Who knew that in 2015, we would have the spotlight on a woman like Rachel Dolezal. When I first heard the Inside Edition type news of Dolezal living her life as a Black woman, after having been exposed by her immediate family that she was actually born White, I somewhat kept it pushing. I wasn’t ready. It’s like everyday, something more ridiculous hits the airwaves. But it was hard to ignore this one. A Black woman, who was also the president of the Spokane, Washington NAACP chapter, is actually White? Lifetime couldn’t make this up.
Considering we are in the age of the rise of Caitlyn Jenner and normalized appropriation of hip-hop and Black womanhood through selected White female pop stars, maybe many of us should have seen this one coming: a White woman who believed from the inside out that she was Black. But Dolezal doesn’t come across as no regular, typical “I like Black culture” copy. She has to be the most fascinating (for better or worse) case of an identity crisis, or labelling, America has seen in decades, and I mean, since the publishing of Nella Larsen‘s novels. And I’ll be so honest with you. I haven’t been offended by her adamant claims that she identifies as “Black”, as ridiculous as she may sound saying it.
No, I have not been drinking from the same pitcher of Kool-Aid as Raven-Symone does before The View, but I am taking into account that Dolezal did something with this “truth” of hers if it means anything. Working for the NAACP? I haven’t even sent in a resume to my local chapter.She went all the way with her “I am a Black person” steez. Box braids and all. And in contemplating the massive media and editorial accounts of Jenner and the wise words of Laverne Cox as an LGBT leader, I have come to more fully understanding the unique circumstances of being born a particular way but not fully being comfortable in was what you were given.
However; with all that being said, I’m not sure just how far we can stretch the brave realities of Jenner and Cox to someone like Dolezal because she appears largely confused about her situation, unsure of how to express her belief that she identifies as Black, and well…she lied.
Currently on a media blitz tour, holding interviews with Matt Lauer on Today, Melissa Harris-Perry on MSNBC and Savannah Guthrie on NBC Nightly News, you can sense that as willing as she is to talk about life as a self-proclaimed Black woman (since 2007–can we insert “LOL” here?), she stammers about it. First off, this “homegirl” hasn’t had any kind of media training, and she’s been all over the place with her explantations. Her answers have translated as almost laughable and even a bit uncomfortable to cognize:
Lauer: “Are you an African-American woman?”
Dolezal: “I identify as Black.”
“[Around 5-years-old, I began my] self-identification with the black experience. I was drawing self-portraits with the brown crayon instead of the peach crayon. That was how I was portraying myself.”
“Self-identification with the Black experience?” With quotes like that, no wonder some Black people, writers and even fellow NAACP activists have given Dolezal the “con artist” sticker. Yet, I still haven’t reacted angry or annoyed. I’ve just been observing with every nervous answer that she gives, she’s unmasking to us an extremely flawed, unique case of identity and our comfort levels of when those who are non-Black just how they are truly allowed to understand “the cause” of being Black in America.
Dolezal went on to say: “I have a huge issue with blackface. This is not some freak Birth of a Nation mockery blackface performance. This is on a very real, connected level.”
Based on her last statement, that much could be argued as fair. It’s almost the equivalent of a White kid in the suburbs preferring to listen To Pimp A Butterfly than the latest Skrillex record. But I would still advise Dolezal to be careful with her words. To commiserate with Black people is one thing. Yet to claim you’ve felt the same level of rejection, low expectations or the simple beautiful struggle as an Black Person on American ground transpires as extremely ignorant and kinda scary.
While talking to Guthrie on NBC Nightly News, Dolezal declared that she “definitely [was] not white” and that “When someone asks, ‘Are you black?’ — which I actually don’t get asked very often until recently, since a few days ago — I say, ‘Yeah, I am black.”
“I know who raised me. I haven’t had a DNA test. There’s been no biological proof that Larry and Ruthanne are my biological parents…I mean the birth certificate was issued a month and a half after I’m born. Certainly there were no medical witnesses to my birth. It was in the woods.”
“Nothing about being white describes who I am. So, you know, what’s the word for it? The closest thing that I can come to is if you’re black or white, I’m black. I’m more black than white. On a level of values, lived experience currently. In this moment, that’s the answer. That’s the accurate answer from my truth. But I hope the dialogue continues to push against, ‘What is race? What is ethnicity?’”
Dolezal doesn’t seem to have a clue as to why she feels she is Black, aside for glaring fact that she certainly doesn’t want to be called “White.” I certainly thought it was whack that she lied and I completely understand if NAACP members feel betrayed. Still, it is apparent something else deeper (possibly psychologically) is going on here. To go record on say that her parents aren’t her birth parents further displayed the huge emotional estrangement she has from them. Because of that, I’m not furious with Dolezal but curious. Where will she go from here on this journey of “I am Black” now that everybody knows this once secret life?
Interestingly, from the mountain of Dolezal-centric pieces taking over the Internet as you read this, one quote in particular offers some intense insight to the dichotomy of wanting to give Rachel the “girl, bye!” wave but also wanting to break down her recently afflicting condition.
When The Atlantic reached out to Baz Dreisinger, an Associate Professor of English at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, and author of Near Black: White-to-Black Passing in American Culture, he encapsulated why White people have actually passed as Black or borrow Black attributes. From the Black perspective, it still stems from a place of exoticizing people of color and feeling left out of something that appears to be different or like “forbidden fruit.”
“There has always been within White America a kind of fetishizing of blackness, and of things associated with black culture, with music, and so on. So you have cases of non-black people engaging with those activities, particularly with music, who are passing themselves off—whether for a period of time, whether for life—in many different contexts. Whether actively passing, or just not refuting what they’re getting taken as, in the context of music. And the fantasy becomes, if you’re close enough to black culture, in the literal or metaphorical sense, then you can somehow become black.
“[In] the cultural domain, it certainly can be advantageous to pass as black.”
For Dolezal, believing she is “Black” has been an escapist, refuge from her former self and only the rest of the year will tell why being Black has been her only means of salvation when to many, she was already given the Wonka ticket of White privilege.
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