While the outing of former NAACP leader Rachel Dolezal's as a white woman has angered many, there is an argument to made that her attempt to live as a black woman is actually a step forward for race relations in America, and a positive for the black community that has long suffered from damaging stereotypes.
The revelation that Dolezal had been lying about her genetic ethnic identity has captivated the nation and sent the US media into a frenzy. The never ending story of America's obsession with race was given a new twist and the media wasted no time turning it into the biggest story of the week. Journalists have been tracking Dolezal's every move, camping outside her house, tracking down relatives, and even her tanning salon in a mammoth effort to uncover and dismantle the identity she adopted for herself.
The ensuing social media furor has now successfully reduced Dolezal to a caricature - a hate figure for the perpetually outraged and the personification of crazy woman whose personality and professional accomplishments now mean nothing.
To be fair, Dolezal has brought much of this on herself. The list of fabrications about her life is extensive, and it is clear that Dolezal has consistently misrepresented who she is not just ethnically, but personally.
In an interview with Buzzfeed, Dolezal's adopted brother Ezra detailed the bizarre story of his sisters transformation over the past few years, darkening her skin and changing her hair to appear more African American. Ezra sated that he believes his sister was emotionally scarred from her time at Howard University, where she claimed black students were racist towards her. This in turn caused her to turn “hateful to white people.”
“She used to tell us that teachers treated her differently than other people and a lot of them acted like they didn’t want her there,” Ezra told Buzzfeed. “Because of her work in African-American art, they thought she was a black student during her application, but they ended up with a white person.”
Ezra also detailed other lies about her upbringing, countering her claims that they lived in South Africa, hunted with bows and arrows, and that their parents abused them. “She’s never been to Africa in her entire life,” said Ezra.
“She was treated really well as a child,” he continued. “I think I would know if I was abused growing up, and I definitely wasn’t.”
Dolezal's parents have made clear that they vehemently dispute Dolezal's account of her upbringing, the latest episode involving Dolezal's revelation that at the age of 5 she was "drawing self-portraits with the brown crayon instead of the peach crayon and black curly hair."
Now estranged from her daughter, Ruthanne Dolezal told NBC news that, "That didn't happen...it's disappointing to see that Rachel is still making false statements."
It is of course impossible to know who is telling the truth, but it is difficult to believe Dolezal's account of her upbringing particularly given we know that she is almost certainly lying about her racial identity. More disturbingly, Dolezal appears to want to maintain the lie, telling NBC News' Savannah Guthrie that,"I haven't had a DNA test. There's been no biological proof that Larry and Ruthanne are my biological parents." The birth certificate given to the media by her parents clearly states otherwise.
While we will never be able to fully understand Rachel Dolezal's upbringing, or why she chose to identify herself as an African American, it is clear that she has some deep underlying psychological problems. It is not just the fact that she wants to be black, but rather the stunning lengths to which she went to conceal her true identity and the damaging lies she told to keep up the facade. Dolezal's deeply religious family also appears to be highly dysfunctional, with escalating rumors that systemic physical and sexual abuse may have been a factor in family life. Her older brother Joshua Dolezal isawaiting trial for allegedly sexually abusing both Rachel and her younger sister, and Dolezal's family implied Rachel Dolezal may have helped orchestrate the allegations of abuse to win custody of her black adopted brother, Izaiah. Izaiah accused his parents of physical abuse, and currently lives with Rachel Dolezal in Spokane, Washington. Rachel claims to be his legal parent.
Trying to unpack the complicated and highly toxic relationships within the Dolezal family is beyond the scope of not only this article, but most professional psychologists. The combination of racial identity, adoption, religious fundamentalism and physical and sexual abuse issues makes for fascinating speculation - but that is where it must end until further evidence emerges.
The issue of Dolezal's racial identity does however have wider cultural implications, and reducing it to simplistic jokes or dismissing her seemingly sincere self-identification as an African American is wrong and unfair. She told MSNBC's Matt Lauer:
I felt very isolated with my identity virtually my entire life, that nobody really got it and that I really didn't have the personal agency to express it....I kind of imagined that maybe at some point I'd have to own it publicly and discuss this kind of complexity.
From what we understand, Dolezal has been extremely active in the black community, working as a the President of the Spokane NAACP and working diligently to advance black causes. At Howard, her art focused on the black experience and racial reconciliation, and from the looks of her personal website, she appears to be extremely talented.
"Taraja" - by Rachel Dolezal
It is impossible to look at her art and not see a heartfelt connection to African American culture - a connection that appears to be well understood by those who know her. The New York Times spoke with Ronald Potter, a brother-in-law of Spencer Perkins, who taught religion at Belhaven in Jackson, Miss. where Dolezal went to school. Potter's description of Dolezal is fascinating:
He described Ms. Dolezal as someone who was “extremely” socially conscious, much more so than the other students seemed to be. The first time he met her, he said, she reminded him of “a black girl in a white body,” like “hearing a black song by a white artist.”
White people have had a long history of 'appropriating' black culture - from Jazz to Hip Hop, and from language to fashion. 'Appropriation' is a funny word though, and while it has been used to condemn those ripping off other people's culture in denigrating or inaccurate ways, adopting another culture is often no more than a sign of respect. European settlers in America routinely left agricultural life to live with Native Americans, 'appropriating' their culture because they found their own to be devoid of joy and meaning. Immigrants often adopt the culture of their new country, making integration easier for themselves and their offspring. Despite the connotation, cultural appropriation is not necessarily a bad thing.
Rachel Dolezal's cultural and racial appropriation is not conventional, but it is worth remembering that she has not misrepresented or denigrated the African American experience. She has not portrayed herself as a negative stereotype of an African American, and has used her talents to further causes that are hugely beneficial to the African American community. When Dolezal resigned from the NAACP, she said:
Many issues face us now that drive at the theme of urgency. Police brutality, biased curriculum in schools, economic disenfranchisement, health inequities, and a lack of pro-justice political representation are among the concerns at the forefront of the current administration of the Spokane NAACP. And yet, the dialogue has unexpectedly shifted internationally to my personal identity in the context of defining race and ethnicity.
While Dolezal's race and ethnicity is certainly an interesting issue, the issues she has dedicated her life to are certainly more important. The vitriol and anger shown by many mortally offended by her actions would no doubt be better used fighting tangible racism affecting the lives of millions of Americans. There is also the issue of race itself - a bizarre construct invented by 17th century Europeans that has no biological basis. And as Melissa Harris Perry pointed out, the construct has not exactly benefited black people:
For me the concern particularly for people who self identify as black in this country, who are black in this country, when we are asked ‘so what makes you really black?’ If our response and answer devolves to an essentialist and biological notion, then all I would say is for most of human history, an essential and biological notion of race has not served the material interest of black people very well. And we just might want to be careful about employing that ourselves as we police the boundaries of blackness.
From a biological point of view, human traits related to ethnicity and gender are not fixed - they are fluid. People from different regions in the world move, marry each other and have children. Sexual orientation varies by individual, and gender cannot be defined by neat categories. The human spectrum is broad, and as we continue to mix with one another, our culture reflects the ever blurring lines that define us. Being 'black' in America often has little to do with skin color, particularly since most African Americans have European ancestry themselves. Just look at Colin Powell (who is Jamaican) or Rashida Jones - figures who identify as black but have skin color no darker than a Mediterranean. In Brazil, famous black singer Neguinho da Beija-Flordiscovered that 67% of his genes are European and only 31% African.
Who decides how they should define themselves? While Dolezal's case is a little more extreme, if she wants to be black, who is to say she can't be?
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