Is there another side to Rachel Dolezal? And might she be onto something that could impact real social change?
Don’t click away… just hear me out for a moment.
I Once Rejected Rachel Dolezal
I realize and understand that Rachel Dolezal is hated by many. A week ago, had you mentioned her name to me I would have rolled my eyes in disgust and shut down any conversation that tried to portray her as anything other than a delusional, disrespectful and entitled impersonator. From the press I’ve read, I’ve even suspected she suffers from mental illness.
That was last week, though. Since then, something quite unexpected has happened. I’ve found myself taking Rachel Dolezal slightly more seriously. And here’s why…
Having enjoyed many of the race-centered interviews on Philippe Matthews’ YouTube channel, I was taken aback when I logged onto the platform a few days ago and found a recent interview with Rachel Dolezal. I knew that he’d interviewed her before, but so did many other respected media outlets back when her exploits were a hot news item. I didn’t watch his earlier interview with her and never felt a need to, but I understood…or at least thought I understood…why it existed.
A new one, though? Dolezal’s 5 minutes have long since expired and seeing her name at the top of his video list just didn’t make sense to me. I couldn’t fathom how or why Matthews was placing a second interview alongside such insightful ones with esteemed academics and activists like doctors Joy DeGruy, Jackie Battalora and Robin DiAngelo. How could someone whom most regard as a fraud share an anti-racism conversational space with anthropologists like Michael Kilman or researcher and author Richard Rothstein?
I know Philippe Matthews to be passionate about deconstructing White supremacy, though. So in giving him, not Dolezal, the benefit of the doubt, I pressed play.
Changing and Challenging Perspectives
For the first several minutes, I wasn’t impressed with the interview at all. I even thought about taking notes on the things I didn’t like or that I disagreed with so that I could leave an insightful enough comment enumerating the many reasons why I just couldn’t watch more than 20 minutes of the conversation.
Slowly, however, I found myself intrigued with a few things that came up in that conversation. Like when she talked about rejecting whiteness based on that fact that it had been completely fabricated and it was something that she’d, long ago, decided to sever any and all connection with. On her own and by herself, Dolezal dove head first into Black studies and Black life. Despite what she describes as a virulently racist and abusive upbringing, she deliberately sided with Blackness and against White people, including those she was raised by.
As she spoke more in the interview about all of life originating in Africa and her choice to celebrate that mother of humanity that we all share, I found myself softening a bit more toward her. After all, the very first post published on this blog suggests that White people stop identifying as “White people” on principle. Being that it is a social designation purposely created in the late 1600s in order to divide and subjugate people who had previously been somewhat unified, to still call oneself “White” is to still promote that divide. If what Dolezal said in her interview with Matthews is true, her refusal to identify as White is one of the strongest political statements any White person in America can make. To take that a step further and identify oneself as Black is, for sure, offensive. But might it also be an extreme act of solidarity?
Backstory Makes You Go Hmmm
As I listened to Rachel Dolezal explain that the reason her life fell under public scrutiny in the first place came as a result of her being the chair of the Police Ombudsman Commission in her city, I can see how it’s possible that the way many of us feel about her is a deliberate manipulation in order to hide a real issue. At that time, she’d been cast as the head of police accountability. Following the death of a Black man whom she says was killed in jail, Dolezal maintains that she was busy working hard to hold the police accountable for his death. According to her, in an attempt to smear and discredit her for trying to bring the truth to light, a private investigator was hired to look into her past and that’s when her parents were located. As we all know, it was her parents exposing the fact that she was not born Black that made her story go viral. From there, Dolezal was painted in the media as she was and the White officers accused of killing a Black prisoner got off scot-free. Justice, coincidence or mission accomplished? Hmmm.
I’d read a few articles about Dolezal when her story first broke, but I can’t recall ever sitting down to listen to her telling of events. I’m certain that I’d never heard this account before. Does it matter? Maybe. It does make me pause to consider her in a new light, though.
Can White People Really Reject Whiteness?
Watching this woman plainly and unapologetically state that while she is melanin-deficient, Black is, in fact, beautiful; that all of humankind started in Africa and that she isn’t interested in participating in whiteness on any level intrigued me. Addressing critics who have said she is filled with self-hatred, I paused to consider her perspective on the masses of White people whom she believes are the real ones who are filled with self-hatred since it is them who’ve worked so hard to ignore, disgrace, misuse and shame their Black mother (Africa) and her melanated children– their sisters and brothers.
As the interview progressed, I found myself considering what a White person who wholeheartedly rejects Whiteness looks like? Watching her sit there with her hair in box braids (which she braided herself), I noted the cultural appropriation at play. But I also noted the fact that she was giving full attribution and celebration to Black people for those braids and for everything else in her life as a self-described Black woman.
While we advocate for White people to use privilege in ways that will ultimately deconstruct White supremacy, what do we do with White people who want no part of whiteness or its privilege to begin with? Though she does call herself “Black” today (and I don’t agree with her doing so… more on that in a minute), Dolezal spoke of the early days when she didn’t outright call herself Black, but she did not correct people who assumed she was of mixed race or just a light-skinned Black person. They seemed to make that assumption especially when she wore braids or wore her hair in kinky/curly hairstyles. The fact that she was able to pass as a light-skinned Black person (which came with its own brand of privilege) means that she was able to stand in real solidarity with Blacks by confusing the system and not allowing them to attach White privilege to her. While she could always “go back” to being White. She didn’t and still hasn’t. Based on my past feelings about what she did and how she’s lived her life, I can’t believe I’m writing this, but Rachel stayed down with Black people until White people decided to strip her of her fake-blackness and put her back in her place as a White woman. But should White people be allowed to just separate from whiteness in such a radical way?
Even after reconsidering her public life, I still believe that her approach was misguided and wrong. But judging from all of the anti-racism work that she’d done prior to 2015, her intent seems to be sincere. It definitely doesn’t appear that she meant to harm Black people in even the slightest way. The fact is that whiteness has always been in her cross-hairs and her efforts were focused on reducing its impact, specifically, where Black people are concerned. Might she have been more effective in being transparent about her entire life story and working to inspire Whites to join her in abandoning the label of “White people”? Perhaps thinking of another label that wasn’t Black, but maybe “Black-passing” or “Black-like” maybe even “Black-ish”? Instead of posing as a Black person and inserting herself in Black causes and communities, what if she’d been “Black-ish” and focused her activism on leading White people in that same direction?
Here’s What’s Still Problematic About Rachel Dolezal
She’s Not Black
Despite my willingness to consider her perspectives, I still find a lot of things troubling about Rachel Dolezal and her history as a so-called Black person. Foremost is her calling herself Black. She is not. As sympathetic as she is about the issues that Black people face and as much as she rejects her birthright as a White person, blackness is not negotiable. It’s not something you just get to hijack or opt into. While it is just as much of a social construct as whiteness, it is still a real thing attached to real struggle, real experiences, real historical impact and real cultural pride. A pride, by the way, that many Black people experience through a connection to blood ancestors who suffered and died under White supremacy. A pride that comes from surviving the enduring oppression of Whiteness while maintaining self-love and self-respect despite a society’s attempt to destroy both. Dolezal can’t lay claim to that. Nor should she try to.
Being Black in the Americas means all of the aforementioned, plus. While Blacks throughout the diaspora have also battled White supremacy in various shapes and forms, the version of Blackness Dolezal immerses herself in differs in unique ways from even continental Africans. This isn’t to divide blackness into different categories, but to say that Black American culture is not something that anyone who identifies with Mother Africa can just adopt and flatly say, “I’m Black because it’s how I feel and what I want to be”. With no ancestral dues paid, Dolezal can’t expect to be taken seriously as an American Black woman.
She Sued an HBCU
Dolezal sued Howard University, a Historical Black College and University (HBCU) for allegedly discriminating against her for being white! This despite the fact that the underfunding of HBCUs has long been an issue in the Black community. Her case was dismissed, but for a White person to sue an HBCU for racial discrimination just doesn’t sit well with the Black community. Without knowing the full details, it sounds like something that an angry, entitled White person would do. It confuses me, then, how Dolezal who fancies herself more than an ally, but an actual Black person, justified doing something so bizarre. Earlier, I stated that she has never gone back to the pre-condition of her whiteness and upon doing a little digging it appears that she sued the university before she began calling herself Black. But does that even matter? She still sued a Black college because she was White and felt entitled to something she didn’t get.
Speaking of Howard University, while allowing people to assume that she was a Black person, Rachel Dolezal also accepted a full scholarship to the school. A scholarship to a Black school that a Black student didn’t get because it was given to a White person feels all kinds of wrong. But maybe that’s just me. What do you think?
She’s Been Accused of Lying… A Lot!
Dolezal played fast and loose with the truth when she told a reporter that her “dad” is an African-American man. Maybe the person she was referring to at the time was a sort of father figure, but the truth remains that her real father is a White man. In her interview with Philippe Matthews, she even describes her biological father as a very racist White man (and her mother as being even more racist than her father)! She’s also alleged to have lied about receiving hate mail during her time in leadership at the NAACP. Her critics maintain that she mailed the items to herself. I don’t know about anyone reading this, but it is hard for me to trust anyone who lies so easily in order to solidify a position they so desperately want. I find White people who try to adopt a position of “racial victimization” (whether through a lawsuit as a White person or through hate hate mail claims while posing as a Black one) deeply problematic. It’s claims like these and a few others, which have caused me to question her mental health.
Perhaps there’s an explanation for all of this, which is why I intend to read her book sometime in the near future and which brings me back to the point of this post. Despite all of the hoopla, this recent interview has made me to want to hear the first-person account of the Rachel Dolezal story, at last.
So, what do you think? Should there be a separate racial category for White people who want to rid themselves of the socially-constructed label, privilege and lifestyle? I, personally, reject “trans-Black”, “trans-racial” and all of the “trans” labels people have toyed with since hearing Dolezal’s story, but might another label work?
Should White people be allowed to just opt out and adopt another culture if they just aren’t feeling white or aren’t down with the politics of whiteness?
What is left if one so radically rejects whiteness and the labeling of being a “White person”?
Might the system be thrown off kilter if other White people altered their appearance to look racially ambiguous or to look Black without EVER correcting anyone who assumes that they are? If these people lived “pro-Black” lives and gave all honor and credit for their existence to Africa, would their appearance and other cultural adaptations still be seen as appropriation?
Since we know that “White people” is a social construct created for nefarious reasons, do you feel like you have a moral obligation to reject that label? What are you and, more importantly, who are you if you are not White and if you refuse all White privilege? Or is it too late to even think this way? Are you better off accepting the label and just trying to use its associated privilege for good?
I’m entertaining the opinion that Dolezal meant well, but that she made a crucial and damaging mistake that a lot of “White people” make when they mean well. It’s one that everyone reading this should be aware of and try to avoid. That is thinking that, as a White person, you know what’s best for Black people and that you should be able to insert and position yourself wherever you please in the fight against racial discrimination. Whether she can see this yet or not, it appears as though the very White supremacy she was trying to reject is the very same White supremacy she exercised in taking liberties with Black people’s culture by claiming it as her own. Getting ahead of yourself without giving consideration to your actions can be extremely offensive to the very people you are trying to show solidarity with. Doing so is one of the hallmarks of White supremacy!
My advice to Rachel and to anyone else who finds themselves in a similar position is to self-correct and keep going. Even when you make a major error and are publicly shamed for it, if the struggle to dismantle White supremacy is real to you, don’t make a permanent retreat no matter how major and disastrous your error feels. Make your apologies, assess your losses and stay in the fight!
Lastly, if you haven’t already seen Philippe Matthews’ interview with Rachel Dolezal, you are hereby encouraged to do so.
Share any thoughts that you have below, please. This post isn’t finished until we’ve heard from you! Remember to also share it on your social media platforms along with the hashtag #whitepeoplewakeup so that we can continue the conversation there. Thanks!