In the last four days, the story of the American woman Rachel Dolezal has been discussed extensively in the media internationally. Rachel was until yesterday the President of the Spokane chapter of the National Association of the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP). She is also a Professor of Africana studies at Eastern Washington University. In addition, she was the chair of the office of the police ombudsman commission in Spokane, a position which she no longer holds as the Police department has issued a statement suspending all cases being reviewed under her committee. Slowly her life has literally fallen apart and all these positions have gone.
Rachel Dolezal, who was previously married to a black man with whom she had a son, was born to white parents and is biologically white. However, she has claimed to be black for at least 10 years, claiming a mixed race heritage through an African American father. Rachel is a very well educated woman who attended Howard University; a historically black college, on scholarship. Her parents leaked the story of her faked identity. They tell of a submitted portraiture as part of the application to Howard University. The submission mirrored an African American identity and earned her a full scholarship.
Her parents are as concerned and baffled as the rest of the world as to why Rachel chose to denounce her heritage and con her friends and community into believing she was a black woman. She changed her appearance with tan and braids and kinky curls, in order to look mixed race. There has been a cry of outrage from African American women in the United States accusing Rachel of white privilege. She sued Howard for discrimination, saying she was deprived of certain opportunities there because she was a white woman in a historically black University. In the same vein, she reported several racial threats to the police in Spokane, alleging abuse because she was a black woman. The discourse points to a deceptive platform being used to achieve all she has. Her ‘blackness’ seems like a cloak which she puts on and takes off as she wishes.
She is also being accused of stealing opportunities which she did not deserve from the minority on false pretences. Rachel Dolezal is a very accomplished woman and her biography is impressive, even for a white woman in middle class America. It is even more so impressive for a black woman at her age. The furore surrounding the ‘outing’ of Rachel is one which revolves around integrity and identity. There is an overwhelming acknowledgement that she could not have achieved what she did, had she not claimed to be a black woman.
The question of identity crises is one which is all too familiar to mixed race children and adults. But even more so to women of black heritage in a country such as the United States of America where they constitute a minority. Black women in the US have come through a difficult history of prejudice, deprivation and a struggle for acceptance in a society with stereotypes such as the angry black woman, and mockery or unpopularity of the black woman’s features of thick curly hair, large hips and full lips. These features have only recently become popular. Thus, black women are outraged that this woman has masqueraded as a black woman, yet has not lived the agony, the rejection and the discrimination faced by black women in America, even at the hands of the men within the African American community.
However, others have suggested that perhaps this is a conversation which the world needs to begin to have. This could be a discovery of an identity crises stemming from what could be a new state of being “trans-racial”. Some members of the transgender community have been outraged by the comparison that somehow being transgender a la the Caitylin Jenner experience, is in some ways one and the same as the having a transracial experience; if indeed there is any such thing. The argument is that gender and race are different, that being a transgender has to do with gender dysphoria, which is an actual condition, whereas there is no such thing as racial dysphoria.
One could argue that this is the first emergence of any such public occurrence of one declaring to be the opposite of their phenotypes, and believing very strongly in it. There are already outcries of mental health problems. We do not know this, and this brings to mind the arrest and incarceration in an insane asylum of American Joseph Lobdell (born Lucy Ann Lobdell) who was born a woman in the early 19th century, but believed himself to be a man and lived as such. Perhaps there is such a thing as identity confusion and a certain strong affinity to a particular group of people. If a man can declare “I am a woman” and vice versa, and have the support of the world, why can’t a white woman declare “I am black” and vice versa?
In any case, Rachel’s lies have ruined the more constructive and enriching discussion which may have come out of this saga. Her parents believe her struggles with identity emanate from their adoption of four black children when she was a teenager. Both of them, whom she cut off from her life and the life of their grandson, for fear of her cover being blown in her community, have said honesty and therapy are the best way forward for Rachel. She may not need therapy, she may just be light years ahead of the world. The debates around identity do not end at gender, they also include psyche, heritage and culture. .
There are people who have come from one culture, but feel a certain affinity or are deeply interested in the cultures of other social groups. This may be considered significantly different from some black women’s love of long luxurious hair extensions which have the same texture as the hair of white, Asian or hispanic people. It may also be different from the butt implants and enhanced pouts preferred by some white women. How then does this compare to Caitylin Jenner’s honest declarations on Diane Sawyer’s show, and Michael Jackson’s bizarre transformation? It may have been easier to expand on the discussion and make the linkages even in the acknowledgement of the differences, had Dolezal presented herself without the associated deception.
Dolezal’s misrepresentation of herself has now put her preference to be called black on the back burner. It has also belittled what seems to be her otherwise significant contributions in the civil rights movement. She has worked in social justice and advocacy for at least 10 years and the NAACP lauded her consistent commitment to the advancement of coloured people in America.
There is no question about the serious personal identity issues which she has and it will be interesting to see her and the experts make some sense of this when the furore dies down. The world is a big place and a shrinking community all at once. Self expression in the free world is absolutely important. One can be whomever or whatever they wish to be, with honesty. In reading the summations in the media and speaking to people, one can infer that Rachel Dolzal would have been welcome to be true to an identity she felt comfortable with. If Dolezal had been honest, perhaps she would have been embraced, as long as she was honest, and the transition was done with an acknowledgement that someone who was indeed the opposite of what their visible social construct was, in that situation cannot necessarily understand the experience of people who have lived it all their lives.