Below is the second part in a two part series on the question of whether our outward appearance and identity is significant.

Dolezal

There exists a wide range of opinions and beliefs on the subject of Rachel Dolezal, educator and civil rights worker. These range from anger and outrage over the deception to disappointment and sympathy.

We begin with the facts as they have been presented.

37-year-old Rachel Dolezal is actually of Central European and “slight” Native American ancestry, born in Montana. As a young teen, her family moved to Colorado. Shortly after the move, her parents adopted four African-American infants.

She eventually married a black man (Kevin Moore, whom she divorced in 2004). Shortly after marrying, she pursued a Master’s Degree at Howard University, a historically African-American institution.  It is here that we find hints about Ms. Dolezal and the events leading up to the current controversy.

Her Master’s thesis consisted of a series of paintings. These images depicted what the Dean of the University, Tritobia Benjamin, described as “an inner journey of what goes on inside the mind of a black male.” As a scholar of black women in the arts, Dr. Benjamin expressed doubts as to whether or not a white woman such as Ms. Dolezal was truly qualified to present such a narrative. (Composer George Gershwin received similar criticism from the black community over his opera Porgy and Bess – which his contemporary, African-American bandleader Duke Ellington, described as “full of lamp-black negroisms”).

Ms. Dolezal and her sons moved to Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, where she took a job with the Human Rights Education Institute in 2008. By this time, Ms. Dolezal had become estranged from her parents, and was identifying herself as African-American with multi-racial ancestry. She said that during her time there, she and her sons were the target of numerous hate crimes, perpetrated by local white supremacists. When passed over for a promotion by the Institute, she submitted her resignation and moved to nearby Spokane Washington. There, she was hired as a part-time professor of African studies while working as head of the local NAACP chapter, also chairing the local police Ombudsman Commission.  Eventually, she achieved prominence in the community for her work.

That prominence, along with her continuing claims of being a victim of hate crimes that could not be documented, raised a few suspicions. These were recently confirmed when her parents came out on social media with the truth. When confronted over her real ancestry, Ms. Dolezal replied: “We’re all from the African Continent.”  (True enough: the fossil record and genetic evidence indicate that hominids did first emerge in eastern Africa some 4-8 million years ago).

It’s also a matter of record that Ms. Dolezal has done good work in the community. The Spokane Chapter of the NAACP stands by her, pointing out that being African-American is not a prerequisite in order to work for that organization.

It was nonetheless a deception, leaving many people feeling understandably angry as a result. Her claims of being a victim of hate crimes is a slap in the face to those who have been harassed, beaten, and even killed because of their skin color – or sexuality.

Beyond that, did pretending or believing in her own mind to be African-American really cause anyone else serious harm? Yes, it has compromised her credibility and may have repercussions on her career (though given America’s obsession with celebrity good and bad, her paintings will doubtless skyrocket in value – at least until her fifteen minutes of fame are over). But in the end, the only person she truly harmed was herself.

On Monday, June 15th, Rachel Dolezal resigned from her position at the Spokane chapter of the NAACP. In her much anticipated public statement to the media, she said:

In the eye of this current storm, I can see that a separation of family and organizational outcomes is in the best interest of the NAACP…it is with complete allegiance to the cause of racial and social justice and the NAACP that I step aside from the presidency and pass the baton to my Vice President, Naima Quarles-Burnley.

She has offered no explanation as to why she claimed African-American ancestry on government forms. Speculation, opinions and bloviations from the learned, the ignorant and everyone in between will continue until the next “Big Story” hits the media in a week or so – after which Ms. Dolezal will slip quietly back into obscurity.

We do not know this woman, and since Ms. Dolezal isn’t talking about it herself, we have no idea of what her mindset was. Her parents have said that she has always claimed to be someone she is not. How many of us have done that at some point – or at least, have wanted to?  Certainly, there are hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of people on social media, portraying themselves as someone other than who they really are. Some even have multiple personae.

On a personal note: as a child and young teen, this author often pretended to be someone he wasn’t, sometimes getting in trouble for it. Eventually, he was introduced to theater and the stage, where such behavior was completely acceptable and even encouraged. Today, he’s even fortunate enough to make a little extra money at it during the summers.

Perhaps Ms. Dolezal missed her calling (her Twitter handle does make reference to the Harlem Renaissance, during which visual and performance arts blossomed). Perhaps she was hurt by Dean Benjamin’s opinion of her thesis and felt she had something to prove. Or, given the status of her relationship with her parents and what she has said about her unhappy childhood, perhaps it was rebellion.

Perhaps, like Caitlyn Jenner, Ms. Dolezal has always felt like she was someone different from her outward appearance. Maybe she sincerely feels like she is a black woman, and has for so long that it has become her true identity. It is not a lie or deceptive for her to claim to be a black woman. It actually would be a lie for her to claim to be a white woman, just as it would be a lie in Jenner’s case to be anyone other than Caitlyn.

In Ms. Dolezal’s situation, we do not presently know why she has portrayed herself as a black woman, and might never truly know. To quote William Shakespeare, who presciently described the modern corporate mainstream media over four centuries ago, it is “a tale told by an idiot…full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

To read the first part of this story, click Who Are We, Anyway (And Does It Really Matter)? Part 1

SHARE
K.J. McElrath is a former history and social studies teacher who has long maintained a keen interest in legal and social issues.