I think my favorite new internet micro-genre is pictures of Rachel Dolezal looking white. There are a lot of them, and I’m sorry we could not include knee-length dreadlocks by a tree in the composite above. Someday this story will end, but yesterday it continued on its natural course: Dolezal resigned from her position at the NAACP. That predictable turn came with the less predictable news that in 2002, she sued Howard University for discriminating against her because she was white. That must have been the old Rachel Dolezal, because the contemporary one told the Today Show she identifies as black. Video after the jump.
Watch to the end to see a heartbreaking shot of Dolezal’s two sons—one of whom is her adopted brother, and both of whom are the less controversial kind of black—feeling like young people do when their parent or legal guardian maybe humiliates herself on national television. Dolezal’s construction of race, honesty and her own identity does not seem coherent in this interview.
She refuses to say she is African-American now that we all know she has white parents, insisting the question is more complex than that, but she made no such fine distinctions back when people thought she was black. When Matt Lauer asks why she called herself white in the lawsuit against Howard, she says it was because that’s the reason Howard cited for revoking her scholarship.1 The determining principle in Dolezal’s racial identity seems to be what works best for her.
“My life has been one of survival,” she says, “and the decisions I made along the way, including identification, have been to survive.”
I’m not sure “survival” is the right word. Dolezal was not going to die if she didn’t get an MFA in art from Howard. Was it a matter of survival in northern Idaho to tell people Larry Wilkinson was her dad? Her use of the word “survival” in these contexts raises her black identity to a level of life and death—stakes that justify almost any behavior, including deception.
Her “survival” narrative seems like an attempt to justify her deceptions to herself. It contributes to the impression that Dolezal is not working with a complex but coherent theory of race and identity so much as an ever-evolving scam. Consider her explanation for telling people that her adopted black brother was her son: he sees her as his real mother, “and for that to be something that is plausible, I certainly can’t be seen as white and be Izaiah’s mom.”
Certainly, your mom can’t be a different race from you—oh wait. What if your parents were caucasians in Troy, Montana who told the world you weren’t really black? Would that be a situation where having white parents made you white?
This interview makes it hard to sympathize with Rachel Dolezal. I want to approach her charitably; I want to think her construction of race may not make sense to me but does make sense to her. After watching her describe how race works in terms that A) contradict one another and B) consistently exonerate her own behavior, though, I worry she is simply lying to herself.
So let us say, for the sake of argument, that Dolezal lied about who she is. She is a white lady who claimed to be black. That probably makes her bad. But did she do something bad to black people?
Dolezal’s adoptive brother Ezra has described her behavior as “blackface,” implying that it insults people who are ancestrally black. But Dolezal darkened her skin and then spent years working for black civil rights in the Pacific Northwest. That’s different from darkening your skin and telling Andy you’re too sleepy to work.
Did she aggrandize herself in the process of doing that presumably good work? Absolutely. One of the more troubling aspects of this story is Dolezal’s apparent narcissism; she seems as much concerned with who she is as an “artist and activist” as with what her art and acts. But the fact remains that Dolezal has probably done more for black people than many of the Twitter users indignant about her lies.
That’s not the issue, of course. Nobody is saying Dolezal can’t work for black civil rights; we’re saying she can’t claim to be black while she does it. The story “white woman kinks hair, adopts black kid, works at NAACP” does not go viral. What is it about the simple, implausible claim that she is black that makes her so fascinating? A million things, but one of them may be a culture that, in this moment, thinks what you do is more important than who you are.
You can’t decide your own race. That is the tragic center of the black experience in the United States: you’re born into it, and nothing you do afterward will change it. Has Dolezal betrayed black people by denying that reality? She seems to be some species of liar, but she has done more for black people in America than I have. Is co-opting black identity a worse sin than staying white and doing nothing?