Severely Black, The Rachel Dolezal Story

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I read the Rachel Dolezal story before it got picked up by any national outlets in the original story in the Coeur d’Alene Press on Thursday (yes, epic aggregation fail … what can I say I was traveling). If you’ve only read pick-ups or follow-ups, read the original if you get a chance. It’s an amazing piece of reporting and will make you appreciate what a great thing small paper journalism is – just an amazingly detailed piece of shoe-leather reporting. Since I read it I’ve been trying to think what if anything there is to add beyond the peristaltic WTF that seems to be the near universal response.

So let me just go with bullet points.

Point 1: The one simple thing is the online debate about whether Dolezal is simply ‘transracial’ like Caitlyn Jenner is transgender. No. It’s not like that. In fact, I think we can dispense with this entirely because I have not seen anyone suggesting this anywhere online who wasn’t just some wingnut concern-trolling transgenderism and frankly racial identity itself. You can dress yourself up however you want and identify however you want. But when you start making up black parents and all the rest that went into this story, you’re just lying. Full stop.

When I was a little boy I lived in a very mixed race environment. My mother’s best friend and her best friend’s sister (among many other biracial couple in their social set) were both married to African-American men. They, obviously, had African-American children. And in a thousand little ways they had acclimated and identified with the African-American family, social sets and even to some degree the broader African-American culture they had become part of. All except for the part of them being … well, WHITE. What identification, solidarity, whatever was what it was. They weren’t making up phony life stories.

Skin color tone is biological. But race really is a social construct, as my grad school prof, Doug Cope, helped me understand. And often, especially for racially ambiguous people, it’s a permeable one. But if you invent black parents and say you were born in a teepee you’re just lying. As for the folks pushing ‘transracialism’, please just shut up. You’re either guilty of malicious provocation or you’re just really stupid.

Point 2: So what are we to make of all this? It’s worth noting that this has become not just a national but a world wide story even though none of us had ever heard of Rachel Dolezal and let’s just go on the assumption that the Spokane chapter of the NAACP is probably one of the smaller ones. (Blacks make up 2.3% of the population of Spokane.)

Let me start by saying that a white guy is not ideally positioned or situated to evaluate or make sense of the moral and psychological equities of a someone trying to pass as black. (For a second I thought, hey this is kind of like all the rightwingers who are confused and think they’re honorary Jews because they’re so into Bibi Netanyahu or really, really, really want to kill them some Palestinians. But okay, not really the same.) So let me tentatively and respectfully offer some impressions from this imperfect vantage point.

In Slate Jamelle Bouie says that the issue to consider is whether Dolezal was taking her blackness a la carte as it were, whether she was being black when it was convenient or appealing but not when it lost her the safety and privileges of being white. We can’t know. But from everything I’ve read about Dolezal I think I agree with Kara Brown in Jezebel when she says that whatever else, Dolezal seems to have been all in.

Dolezal went to Howard University – when still presenting as white – and stirred controversy for putting on an art exhibition of pieces from the perspective of a black man (I think we can identify this as an early hint of things to come). She married a black man (apparently while still living as a white woman). She either pretended to or actually gained custody of one of her African-American step-siblings and presented him as her African-American son. She became a part-time Professor of Africana studies at a local state university. She became the president of her local chapter of the NAACP. And she had recently become a member of local community police oversight commission. She also, as we all can see, remade her hair and skin tone to be present as black.

At some level, it seems hard to imagine that at some point after her parents adopted several black children during Dolezal’s teen years she didn’t develop a deep desire or fantasy of herself being black. It was in evidence during her time at Howard – indeed, it may have helped lead her to Howard, though obviously there are plenty of white students at Howard who are fully grounded in the fact that they’re white. And at some point in her late 20s she just decided to go all in and ‘become’ black.

Maybe Dolezal had a separate life as a white person or put herself down as a white on a home loan application. (Obviously whatever her intentions she had the freedom which dark-skinned African-Americans lack to just become white again whenever she wanted.) But that’s not at all the impression I get of this woman by reading her story. I get the impression that in her mind Dolezal actually had at some level become black, possibly even to the level of some aspect of body dysmorphia. (The counter to that perception, though not necessarily invalidating it, is that according to her adopted brother she warned or perhaps even threatened family members not to expose her.)

Dolezal didn’t just present as black. She presented, as Mitt Romney might have put it, as severely black. As one of my colleagues at TPM mentioned on Friday, on her university webpage, where she listed her academic credentials, she lists that she had been targeted in at least eight documented hate crimes (by a kind of greatest hits list of racist organizations) almost as a credential. (Indeed it now seems that she had falsified numerous alleged hate crimes, including the one that ultimately led to her exposure.) “Her [activism and educational work] were met with opposition by North Idaho white supremacy groups, including the Ku Klux Klan, the Neo Nazis and the Aryan Nations, and at least eight documented hate crimes targeted Doležal and her children during her residency in North Idaho.”

What?

It almost has a vague echo (“residency”?) of Malcolm X’s recollection of the persecution and death of his father Earl Little at the hands of Klansmen and the Black Legion in Omaha and East Lansing.

It is certainly true that being black can be an advantage in certain isolated situational contexts – though the rarity of pretend black people would suggest these competitive advantages are somewhat overstated. But it doesn’t seem like Dolezal used her faux blackness to game college admissions or anything else like that you might imagine. Yes, it probably helped landing her job teaching Africana studies and being the head of the local NAACP. But these don’t seem like things she got a leg up on by being black. They seem inseparable from whatever psychic satisfaction she gained from being black. In other words, I don’t think Dolezal pretended to be black to land a job heading the local NAACP. She got the job as head of the local NAACP because it helped cement her fantasy of being a black woman.

(Not really apropos of anything, I couldn’t help but wonder: shouldn’t Dolezal have moved a bit further away from where her parents lived or changed her last name?)

American history is full of stories of people masquerading as other races: women living as men, men living as women. Usually people attempt to pass “up” on the gradient of power and privilege. But not always. Dolezal’s story strikes me as at least as much psychological as it is political – probably more. Perhaps like you, I can’t look at the pictures without an instinctive “What?!”

If nothing else, racial boundaries, privileges and identity are so etched into our consciousness as Americans that her violating, transgressing, just up and running across so many of them – like WTF!?! – strikes enough chords for a whole piano concerto.

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