and my teaching position as well, my TA position, were that other people needed opportunities and you probably have white relatives that can afford to help you with your tuition. And I thought that was an injustice. … Dolezal: Well, as much as this discussion has somewhat been at my expense, recently, in a very sort of viciously inhumane way—come out of the woodwork, and—the discussion’s really about what it is to be human, and I hope that that can drive at the core of definitions of race, ethnicity, culture, self-determination, personal agency, and ultimately empowerment. . . . Dolezal: I actually was talking to one of my sons yesterday and he said, “Mom, racially you’re human and culturally you’re black.” And, you know, so we’ve had these conversations over the years, I do know that they support the way  that I identify, and they support me. Ultimately, we have each other’s back. We’re the Three Musketeers.”

Criticisms, however, of Dolezal had flooded social media, news, and community forums, accusing her of blackface, opportunism, appropriation, and privilege. Dolezal responded to these criticisms by claiming to be “transracial” (also of Native American descent—growing up in a tipi, hunting with a bow and arrow), identifying as a bisexual, claiming to have been sexually abused by her brother, and claiming to have been raised in a too-strict Christian home. In the end, none of these claims dissuaded her critics and only enraged them further with calls of accountability. Dolezal was forced to resign on June 15 from her position at the NAACP and from her faculty position at EWU.

Smith Tumble

About two weeks ago, Annita Lucchesi (Southern Cheyenne) posted a comment on her tumblr page entitled “Andrea Smith is not Cherokee.” In Lucchesi’s biography for an article she wrote for Last Real Indians in honor of Loretta Saunders, it says, “Annita Lucchesi is a Southern Cheyenne survivor of sexual and domestic violence. She is a graduate student in the Critical Culture, Gender, & Race Studies department at Washington State University, and also works at the National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center, which is dedicated to reclaiming the sovereignty of Native nations and safeguarding Native women and their children.” Her comment on tumblr about Smith begins:

“Andrea Smith is not Cherokee. omg. this is not new information. this is what bugs me about how Natives are treated by non-Natives in academia!!! most Native scholars that are connected to their cultures/communities have questioned her for a very long time. but non-Natives get so comfortable using their one token go-to Native Feminist to quote that those questions don’t get heard or understood.”

For clarification: This is not an image I created. It circulated on twitter a couple of weeks ago, after the one comparing Elizabeth Warren with Rachel Dolezal was posted, and after Lucchesi’s comments.

A day later, Lucchesi posted a comment entitled “cool indigenous feminist scholars to check out.” Both of her comments generated close to 6,000 replies, including likes, reposts, and remarks. The overwhelming majority of the respondents express some form of shock, dismay, pain, and outrage over the news about Smith and gratitude for the recommended reading list.

As Lucchesi’s comments were circulated on twitter and Facebook by Native and non-Native academics, activists, and community members, they provoked a diverse intensity of responses, including criticisms of those who did the circulating as witch-hunters, mean-spirited, lacking logic, not knowing what they were talking about, and the like.

Within a few days, a new tumblr page appeared: andreasmithisnotcherokee. With multiple Cherokee and other sources and primary and secondary documentation dating back to 1991, the page tracks a 24-year history of Smith misrepresenting herself as an enrolled Cherokee citizen, of being confronted on the validity of her claims and agreeing with the Cherokee Nation to no longer publicly identify as Cherokee, and of subsequently allowing others to misrepresent her as a Cherokee intellectual and activist.

Smith’s admissions to multiple Cherokee people in 1993, 2007, and 2008 that she has no lineal descent claims as a Cherokee is as striking as the fact, as noted on tumblr, that, “To date, no member of the Redbirth Smith family or any other Cherokee family has acknowledged Andrea Smith’s claims of descent/belonging.”

In the two weeks since Lucchesi’s posts, the twitter and Facebook flurry, and the appearance of andreasmithisnotcherokee, not a single national media outlet or professional institution or association to which Smith is a member has remarked on Smith’s case. And neither has Smith responded–to refute, to acknowledge, to apologize. In fact, it appears that all she has done in response is to close her twitter account (@andrea366, though one she seems to be affiliated with @NativeChristian remains active) and her Facebook account (Andy Smith).

[Insert the sounds of crickets here.]

In my albeit limited worlds of social media–wordpress, twitter, Facebook–I have watched as many Natives and non-Natives in and outside of the academy have posed questions about the timing and motivations of the tumblr posts/pages. These questions have oftentimes assumed that it has been common knowledge, certainly within Native studies since 2008, that Smith is a fraud, so why bring it all up (again) now?

Instead of assuming that “everybody knew/knows,” particularly within Native studies since 2008, which is clearly not the case given the responses to the tumblr posts and circulation mentioned above, a more productive place to begin might be to ask why there has not been any noticeable difference in professional or political expectations of Smith—in her self-presentations, speaking engagements, professional service, and publications? There are certainly many people who knew/know, so why have her ethics and integrity not been questioned or challenged in the same or similar way to those of Dolezal? Why does Smith’s fraud get excused on the grounds of “her good work” but Dolezal does not?

Obviously I am not suggesting that Dolezal and Smith have the same kind or volume of professional publications or that they do the same kind of political work.

But it seems to me that the ethical issues swirling around Smith are so viscous and thick for Native and non-Native academics (and) activists (especially those aligned as anti-racist feminists) that it is impossible to wade through them without taking any kind of action whatsoever. Like trying to stand nonchalantly in quick sand or to sit comfortably in a pot of water as it comes to a boil.

Moving, Forward

If the past 24 years are any indication of the future, I fear what will happen in regards Smith is this:

  1. non-Native academics (and) activists will eventually dismiss the sources and documentation of Smith’s fraud as crass or too-complicated identity politics, something that they can’t possibly understand or take a position on, as the advancement of oppressively racial state normativities, or as an example of problems unique to Native people that Natives have to sort out for themselves.
  2. Native academics (and) activists will turn on one another, will go mute, or will ignore the information (again) in the name of not advancing racism, not doing harm to Smith, or showing respect for her “good work” in “the community.”

Meanwhile, we’ll all fail to ask why, as Dolezal and Smith present themselves through such complicated personal stories of childhood abuse and family dysfunction, we respond so differently to Dolezal’s blackface and Smith’s redface. We’ll avoid the opportunity to think out loud together about why it seems the entire nation demands accountability of someone pretending to be Black–of literally altering her physical appearance to conform to racist expectations of Blackness–but doesn’t seem to give one iota of concern about those who pretend to be Indian.

Is this because, at the end and beginning and middle of Smith’s fraud, “we” would all like to claim or have already claimed to have been raised in tipis, hunting for our food, feeling Indian since we were kids, shifting out of ourselves into the Indian’s pains and successes? Is it that “we” all, secretly, want to be Indian like her? Or perhaps that “we” all, secretly, already claim to be Indian ourselves?

Please see, “On the Politics of Distraction,” which reflects on the reactions to this post.

10 thoughts on “Rachel Dolezal and Andrea Smith: Integrity, Ethics, Accountability, Identity”

  1. Joanne Barker, thanks for this post. I was surprised and yet grateful to read it. Many Native scholars and activists have been trying to make this same comparison on Twitter and in the media, that Dolezal’s blackface is all too familiar to us in Indian Country. You highlight one case of playing Indian as a comparison, that of Andrea Smith, which has been very very difficult for us in Native American and Indigenous Studies (NAIS) to face. You ask why we in the academy so thoroughly critique Dolezal yet we have failed to take on the Smith case: “Is it that “we” all, secretly, want to be Indian like her? Or perhaps that “we” all, secretly, already claim to be Indian ourselves?” Indeed, the US has established a hard line between white and black yet it has simultaneously established the right to inherit everything from Native peoples, our land first, now our customs and our very identities. Non-indigenous folks make important contributions to our field. One need not make problematic claims to tribal or indigenous identity in order to stand with us. That only continues the appropriation. This blog post is difficult and challenging to me personally. I have long known about Andy’s problematic claims. I am sure it is challenging to many others who will read it. I have mostly not spoken up about it. Perhaps it was a sense of sadness for Andy. And a sense that her work has had a positive influence for people. Apparently so did Dolezal’s. I also went to graduate school with Andy, albeit for a short time. But I think it was also incredulity and a sense that this issue is much bigger than Andy Smith that caused me to not speak up. There was also a sense that I and others had that it was up to Cherokee Nation to make a statement, and they declined. I have since come to see that this issue impacts not only the Cherokee Nation. It impacts our field. As a NAIS scholar I think it is time we have a productive conversation that is both critical and generous about what is an epidemic problem in the US of “playing Indian,” and the ramifications for doing anti-colonial work, and for our field. Perhaps we can help stem the tide if we do more to confront the problem openly? Again, thank you.

    Liked by 6 people

  2. Joanne, thanks as ever for your trenchant commentary and insights into issues facing NAIS scholars and those of us non-indigenous people who count themselves as working with, alongside, and for indigenous nations and their members. I have been following the Dolezal case as someone whose work, though never directly on matters of identity, nonetheless is inevitably drawn into them through the related questions of authenticity and representation in the law and politics of culture more generally. As Kim relates above, and in my own work, I have regularly argued that questions of authenticity are ones that, while certainly and legitimately alive for the peoples with whom we work, are only ever problematically reified when someone (like me) who claims no membership attempts to weigh in, whether as a scholar, an advocate, or just a person with some knowledge of the indigenous community and its contours but with very different stakes in what answers to these questions afford and/or foreclose.
    Andy Smith’s case and its treatment by the public (especially in comparison to the Dolezal case) have raised these issues in a particularly acute way, at least for me. From one vantage, Andy’s claims and their validity still strike me as questions largely for the Cherokee Nation to decide, at least as they are relevant to the matter of whether her identity as Cherokee is deployed for benefits that accrue to its members — not just economic ones like access to Indian Health Services — but others as well, like the felt sense of belonging, or the sense of history, or the quality and character of a life lived in a particular way, and with a particular set of commitments, that are shaped by being Cherokee and being known as Cherokee, whatever that may be. Not only do I think it ethically problematic for someone like me to weigh in on these kinds of questions, I frankly wouldn’t even know where to begin — I simply don’t have any sense of how I could, without baldly making leaps of logic and/or blind assessments grounded in nothing other than my own intuitions, about, well, my own life experiences, mostly far from Cherokee. And even if I were someone who spent a lot of time working with the specific Cherokee people and nation to which Andy claimed membership, I still wouldn’t feel like I could weigh in as to her “belonging” simply because I don’t really have a sense of what the question of “belonging” points to. In fact, in some sense I feel that, were I to do this, I would be as guilty of “playing indian” as Andy is accused of doing, because the act itself would ask me to step into logics and experiences and rationales that I simply don’t have access to because I am not Cherokee.
    But Andy’s case also operates from a different vantage, and that is the extent to which her claims to being Cherokee were deployed as part of her professional identity as well. This strikes me as a point of entry that operates according to a logics of legitimacy and authority that, while perhaps (and I say perhaps because I am not sure) related to those that operate in asking about her identity vis-a-vis the Cherokee Nation, are themselves actually quite different. As Kim writes in her comment above, and as I think Joanne agrees, there are many non-native persons in NAIS and related fields who are generally seen as making strong contributions both as scholars and advocates in support of indigenous and Native American interests and commitments. So being a member of the NAIS + community doesn’t seem to demand being native. So then what does the apparent falseness of Andy’s claim mean for the status of her membership in this professional community? Is it a breach of trust? It would certainly seem so. Could there be stances and positions within the professional community that a native person could and should take that a non-native person couldn’t or shouldn’t take? I can imagine this could be true — though it is worth pointing out that this doesn’t, I think, include leadership positions in NAIS, since to my knowledge at least some of those have been held by non-indigenous member. Certainly it is true that if someone gained professional advantage by writing from and/or claiming a native identity (either by getting their work published or getting a job) when one wasn’t authorized to hold such an identity would be deeply problematic. In these very concrete situations, claiming a native identity that later proved to be illegitimate would be an act in bad faith that really did harm. At the same time, could we say someone like Andy, whose scholarship and advocacy has undeniably contributed to the NAIS + related fields community, “belongs” to the NAIS + Community insofar as she lived in and with its trials and tribulations, helped shape its trajectory, and forwarded its causes? Does it make sense to say this, whatever the legitimacy of her claims to being Cherokee? I just don’t know. Its hard, and not just because I know Andy. Maybe its hard because I am reserving the right to “stand outside” as yet just another kind of privilege that whiteness claims for itself. Or maybe having the conversation, that you have helped start here Joanne, is precisely entailed by “not knowing yet” what to make of all this. Could “not knowing” be a legitimate contribution to the conversation? I don’t feel like I am “playing Indian” when I say that I am not yet ready to commit entirely to taking a stand on what the consequences of these incidents are and should be. But maybe these possibilities (of knowing and not saying, saying without knowing, and playing Indian in all of these) are precisely all the contribution to the conversation that I can have, at least right now? In any event, I thank you again, Joanne, and as ever, for your provocation!


  3. I think that the existence of “black twitter” and other similar communities of black activism online shouldn’t be underestimated when it comes to the media coverage game. Black twitter blew up Rachel’s story to the peak of sarcasm and parody as soon as people started making those same excuses you mentioned are circulating about about Smith (“oh but she does more good work for black people than black people, she gets a pass…”). Things that major media networks do not want to cover (or want to cover in from a particular angle) are being forced into the spotlight by fb, the blogosphere, and twitter. I can’t help but think that this may have something to do with how these stories are being handled differently.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Another reason why these two women’s situations are handled differently is numbers. Non-Natives posing as Natives are almost as large population as actual Native Americans in the United States. It’s an absurd situation that needs to stop, but we need other communities, including the Black community to help spread awareness.


  4. I wish this piece was longer. You have definitely made me question my responses to Smith’s fraud. While initially I felt some betrayal, eventually room for some kind of allowance emerged, indeed due to her contributions not only to Native and indigenous feminist scholarship, but also anti-racist, anti-violence and women of color feminist theory and movements more broadly.

    I did and still will not give Dolezal such pardon. I laughed for a good ten minutes when I first read that headline, which in retrospect is probably the product of my own acceptance of the racial lexicon such that race swapping is nonsensical, but also it’s the utter irrelevancy of the project (both her transformation and the reporting) in a sea of anti-black violence. Only later after hearing her responses to criticism did I feel any negative emotions towards her reprisal of racist logic, her performance of “racist expectations of blackness”.

    I now question where my very different response to Andrea Smith emerges, from, as you hint, my position as a non-native, non-Cherokee person within a culture of native a/expropriation, my position as black and neither knowing Dolezal nor considering the NAACP to be an important organization to current movements for justice and liberation in black communities, or my position as a theorist, activist, artist for whom Smith’s work has been very influential in terms to centering native/indigenous sovereignty within black liberation and global anti-colonization practice (as there can be multiple centers).

    I also wonder how the very different but also real (and global) a/expropriation of cultural products of black communities complicates the clear divisions of black and white. It is not uncommon for black people I know to lament how white people and some non-blacks want to look, dress, act, talk, eat, sing, dance, etc. like us (across diverse black communities and cultures), but do not want to BE us, as being us often involves some kind of structural violence. I don’t want to sidetrack from discussions of native identity within the American political landscape, but since your questions probe the peculiarities of not only Indigeneity, but also of blackness, I think both must be discussed in nuance, as a way of bringing communities together in conversation.


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