If you haven’t heard the name, Rachel Dolezal, then you’ve been doing a pretty good job at hiding from media circuits. In case you are that person, let me catch you up: Dolezal has brought her name to fame and tarnished it all within a few days. She is a Caucasian woman who has been living the most recent portion of her life as a black woman. Yes, you read correctly. Her social media debut was when her estranged parents informed a news station that she has been falsely claiming to be African American. Dolezal has been identifying with a non-white race since the early 2000s. She has been sporting kinky weaves, braids, and skin bronzer in an attempt to deepen this facade. She has even made some extensive life choices that have helped her narrative: She attended a historically black university, Howard. It was at Howard where she even sued the school for discriminating against her for being biracial. She taught Africana studies at Eastern Washington University. She was also the head of the NAACP chapter in her place of residency, Spokane, Washington.
In recent interviews, Rachel Dolezal has revealed that her identifying as black is nowhere near deception or a mockery of black culture as many people are calling it. She claims that she feels an inherent connection to black culture, and that the black experience and struggle have spoken to her. She has told different interviewers that she’s known she was really black ever since she was young. Dolezal has even gone to the extent of saying that her parents aren’t her real parents, and that there is no way of proving otherwise (even though she won’t take a DNA test).
But Dolezal is, in fact, white. Her familial heritage does not indicate otherwise. For many people, this situation is laughable. But looking at my Facebook a night or two after her story was released proved that not everyone was able to find the humor. Many of my friends, predominantly black, shared information about her story with comments of outrage and confusion. I share the similar anger and disbelief when learning more details of Dolezal’s story, and my frustration mirrors much of the opinions presented in articles that have been published in response to Dolezal.
First and foremost, impersonating any race is pretty hard for me to find justifiable. She used this new identity as an attempt to assimilate into black communities. She wanted to understand the black experience on a personal level. Yes, while identifying as black, Dolezal worked as an activist for racial/human rights justice. She did great work and was a community leader. But she could have done this work as a white person. White activists exist. Different NAACP chapters across the U.S. have employed white people. I feel as though we are currently in such a crucial time where white allyship and solidarity are needed and are being defined. Dolezal could have used her experiences and her privilege to mobile change in a way that would never have called for her to misrepresent herself.
Another issue I have with her story is her going to Howard. I’m not upset that someone who is non-black has attended a historically black school. What’s troubling is that if she claimed to be black to get into Howard, it is as though she cheated a person of color out of a spot at the university. The school was established to provide opportunities that non-white learners couldn’t get otherwise. If she wanted to attend a historically black school, she could have attended as a white person because historically black schools do admit white students.
Issue number three is her claim that she needed to identify as black as a way to help and relate to her black adopted siblings. There are studies that show that children who are adopted by families with race/ethnicity different from their own can have self-esteem and identity issues. I have even heard firsthand accounts from friends and family who were adopted by different races and have been told of these challenges. As an educated person who is aware of these challenges, she could have still been a support system without changing her identity. Her actions make it appear as though adoptions shouldn’t happen outside of an adoptee’s race, instead of advocating for restructuring how families help their new family members feel supported with their differences.
The end-all is that I feel as though Rachel Dolezal has trivialized black culture. Using her privilege, she invited herself into a culture that continues to fight for its protection. By simplifying the experience and making it appear to be so easy to “become black,” she is making an example of herself. She has made it known that others can take something that never belonged to them. Women of color still struggle to find job opportunities with natural hair and darker skin. As a woman of color myself, I often wonder if I will face discrimination for sporting my natural hair or the styles she’s brandished over the years. What Dolezal really did was to revel in enjoyment of being able to change herself – bring able to play both sides so fluidly, without fear or consequence. If I relax my hair and bleach my skin, I’m still black.