Opinion

Rachel Dolezal missed opportunity to truly make a difference

In his memoir published last year, Joshua Dolezal described his biological sister, Rachel, as having hair the color of pale light as a child. But if the Rachel Dolezal of today is to be taken literally, even at the young age of 5 she wasn’t identifying with being a blonde white person but with “the black experience.”

Today her hairstyle is African-American, reflecting the persona she has adopted – though she has yet to explain why. It’s almost as if she has lived with that fictitious narrative for so long, she came to believe it. She even took “exception” when Matt Lauer, of the “Today” show, called it deceptive.

Then again, the more layers that get peeled off this family the more apparent dysfunction there is. On the heels of Rachel’s racial deceptions comes news that Joshua Dolezal, an associate professor of English at Central College in Pella, Iowa, is scheduled to be tried in August for felony sex abuse of a 6- or 7-year-old girl 19 years younger than him. The alleged events took place in 2001 or 2002 at the family home in Colorado.

Rachel Dolezal built up an impressive résumé as someone seriously committed to racial equality: Graduate of a historically black college. Effective leader of the Spokane chapter of the most prominent civil rights organization in America. Africana studies professor and adviser to the black student union at Eastern Washington University. Chair of the police ombudsman’s office. In short, everything an African-American community could have sought in an ally in the struggle.

Everything, that is, except the person she claimed to be.

We don’t yet know what motivated her false representations, but her interviews paint a picture of a troubled life that may have caused an identity crisis. Apparently, belonging was also a challenge for her brother, whose book, “Down from the Mountaintop: From Belief to Belonging,” is billed as chronicling that quest.

In an interview with a student newspaper of EWU, Rachel reported being physically abused by her mother and stepfather, who she said, “would punish us by skin complexion,” using a whip used on South African baboons. The parents deny any abuses. She said she survived date rape, an abusive marriage, cancer and hate crimes from white supremacists. She said everyone who has claimed to love her “has betrayed me in a pretty significant way.”

There is a frequent racial thread running through the stories she tells. She said the whips used on her were like “whips during slavery.” She told the reporter she was born in a teepee and that the family hunted their food with bow and arrows. She has claimed to be part Native American; her brother’s book describes their parents as fundamentalist Pentecostalists.

An affidavit in Joshua Dolezal’s child-abuse charges claims that Joshua “was turned on by the black body and was curious about black women sexually.” Their parents have claimed Rachel was behind the charges, which they say are false.

And before she alleged being the victim of hate crimes as a black person, Rachel Dolezal claimed discrimination as a white one. In 2002, she sued Howard University for taking back the full scholarship she had been given when she was believed to be black. The case was dismissed. It’s almost as if she were looking for either affront or opportunity and adapting her racial identity accordingly.

The NAACP is now on the defensive, reminding people that being black isn’t a prerequisite to be a chapter director – that in fact the national organization’s founders were white. Rachel Dolezal could have shown the world you can be impassioned about racism without being its direct target – that there is a crucial role for white supporters in the movement.

As Betty Andrews, president of the Iowa-Nebraska NAACP chapter points out, Dolezal could have modeled the important role of other races in the civil rights movement, who are able to say things “that cannot be heard (if said) by a member of the minority community.”

Instead, with the nose ring and the cascading black hair, Dolezal cultivated an image suggesting cool and black, as if the two go naturally together. Actually the coolest people are the ones who aren’t trying to remake themselves for someone’s approval but are themselves without apology.

Some people see Dolezal’s actions as a form of cultural appropriation – like the African-American fashions or music that get usurped by big-name designers and producers, who act as if they invented them, while the real inventors get marginalized.

Membership in a race or gender, as Andrews notes, usually comes with a specific set of cultural experiences, and history that you don’t just get – or get to divorce – with a change of hairstyle or hormones. “I grew up black and I know what it’s like growing up as an African-American in this world,” Ezra Dolezal, Rachel’s adopted brother has said. “She does not.”

Rudy Simms, however, says Dolezal is not so different from the black people who used to try to pass for white to succeed in white culture.

“This woman tried to succeed in the black culture,” says Simms, who is black and recently retired as director of the Des Moines, Iowa, human rights division. As far as he’s concerned, she can “identify with who she wants to identify with. There’s only one human race.”

Most people, however, don’t get to choose – as obvious from the title of a report on racial profiling linked on the NAACP website: “Born Suspect: Stop-and-Frisk Abuses.” Not everyone is born suspect. Some people make themselves to be.

Rekha Basu is a columnist for the Des Moines Register. Readers may send her email at rbasu@dmreg.com.

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