‘Going with the natural look as I start my 36th year,’ said the caption above a series of selfies of a woman with caramel-coloured skin and a loose afro (type 3b/3c), admiring the silhouette of her hair from different angles. Rachel Doležal is reported to have published the photos on Facebook in November 2013, around the time she was elected president of her local chapter of the NAACP. Last week it transpired that Rachel Doležal’s skin shade and hair texture might be the result of a spray tan and a wig, rather than the natural complexion of a person with African or African American heritage in her immediate family history. It appears that Doležal is a white woman who has gone out of her way to pass as black: ‘our’ hair, she said in a lecture on the history and politics of African American hair – while seemingly wearing an afro wig over her naturally straight, blonde hair.

Several black cultural critics have been astonished by the verisimilitude of her ‘natural look’: Tamara Floyd at Natural Hair Rules wrote about her ‘natural hair game’; ‘how did she get her hair so on point?’ Kara Brown at Jezebel asked. For others, the verisimilitude has provoked alarm and indignation. ‘Black is not something you can just put on,’ Jamilah Lemieux, a senior editor at Ebonytold HuffPost Live:

Those are not what make you a black woman. The lengths she went to to play at this character of a “strong black woman”... while benefiting from the privilege we give to white women which is to be seen... as fragile and in need of defending – which is something not afforded to black women.

Doležal ‘thinks that by co-opting Black hair (oh, god, did it have to be the hair?!),’ someone wrote to me, ‘she can put herself in a Black woman's shoes.’

Did it have to be the hair? It had to be the hair. ‘The line between colored and nigger was not always clear,’ Toni Morrison wrote in The Bluest Eye:

Subtle and telltale signs threatened to erode it, and the watch had to be constant. Colored people were neat and quiet; niggers were dirty and loud. He belonged to the former group... his hair was cut as close to his scalp as possible to avoid any suggestion of wool, the part was etched into his hair by the barber.

In 2009, the comedian Chris Rock released Good Hair, a documentary about the $9 billion industry that taught black women their natural hair was unacceptable. Rock made the film because his three-year-old daughter had asked him why she didn’t have ‘good hair’ – meaning ‘straight hair, not-black hair’. (‘Who had looked at her and found her so wanting, so small a weight on the beauty scale?’ Morrison wrote in 1970.)

I was 22 when I ‘went with the natural look’ (more a fact than a look, really). When my hair was artificially straightened I passed as not-black to people who didn’t already know that I was black. I’d started a new job and in my first week my white colleagues made racist jokes about black people, expecting me to join in. I wanted the privileges available to people who were not black; but I didn’t want not to be black. I believed we were still working towards Plan A – race equality. I declined to pass.

I’d seen the photos of my mother’s angelic afro in the 1970s and knew the pride with which she’d kept it in perfect shape. I also knew that wasn’t me. What I wanted for myself was the Little Prince, or the Dream King in Neil Gaiman’s Sandman graphic novels, or Edward Scissorhands. I liked their cryptic power and ambiguous stories. I discussed it with one of my family’s usual hairdressers, who had known me since I was a teenager. Once she realised that when I said I wanted an afro, I didn’t mean I wanted to look like Diana Ross, she would have nothing to do with it. ‘That’s not like any afro I’ve heard of,’ she said. Good, I thought. I took my mood board to Toni & Guy, who were promoting a tousled, bed-head look. ‘We can’t do an afro,’ the white stylists told me. ‘You don’t have to do an afro,’ I explained. ‘It’s afro already, I just want it tousled and bed-head.’ They took me to the only black member of staff. ‘How would I know?’ he said. ‘I’m a barber. I don’t do women’s hair.’ Eventually the manager took me on, with the understanding that I wouldn’t make a complaint if it all went wrong. The staff gathered around to watch. ‘It’s fascinating,’ he confided happily to his team, ‘because they have techniques we don’t even know about.’ Who are ‘they’, I wanted to ask.

Shortly afterwards, Austin Powers in Goldmember was released, starring Beyoncé Knowles as ‘Foxxy Cleopatra’. White men driving past would honk their horns and lean out of the window to shout ‘Foxxxxxxy!’ at me. Unfortunately they always drove on before I could find out anything about them: were they interested in my doctoral research in philosophy of mind, for example? I like to think so. Black women I didn’t know approached me in public places: as children they hadn’t worn their natural hair and now they didn’t know how to start and were afraid to try; could I help them? White women strangers, too, seemed to feel a new closeness to me. I’d be in a queue and I’d feel someone behind me tugging on my hair. ‘I thought it was a wig,’ she’d say when I turned round to ask her what she was doing. ‘It isn’t,’ I’d say, ‘I can feel it and it hurts. And even if it were a wig, why would you want to take it off me?’ No answer.

This is what is called the ‘natural hair journey’ – these startling intimacies, betrayals, intrusions, vulnerabilities and freedoms. Not everyone can undertake the journey (it’d be difficult for a white man, for example); and not everyone who can, will. The process brings a shift to your perception of the social world, a shift as irrevocable as passing for not-black and becoming privy to what some people say about black people when they think there are none around.

Does it matter that Doležal’s ‘natural look’ wasn’t natural and was just a look? That may depend on whether being a black woman amounts to more than a skin shade and a hairstyle. We can gauge the prevailing view by looking at the extent to which black women have been invited to lead the discussion of Doležal’s actions; to gauge the truth of it, we need to ask black women. ‘What is it like to be a bat?’ Thomas Nagel wondered; he might be able to imagine what it would be like for him to be a bat, he concluded, but he could not know what it is like for a bat to be a bat. ‘Qualia’, philsophers call it: the elusive, irreducible experience of first-person consciousness. Did it have to be the hair? It had to be the hair.