Is the Rachel Dolezal story really about race?
I admit that the first time I heard about the Rachel Dolezal story I thought it was just a quirky man bites dog story and I dismissed it. A white woman pretending to be black and becoming an NAACP chapter president is something you couldn’t make up. But someone wanting to be something they’re not is hardly earthshaking.
But as we journey deeper down the rabbit hole that is Rachel Dolezal’s mind things get curiouser and curiouser. First, I think it was a good step that she resigned her position as head of the Spokane NAACP. By lying about something so basic she compromised her credibility, embarrassed herself and has detracted from the NAACP’s cause of civil rights. She had to go.
While I couldn’t care less whether some delusional white person wants to identify as black, Dolezal’s reaction to the firestorm is bound to throw gas onto the fire. When MSNBC’s Melissa Harris-Perry asked Dolezal about black women being enraged at what she’s done, she responded, “…But they don’t know me. They really don’t know what I’ve actually walked through and how hard it is. This has not been something that just is a casual, you know come-and-go sort of identity you know, or an identity crisis. It’s something that I’ve paid away.”
I don’t even know what that means. But passing as a black woman doesn’t mean she’s had the authentic black woman experience. It’s like a reporter who camps out on the street with the homeless in order to experience homelessness. It’s not the same because that reporter knows he/she has a home to go to. Likewise, Dolezal could drop her “blackness” and seize her white privilege whenever she chose.
How one goes from suing Howard University for discriminating against her because she was white to appropriating black hairstyles, darkening her skin and presenting herself as black, is something that perhaps only a psychologist can unpack.
But Dolezal has doubled down on her identify telling the Today Show’s Matt Lauer that she identifies as black and “Nothing about being white describes who I am.”
Why the ruse? White people have always been involved in the civil rights fight. From John Brown, Henry Ward Beecher, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Susan B. Anthony to the white liberals like Mary White Ovington, Oswald Garrison Villard, William English Walling and Dr. Henry Moscowitz who founded the NAACP, history shows us rich history of whites partnering with blacks for social justice.
And keeping it real, blacks have awarded ghetto passes to whites from Bill Clinton to the late R&B singer Teena Marie to Eminem. African-Americans are used to having white friends who are down.
Dolezal went to a historically black college, married a black man and had a biracial child and has worked in civil rights. How she thought she wouldn’t be accepted without going the extra mile of morphing into a pseudo-black woman is baffling.
But as the media probes deeper into the tale with Dolezal adopting her adoptive brother, estrangement from her parents and her biological brother on trial for sexual abuse (charges her parents say were falsely instigated by Dolezal) there is a lot more to this story than anyone knows.
Dolezal claims to have received hate mail and death threats before she was outed as white. She claimed people broke into her house in 2008, stole $13,000 worth of items and left a noose behind. The police haven’t found credible evidence that these crimes happened and some believe she fabricated them. When you watch some of her interviews about these incidents her reaction and delivery just don’t ring true.
Now, Dolezal is telling NBC Nightly News’ Savannah Guthrie that there’s “no biological proof” that her parents are her actual parents. What? Enough is enough.
What’s the harm in what she did? As I mentioned, her deception is an embarrassment and distraction for the NAACP. But what it also does is opens biracial or light-skinned blacks who want a career in civil rights to doubt about their identity. Will light-skinned blacks have to prove their blackness? And if she has fabricated the three (she claims eight) incidents of racial harassment and death threats, it again makes it difficult in the future for blacks who actually experience hate crimes to be believed.
If it wasn’t all just a sham to advance her social justice career and she really identifies as black then it’s a shame she had to lie in order to live her truth. But as the days pass and the story grows odder, perhaps this isn’t really a story about race at all. Maybe this is just a story about dysfunction. It may turn out that Rachel Dolezal being a white woman is the least shocking thing about this case.