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Rachel Dolezal one of many examples of racial passing, says writer Wayde Compton

06/23/2015 11:16 EDT | Updated 06/23/2016 05:59 EDT
TORONTO - The controversy surrounding the racial identity of American civil rights activist Rachel Dolezal is hardly surprising to Vancouver writer Wayde Compton.

After all, he wrote about the phenomenon known as racial passing in his 2010 book "After Canaan: Essays on Race, Writing, and Region."

"There's a long history of racial passing with people who are light-skinned passing for white, that's kind of standard," said Compton, director of creative writing at Simon Fraser University's Continuing Studies program, during a recent telephone interview.

"But even people like Rachel Dolezal have been around since the 18th century."

Dolezal resigned last week as president of the NAACP chapter in Spokane, Wash., after her parents publicly proclaimed she is white and does not have any black ancestry as she had apparently claimed for years.

Examples of racial passing stretch back for centuries, said Compton, pointing to the case of George Psalmanazar of Europe, who fraudulently claimed to be Formosan, from Taiwan, for years in the 1700s.

Then there was James Douglas, the first governor of British Columbia who was part black "but looked white and rode that line of identification."

"I think that race is really an indefinable thing, it's impossible to define, and so there is all this space for blurry and fuzzy edges to it," said Compton, a co-founding member of the Hogan's Alley Memorial Project, an organization dedicated to preserving the public memory of Vancouver's original black community.

"A lot of people criss-cross over those borderlands of race, and you see that in entire groups of people, mixed-raced groups of people who develop, like, say, Metis in Canada, or just individual cases like this."

What prompted Compton to write about racial passing was when he realized that the term itself "has a problem built in it."

"It's used to describe any kind of racial misrecognition and so, if I'm walking down the street or I'm at a bus stop and somebody looks at me and assumes that I'm white, then the language we have for it is that I passed for white," he said.

"But the problem is, I didn't necessarily do anything."

So Compton coined the term "pheneticizing," to describe how a person is "making the racializing decision about the person they're viewing."

In almost all of the four case studies Compton looked at, he found that "the beginning of the (racial) passing, even in the cases where people were eventually deceptive about it, often began with someone mistaking them for something else without them trying to force that at all."

"A lot of passing seems to begin from without," he said. "It's what other people see and then they make a decision at a certain point to either clarify them or to not clarify, and then eventually just kind of drift on into that identity position."

What's different about Dolezal's case is that it's not the typical example of racial passing.

"What we think of as traditional passing, it's usually about somebody who's from an oppressed group who is trying to escape that oppression, and that's pretty understandable," said Compton.

"Even still, people in those situations, most people who could pass don't."

Compton said he was holding off on judging Dolezal until she stated her side of the story. But when he heard her interview with NBC's Matt Lauer, he was "pretty disappointed."

"I was ready to hear (her) come out and say, 'OK, yes, I was deliberately deceptive or misrepresenting my background,' because she was, that seems pretty clear to me," said Compton.

"There are sometimes reasons for that and I was ready to hear what those might be, and instead what I heard was someone really glossing over the deception and justifying it with rhetoric.

"I'm probably the furthest you'll find from somebody in the black community who wants to police black identity. Not at all," he continued.

"But because I've done a lot of this research, I've seen people handle her exact situation with a far more open and honest way."

Such deception "is quite damaging," he added.

"Especially for mixed-race people, light-skinned people who are trying to navigate a world that wants to make those borders hard-edged. Someone like her makes it much harder for us, and I'm frustrated by that."

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