The story of Rachel Dolezal, the Spokane NAACP president who appears to have lied about her race (and resigned from her post this morning) has captivated the imagination of American media, from Twitter jokes to highbrow essays to the morning chatter on my FM radio station. What’s more fascinatingly, disturbingly American, after all, than attempts at self-reinvention that fail spectacularly and are then revealed as total lies (think Jay Gatsby)?
But this is more than one person’s story: in the wake of the Caitlyn Jenner discussion and a fraught year of talking about race and gender, there’s a lot here that deserves to be unpacked. Some people are genuinely asking if Dolezal could be suffering from a type of dysmorphia, while others are opportunistically using her story to discredit trans people. It’s certainly complicated. Here are some of the best responses that surfaced this weekend, to help answer the most common questions people are asking.
Is there a human side to this story, beyond all the outrage and snark?
Comedian Dave Chappelle, famous for sketches that play around with the idea of racial self-identification, weighed in both critically and sympathetically:
“The thing that the media’s gotta be real careful about, that they’re kind of overlooking, is the emotional context of what she means,” Chappelle said thoughtfully, between drags of American Spirit cigarettes. “There’s something that’s very nuanced where she’s highlighting the difference between personal feeling and what’s construct as far as racism is concerned. I don’t know what her agenda is, but there’s an emotional context for black people when they see her and white people when they see her. There’s a lot of feelings that are going to come out behind what’s happening with this lady.
“And she’s just a person, no matter how we feel about her.” Yes, the man who came up with the idea of Clayton Bigsby, a blind black Klansman (who doesn’t know he’s black), was reserved when it came to Dolezal.
What is Dolezal getting out of this?
Latoya Peterson and Danielle Henderson had a conversation at Fusion, speculating about why Dolezal made the choices she did. According to Peterson,
The people who use blackness (or any other-ness for that matter) as a cape or cloak to put on and take off at will, that to me is frightening. To me, it just means they don’t understand it. It’s a toy, not an identity.
What does “transracial” actually mean?
Transracial adoptee Lisa Marie Rollins explains what transracial actually means, and why we shouldn’t rush to apply the word — which describes the experience of families who adopt across racial lines — to a person who simply chooses to alter identities:
I want to be clear that this is complicated. I can speculate Ms. Dolezal’s living in a transracial adoptive family and having Black brothers and sisters has impacted the ways she thinks about race. But this complexity is where the danger lies. The global system of Transracial adoption itself is too often the place where white people who desire close proximity to bodies of color, their “exotic”, their “natural rhythms and cultures” make their fetish dreams come true. And hasn’t Ms. Dolezal adopted her Black brother and claimed him as her son to gain authenticity? How is this different?
What’s it like growing up black in super-white Spokane?
Alicia Walters writes eloquently about growing up in Spokane as a black woman:
As one of just two black girls in my elementary school, my kinky-ish hair, brown skin, and athletic build were uncommon and, before natural hair was considered cute, little white girls would shame me about about the size of my “poofy hair”. Throughout elementary school, in the confines of my bedroom, I put champagne-colored slips over my head to mimic the straight blonde hair I thought I needed to fit in, and gently swayed it back and forth and dreamt of belonging – but I knew black girls could never be white.
What else might have influenced Dolezal?
Academia has an investment in authenticity that makes it hard to be an “expert” in a subject that one isn’t personally identified with, writes Jennifer Wilson, a black female academic who specializes in Russian literature.
How is Dolezal’s story different from transgender people’s?
Many great pieces have surfaced in the past few days explaining the difference between Dolezal’s story and trans people’s — in order to take on the people, including both the genuinely curious and the trolls, who are trying to equate the two.
Trans writer Meredith Talusan spells it out with great clarity at the Guardian:
The fundamental difference between Dolezal’s actions and trans people’s is that her decision to identify as black was an active choice, whereas transgender people’s decision to transition is almost always involuntary. Transitioning is the product of a fundamental aspect of our humanity – gender – being foisted upon us over and over again from the time of our birth in a manner inconsistent with our own experience of our genders. Doctors don’t announce our race or color when we are born; they announce our gender. People who are alienated from their presumed gender and define themselves according to another gender have existed since earliest recorded history; race is a medieval European invention. Thus, Dolezal identified as black, but I am a woman, and other trans people arethe gender they feel themselves to be.
Why are many people of color offended by, or at the very least wary of, Dolezal?
We don’t know the entirety of Dolezal’s story, and we will likely learn more. If it’s troubling, it’s at least partly because it feels like Dolezal is adopting the culture without carrying the burdens. And with the fake father and the fake children, it seems like she’s deceiving people for the sake of an à la carte blackness, in which you take the best parts, and leave the pain aside.