Unraveling the Rachel Dolezal controversy

June 18, 2015

Jen Roesch examines the discussions surrounding Rachel Dolezal and what they say about issues of race and racism in 21st century America.

OVER THE last week, the story of Rachel Dolezal became a media sensation, spawning numerous think pieces and even more numerous comments on social media.

For SocialistWorker.org readers who somehow missed the story, Dolezal was the head of the Spokane, Washington, chapter of the NAACP and had lived for 10 years as a Black woman in the Inland Northwest. Last week, the story broke that her parents claimed Dolezal was actually white and had been lying. A photograph of a blonde, freckled, teenaged Dolezal, paired with her current picture, went viral, and the story exploded.

Readers could be forgiven for asking if the world really needs another commentary on this subject and for feeling like the whole thing has become a major media distraction.

But this story has galvanized a right-wing argument around race and gender, while also polarizing progressives and the left about how to respond. As such, it is worth spending some time analyzing both what Dolezal's story--and even more critically, the responses to it--tell us about how race is understood in the U.S. today.

Rachel Dolezal
Rachel Dolezal

THE STORY itself is complicated and, in many ways, tragic. It is also still unfolding--there are many aspects and details we don't even know yet, and may never know.

Some of what we do know, though: In the wake of the controversy, Dolezal has resigned her position with the NAACP. On Monday, it was revealed that she once filed a lawsuit against Howard University, the historically Black college she attended, charging that she was discriminated against because she was pregnant and white. On Tuesday, Dolezal did a series of televised interviews in which she maintained that she identifies as Black. Meanwhile, the Spokane Police Department quietly announced, to little fanfare, that it was dropping investigations into hate crimes involving Dolezal.

On Tuesday, the media also revealed that Rachel Dolezal's biological brother, Joshua Dolezal, faces charges of sexual abuse of a Black minor in Colorado. In response to her parents' televised interviews exposing her, Rachel questioned the timing of their appearance before the media and alluded to a pending case involving her adopted sister in Colorado.

We know that Rachel has been estranged from her family for many years, that she alleged childhood abuse, and that her adopted brother came to live with her several years ago after filing a petition for emancipation. He claimed that his parents had "used physical forms of punishment" as well as "sending him and his sister away to group homes for refusing to cooperate with their rules and religion." In his 2010 petition for emancipation, Rachel's brother wrote that he wanted to live "in a multiracial household where Black culture is celebrated, and I have a connection to the Black community."

There may be more relevant details to come. But the first point is that the discussion for the left shouldn't speculate about Dolezal's motives, pass judgment on her or offer a defense of her. The significance of the discussion for us lies in how prominent the story became, how it managed to dominate the mainstream media, and, above all, what this tells us about how race is understood and misunderstood in America.

PERHAPS THE first question to ask is why it was so universally accepted that Dolezal was, in fact, white, based on her parents' word and a childhood photo showing a teenager who appeared to be white. If it seems strange to ask this question, as if the answer should be self-evident, that only goes to show how thoroughly entrenched the idea of race as a biological fact is.

As of now, it appears that Rachel Dolezal does not, in fact, have any African American ancestry, and that her identification as Black has no genealogical basis. But in the immediate wake of her parents' revelations, there was no evidence to know or believe this, other than their word and the physical characteristics evident in photos that our society has marked as "white."

However, Rachel Dolezal could just as easily have been Bliss Broyard. Broyard wrote an article for the Guardian describing how she was raised as white for much of her life. Only when her father was on his deathbed did she learn that he had been legally defined as "colored" when he was born in New Orleans, but had successfully passed as white when his family moved to Brooklyn.

Broyard goes on to explain how "as I dug deeper into his history and the history of African Americans and met the family members who had been kept from me--starting with my two aunts and first cousin, at my dad's memorial service--my perspective began to shift away from the 'white' one I grew up with. As a result, I started to view myself differently: as a woman with mixed-race ancestry."

It wasn't only Broyard's self-perception that began to shift. When the New Yorker did a long profile outing her father, others began to view her differently. She describes her ambivalence about her own place in the Black community, her fear of being seen as an impostor, and her unease at being asked to read her work alongside Black authors.

What Broyard's story highlights is this: The idea that race is a biological fact, which can be identified by physical characteristics, is a fiction. And this is what Rachel Dolezal has exposed, too. As journalist Steven Thrasher wrote in the Guardian, Dolezal's story reveals that

our race is performance--that, despite the stark differences in how our races are perceived and privileged (or not) by others, they are all predicated on a myth that the differences are intrinsic and intrinsically perceptible...Not everyone has a conscious choice in performing race, or which race they're allowed to perform. But from European colonialism to American chattel slavery, the idea that race is an immutable characteristic is a social and historical construct--one that has real economic and mortal consequences which have already lasted for generations, but one that is a mass delusion all the same.

To say that race is a social and historical construct isn't to say that it doesn't have, in Thrasher's words, "real economic and mortal consequences." The Associated Press just published an article that maligned Tamir Rice, the 12-year-old boy killed by Cleveland police last year, in ways calculated to justify his murder. The only way the article had any chance of being accepted is because he has been marked as Black and, therefore, potentially criminal.

So yes, these are very real and mortal consequences. But it is crucial to separate the fiction of race from the brutal and deadly reality of racism. The ideology built up around race is, and always has been, a crucial part of maintaining the institutional and systemic structures of racism that are so central to American capitalism.

THIS IS, in fact, what is so threatening to the right wing about Rachel Dolezal's ability to pass as a Black woman. Though the color line has almost always been policed in the other direction--against those defined as Black who would pass as white--the crucial thing is that it is enforced. This was much more the case in earlier stages of U.S. history, but it is still a question today.

So it is no surprise that the media would want to make a spectacle of this story. What's more surprising is how many people on the left have seemed to accept this racial ideology in reaction to the Dolezal story. The historian Barbara Fields described the acceptance of the idea of race as having a biological and scientific basis as "racecraft." Never has this felt more true than in the last week.

How many readers of this article didn't immediately and without question accept the claim that Rachel Dolezal was white? And yet the evidence of her whiteness was nothing more than the physical characteristics that we all know to be malleable and meaningless outside of their social context. After all, the second president of the NAACP was a blue-eyed, white-appearing man named Walter White.

What if an African American ancestor of Dolezal's were suddenly to come to light? Would this fundamentally change the story? Rachel Dolezal's story challenges us to define precisely the meaning of being Black in this country.

Almost immediately, commentators began to compare Dolezal's actions to the highly publicized transition of Caitlyn Jenner. This was used by the transphobic right wing to mock and belittle transgender people and ought to be rejected wholesale.

In reality, the whole concept of being "trans-racial," in the sense of people transitioning from white to Black, is a red herring. Dolezal is an exception--a white woman who chose to identify as Black for complex and impossible-to-decipher reasons.

We do know, however, that this isn't a common phenomenon. If not for the U.S.'s pathological relationship to race, Dolezal would be a non-story, and the matter would have been handled among people who knew her and worked with her. However, the attempts by various commentators to define what Black is have revealed how deeply rooted biological and cultural explanations of race remain.

ONE COMMON point I saw made in social media debates was that changing from one race to another could only go in one direction--that only a white person would be allowed to be Black, not the reverse.

But this argument, too, relies on a biological understanding of race. There are many Black people who can't escape their identification as Black. But this is far from universally true. In fact, this argument ignores the entire history of passing in this country. Passing is, of course, its own kind of oppression, and means cutting oneself off from family and community, and living in fear of discovery. But the oppression is rooted in the reality of racism, not the fiction of race.

Others make a seemingly more nuanced argument that race may not be biological, but it is a cultural experience. They argue that a constituent part of Black identity is the experience of being raised Black, of having suffered since childhood the indignities and diminished life expectations (poorer housing, education and health, for example) that most Black people face.

Alicia Walters' moving description of what it means to her to be a Black woman echoed many other commentaries. She writes of:

the lived experiences of what it is to become a Black woman: the journey of discrimination, the camaraderie of sisterhood, discovering the deep sense of responsibility and weight of the world, and ultimately finding the inner strength and acceptance that can only be built through struggle. Our external differences from the white majority might be how others categorize us as Black, but it's the thread of our diverse lived experiences that make us Black women.

But as real and formative as such experiences might be for one's understanding of their own oppression and sense of identity, they alone cannot define what it means to be Black in this country.

There is no such thing as a single authentic Black cultural experience that can substitute for a biological definition. Barack Obama was raised by his white mother and grandmother, with no relationship to his African father or relatives, and no real connection to a Black community in his childhood. He attended some of the most prestigious universities in the country and had opportunities which are denied to the majority of Black people. Yet there is no escaping the reality that he is understood to be a Black man in this country, and that this designation has enormous social significance.

Consider another example: Amadou Diallo was an immigrant from Guinea and didn't come to the U.S. until he was almost 20 years old. He had no experience growing up Black in the U.S. and no historical connection to the specific legacy of racism and resistance in this country. But his self-identification was meaningless to the police officers who fired 41 bullets at him--to them, he was Black.

Andrea Irwin, the mother of Tony Robinson--shot dead by the Madison police earlier this year--is white. Nonetheless, her life has been indelibly marked by the experience of racism, when her son was stolen from her by police murder.

I would be the last person to tell Alicia Walters or anyone else that her experience growing up Black in this country wasn't a formative and deeply important part of her identity. It should be clear that there are multiple experiences of being Black and that these matter immensely to the individuals who experience them. Moreover, the political identification of Black with not only the experience of racism, but also the experience of resistance is part of what the Black freedom struggle has drawn on throughout its history. This, too, has a power and a social meaning.

SO IT'S understandable that many people's first reaction to Rachel Dolezal was a sense of outrage. But at the end of the day, as socialist writer Richard Seymour put it, "[R]ace is oppression and nothing else." It is a social category that you are sorted into, not one that you choose for yourself.

Ironically, Rachel Dolezal herself made the mistake of thinking that Black was something you could find your way into via culture. The illusory ground on which she built this idea of herself has disappeared beneath her, and the full weight of our society's defining of race is bearing down on her now.

And here is the hard, but important, part. Whatever one's personal feelings about Dolezal, it is crucial that our responses do not accept, reinforce or police the racial lines that have been drawn to maintain racism. J. Nikol Beckham beautifully captured how one can affirm the lived experience of Blackness, while refusing to accept any biological idea of race:

[A]t the same time that I love and celebrate American Blackness in all the shapes and forms it takes, part of my Black identity is formed by the fight to eradicate the lie that was so central in producing this cultural identity in the first place--the lie of biologically-determined race. I define my Blackness in tandem with my anti-racism, and both are rooted in the truth of the constructedness of racial identity.

Jelani Cobb wrote along the same lines in the New Yorker:

Rachel Dolezal is not Black--by lineage or lifelong experience--yet I find her deceptions less troubling than the vexed criteria being used to exclude her. If Blackness is simply a matter of a preponderance of African ancestry, then we should set about the task of excising a great deal of the canon of Black history, up to and including the current president. If it is simply a matter of shared experience, we might excommunicate people like Walter White, whose blue eyes were camouflage that could serve both to spare him the direct indignity of racism and enable him to personally investigate and expose lynchings. Dolezal was dishonest about an undertaking rooted in dishonesty, and no matter how absurd her fictional Blackness may appear, it is worth recalling that the former lie is far more dangerous than the latter.

THE REASON that the former lie--that of race--is "far more dangerous" is not because it has any real power independent of structures of racism, but because it is so central to ideologically justifying those structures. This is why the context in which this story broke is so important--and the near-total failure to address that context so problematic.

Rachel Dolezal worked for civil rights organizations in Coeur D'Alene, Idaho, and Spokane, Washington. While she is now widely denounced as a fraud or for appropriating Black culture, the reality is that she was received and understood in both areas as a Black woman and as an anti-racist activist. Both of these will make you a target for racists--particularly in an area with active white supremacist organizing.

Few people commenting on the Dolezal story have talked about the reality of the Inland Northwest where Dolezal lived. The Southern Poverty Law Center counts nine documented hate groups operating in Idaho. Only a decade ago, the Aryan Nations had its national center in Coeur D'Alene. Just four years ago, a white supremacist was found responsible for planting a bomb in Spokane on the march route for a Martin Luther King Day demonstration.

An article in Seattle's Stranger pointed out that racism remains a serious and pressing issue in Spokane:

"We're still moving in the shadow of the Aryan Nations," Angela Jones, activist, law student and new member of Spokane's NAACP, told me. "Even though everywhere has racism, we have a unique brand of it because it feels like these folks are still around. Even though we can't point them out...we still fear that."

In the last year, Dolezal was credited with rejuvenating the largely inactive NAACP chapter in Spokane and becoming part of a newly formed police oversight board. Citing these facts isn't meant to trumpet her "good work," but to raise the question that should have been the first one asked by activists: Why and in whose interests is this story breaking now?

The story first emerged in the Coeur D'Alene Press, a notorious right-wing tabloid. We also know that there had been a conscious attempt to discredit Dolezal. As the New York Times reported:

A columnist at The Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Shawn Vestal, said that he and other people at the paper were approached by a private investigator in early June, more than a week before the first news reports about Ms. Dolezal's racial identity. "He did have some of the evidence, or said he did, about what her parents would say about her identity," said Mr. Vestal, who said he had agreed with the investigator that his name would not be made public.

In the wake of these revelations, clearly emerging from the right, it's no surprise that one of the most widely circulated and accepted ideas was that Dolezal's reports of hate crimes were fraudulent. Not only were the results seen as fabrications, but the fact that she filed multiple complaints was seen as a sign that she must be a pathological liar.

It is as if people were so invested in Dolezal's "whiteness" that they couldn't see past the fact that there is every reason to believe that a Black civil rights leader--again, remember that she was understood as Black by those around her--in the Inland Northwest would be the target of multiple hate threats. If a Columbia University professor can find a noose hanging on her door in New York City, why is it so hard to believe that a leader of the Human Rights Education Institute in Coeur D'Alene might also?

After the allegations against Dolezal went viral, the Spokane police quietly announced, and with no real opposition, that it was dropping any investigations into all hate complaints involving Dolezal. One can only imagine the suspicion with which the next person to report a hate crime in Spokane will be treated.

THE WIDER context of this media firestorm is the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, which is challenging both police violence and the illusion that we live in a post-racial society. In that context, the intense media attention on the Rachel Dolezal story isn't merely because of U.S. society's obsession with race. It serves another purpose as well.

As much as the controversy has moved the conversation away from the reality of racism to the fiction of race, it has also bolstered the right-wing narrative that racism no longer exists--that, in fact, Blacks have gained access to special privileges. The only reasons offered for why Dolezal would want to be Black are either pathological or the desire to use Blackness to access those privileges.

Unfortunately, Dolezal herself seems to have given credence to this idea with her lawsuit against Howard University, which essentially argued that she experienced reverse racism.

This is an entirely false idea that anyone on the left must reject. There are no special privileges to be gained by being a Black woman in this country. No number of scholarships, municipal appointments or access to leadership positions can possibly outweigh the institutional barriers and systemic racism encountered by Black women throughout their lives.

Yet the idea that Dolezal gained special access to opportunities available to Black women has had a curious echo among some on the left. The idea that Dolezal usurped a position that didn't belong to her is probably the main animating factor in the intensity of the vitriol directed at her from these quarters.

Given the scale of racist discrimination in the U.S. today, it may be understandable that anti-racists would bridle at the idea of a white person unfairly taking a position carved out for marginalized people. But it also must be said that this testifies to the diminished hopes and expectations of Blacks in 21st century America.

Think for a moment about what opportunities and privileges Dolezal supposedly stole.

There is the matter of her full scholarship to Howard University, a historically Black school. Leaving aside the fact that Dolezal presented herself as white at Howard and that this scholarship was revoked, the struggle for affirmative action has never been to carve out more space for Black students at historically Black colleges, but to expand access at universities from which Black students been restricted, if not excluded outright.

There is the position that Dolezal obtained a position teaching Africana Studies at Eastern Washington University. In reality, she was an adjunct in a part-time, low-paid, non-tenure-track job. She was the president of an NAACP chapter in Spokane. Even setting aside the fact that the NAACP explicitly does not consider race to be a determining factor in such cases, it was an unpaid volunteer position.

Both the adjunct teaching job and the NAACP chapter presidency might have afforded Dolezal a level of personal fulfillment. But it is a very circumscribed logic that would consider these privileges.

It is true that certain limited positions have been carved out for oppressed people within our existing society, often as a product of political struggles. There are positions at NGOs and social justice organizations, and institutional grants for doing progressive work--within prescribed limits, of course.

It might be true, in the narrow logic of such a world, that Dolezal gained an advantage in obtaining one of the advocacy positions she held by presenting herself as a Black woman. But to pose the question in this way--and especially to make this the center of a critique of her, as a number of people on the left have--narrows our understanding of racism and the fight against it.

The idea that access for African Americans or members of other oppressed groups to these positions is the same as the fight for affirmative action limits and distorts what that titanic social struggle meant. The civil rights and Black Power struggles aimed at the mass expansion of Black employment and educational opportunities, not the creation of institutional niches. They fought institutionalized racism that dominated every aspect of society, from housing to schools and jobs. It remains an unfinished struggle today.

Another charge leveled against Dolezal is that she could have been a white ally, but refused to step back and let others lead. This charge has been most forcefully made by Tim Wise, the main proponent of the idea of allyship.

This, too, tells us something about the limits of our movement. Rather than seeing common struggles based on shared interests and solidarity, the tendency, as Khury Petersen-Smith and Brian Bean pointed out, is to see separate struggles, in which people's place is structured by their identities first and their actions second.

WHAT DOES it mean that Rachel Dolezal so easily became a target for anti-racist wrath? One thing I think it means is that despite our rage and our protests, we still feel largely powerless against the epidemic of police violence and the virulent racism that remain persistent features of this society.

I think it also means that we too often accept the limits and definitions set by the system. As much as people involved in the anti-racist struggle today talk about the institutional and structural nature of racism, oppression is all too often viewed through the lens of interpersonal relationships.

Rachel Dolezal has become a lightning rod for a lot of very real and justified anger about the conditions faced by Black people in this country. But the fact that the media narrative has been so successful in shifting the discussion from racism to race says something about the enduring power of this fiction--and why we must resist it. As Malcolm X said, "They put your mind in a bag and take it wherever they want."

Imagine, by contrast, if the first and only response to the Dolezal controversy had been the one offered by Ta-Nehisi Coates:

Kalief Browder died, like Renisha McBride died, like Tamir Rice died, because they were born and boxed into the lowest cavity of that hierarchy. If not for those deaths, if not for the taking of young boys off the streets of New York, and the pinning of young girls on the lawns of McKinney, Texas, the debate over Rachel Dolezal's masquerade would wither and blow away, because it would have no real import nor meaning...

"I think race is oppression," writes Richard Seymour, "and nothing else." Indeed. It is the oppression that matters. In that sense, I care not one iota what Rachel Dolezal does, nor what she needs to label herself. I care solely, totally and completely about what this society does to my son, because of its need to label him.

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