Black is more than skin deep for 'white' Rachel Dolezal
Everyone says race activist Rachel Dolezal is lying about being black, says Sarah Caden, but it suits her to believe otherwise
Published 21/06/2015 | 02:30
Rachel Dolezal's son, Franklin, is black. Her adopted brother, Izaiah, of whom she is guardian, is black. Her dad, Albert Wilkerson, is black. Does this make Rachel Dolezal black? It depends what you mean by black. If you mean she is ethnically black, then the answer seems to be no. But Dolezal would disagree.
As far as Dolezal is concerned, she is black. This, she has said, is how she 'identifies'. Her parents, Ruthanne and Larry Dolezal, 'outed' Rachel as white earlier this month.
That's the language being used. 'Outed', a sometimes malicious exposing of homosexuality against the person's will, and 'identify', which increasingly is used to discuss transgender issues. It is language, used by Dolezal herself, that somehow transforms this story into something more difficult than just a simple case of deception. It calls into question what it means to be white or black and what a difference a label makes.
Oh, and yes, Larry Dolezal is Rachel's father. Legally, and, he believes, biologically. The aforementioned Wilkerson is her 'dad'. Rachel Dolezal has explained she met Wilkerson through her work as a black activist, struck up a deep connection and relates to him in a father-daughter way. And that makes him her dad. Just as identifying as black makes you black.
You might think that you are born with your ethnicity, but that's not how Dolezal sees it. She has said that her life has been an effort to resist being "socially conditioned [to] be limited to whatever biological identity was thrust upon me."
"I felt very isolated with my identity virtually my entire life, that nobody really got it and that I really didn't have the personal agency to express it," she has also said. "I kind of imagined that maybe at some point [I'd have to] own it publicly and discuss this kind of complexity. [But] I wasn't expecting it to be thrust upon me right now."
Photographs of Dolezal as a teenager, which have showed up all over the world in the past week, show an undeniably white girl with freckles, dirty blonde hair and blue eyes.
She could, of course, be of mixed race, but the Dolezals say she is not. They are of German-Irish extraction and so is she. Rachel has countered that they say she is their child, but there is no proof.
"I'm not necessarily saying that I can prove they're not," she has said, "but I don't know that I can actually prove they are. 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."
The Dolezals are adamant that Rachel is their biological daughter, but it is the case that they adopted four children, mostly mixed race, when she was a child. The arrival of any sibling is tricky for a child, but adoption brings with it another layer of difficulty, with increased chance of the incumbent child perceiving the adopted child as an interloper, suddenly soaking up the attention from 'their' parents.
And if that new child is black, or different to them in any way, it's easy to see how that difference could be construed as that which makes the adopted child special and attention-worthy in the parents' eyes.
Certainly, Ruthanne Dolezal concedes, Rachel became very interested in black art and culture once her siblings came along. She and Larry don't remember their daughter drawing pictures of herself as black when she was five, as Rachel claims, but they remember that she grew increasingly fascinated by black culture in her teens. Rachel claims she identified as black from an early age, and it's this grasping of a very specific language that adds an unsettling layer to a simple web of lies.
It suggests that Dolezal has seized on the idea of herself as a minority by way of glorifying herself. Transgender issues are hugely high profile in recent times. And, some have argued through this scandal, that she has correctly recognised modern culture as one fascinated by the outsider and the underdog. It's better, more sexy even, to be an outsider than a boring old bourgeois insider.
And, remember, Dolezal didn't just decide that she was black and then go about her life quietly. She became an activist. She stood centre stage and spoke, for the NAACP no less, about what it means to black in modern America. There was video released last week in which Dolezal talked about what it meant, culturally, to have tightly curled hair like hers. Hair that, if old photos are anything to go by, she probably permed to get it that tightly curled. She taught Afriana studies at a Washington University, and, over the years, Dolezal has claimed to have been the target of threats and abuse because of her race.
She claims to have been threatened by the Aryan Nation and to have received hate mail and found a noose on her doorstep. She has been vocal and she has been very visible as a black woman.
Rachel Dolezal has made a big thing of being black, or, you could say, being black made a big thing of her.
Aside from just saying she is black, Dolezal has, of course, looked black, and that physical assumption of an identity troubles people and she has been accused of putting on 'blackface'.
The teenage Rachel had blonde, wavy hair, remember, and white skin, so the tight curls and dark skin of today had to be achieved somehow. Dolezal denies any cosmetic surgery work, and says she merely takes the sun and uses bronzer to achieve her skin colour.
"I have a huge issue with blackface. This is not some freak Birth of a Nation mockery blackface," Dolezal has said, name-checking the famously racist 1915 film. "This is on a very real, connected level - how I've actually had to go there with the experience, not just a visible representation." Put like that, you could conclude that Dolezal has been method acting for the last decade or that she has some sort of attention-seeking ethnic Munchausen's.
On the other hand, a former teacher of Dolezal's has sympathetically pointed out that her efforts may have been born out of a desire to protect her son by looking more like him.
For whatever reason she has done this, Dolezal decided at some point that being white was not for her. Her parents claim it's a way of distancing from and destroying them, and while the NAACP have accepted her resignation, they are publicly keen to have it known that you don't have to be ethnically black to be a member or an activist. But you're probably as well off not lying about your ethnicity, either.
Last week, Dolezal's 13-year-old son, Franklin, was unstinting in his support of her. "Mom," he said, "racially you're human, and culturally you're black."
And, if you decide that's what makes you black, then Rachel Dolezal is indeed black.