At first blush it’s hard to imagine why the racial identity of an obscure civil rights advocate from eastern Washington State deserved the nationwide media high beam: Hours of TV air time, acres of newsprint, a tidal flood of tweets and electronic chatter. All of it devoted to exposing, denouncing, defending, or puzzling over the case of Rachel Dolezal, the daughter of white parents, who over the course of her 37 years and her rise as an activist in the Pacific Northwest had reinvented herself—sometimes by deliberate implication and sometimes explicitly—as a black woman.
The story came to light after Dolezal was attacked in the Spokane, Wash., media for burnishing her application for an unpaid municipal advocacy job by falsely claiming African American parentage. Her biological parents, a Montana couple of European ancestry, said Dolezal had began to “disguise herself” in 2006 or 2007 after they adopted four black children.
Dolezal herself was brought up blonde and blue-eyed, then was educated at historically black Howard University in Washington, D.C., before building a career in rights advocacy and college teaching in western Idaho and Washington State. She married an African American man and gave birth to two children.
Those children, under the idiosyncratic rules of racial attribution in this country, are black, of course. And there seemed to be nothing questionable about her commitment to racial justice.
Still, Dolezal, media reports suggest, left a somewhat woozy trail of ambiguity and dissembling that made her hard to sympathize with. The Spokane Spokesman-Review reported that authorities in nearby Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, where she had worked as an advocate, were skeptical about whether racist provocations and threats supposedly directed at her were genuine.
Once doubts were raised in Spokane about her claim to be black, she dodged direct questions on camera about the race of her parents. At the college where she taught Africana studies colleagues assumed she was black, a conclusion she appears to have encouraged.
As the story continued to unfurl, Dolezal became a media luminary, giving numerous network and cable TV interviews, explaining her life, justifying her choices.
The larger question, to me, was less why she did what she did, but why everybody seemed to care so much, and why her case provoked so much anger—anger from whites, some of whom no doubt viewed her attempts to take improper advantage of racial preferences as proof that their own ancestral privileges had been upended; anger from blacks, who resent her claiming a make-good share she did nothing to deserve from a legacy of privation from which she suffered not at all.
One of the kinder and, in my view, more insightful commentaries on the affair came from a Stanford historian, Allyson Hobbs, author of a history of racial “passing,” the practice of posing as a member of a different race. Hobbs wrote that she understands Dolezal’s identifying herself as black: “Enmeshed in black politics, black communities and black experiences — she is raising two black sons — why should she see herself any other way?”
Indeed, the thoroughness of her immersion into her adopted race seems impressive. While her deceit was hard to countenance, her apparent conclusion that she had earned the right to some of the same correctives African Americans get seemed to have some logic to it, if in all respects apart from parentage she was defining herself—and was being perceived—as black.
But I’m still wondering why this created such a stir, and how to read the affair in the context of the epochal moment in U.S. race relations that many people hoped the election of 2008 inaugurated. The furious cascade in recent months of news about police shootings of young black people—and now the massacre of parishioners in Charleston, S.C.—are reminders that the Obama ascent remains anomalous, and that being black is a powerful and enduring source of social disadvantage.
Rachel Dolezal recognized that and signed on anyway, making her assumed heritage central to her identity. Like the rest of us, she’s a flawed human being, and there was something unusually perplexing about her imposture. But now she found herself a pariah in the eyes of both the community she left and the one she sought to join, and I think the commitment she was trying to embrace entitled her to a better fate than that.