The Limits of Identity: Rachel Dolezal and Andrea Smith

When news reports excoriating Rachel Dolezal’s representation of herself as Black first surfaced (the question of her presentation of herself as Indigenous seems to have not sparked similar interest or concern), she was almost universally condemned. The NAACP, however, for whom Dolezal worked as the President of the Spokane chapter, released several statements of support for Dolezal, saying this upon her resignation: “The NAACP is not concerned with the racial identity of our leadership but the institutional integrity of our advocacy.” But few seemed to share this position, or even ask what the value of Dolezal’s work as an activist, scholar, or teacher may have been.

My point here is not to undermine the outpouring of grief and anger regarding Dolezal or question the forms it took. Rather, I’m interested in the questions and stakes are emerging now that a much more well known scholar and activist, Andrea Smith, has become the subject of a somewhat similar scandal. Soon after the Dolezal story broke, a series of Tumblr posts, and a dedicated page, emerged under the heading “Andrea Smith Is Not Cherokee” (see Joanne Barker’s blog for a detailed chronology and analysis. Here is a statement from the author of the original Tumblr post about her motivations for writing about Smith. A Tumblr archive dedicated to outlining the issues around Smith’s representation of herself as Cherokee, and calls accountability around this, can be found here). (more…)