I can’t remember the last time a member of academia got as much attention as former professor and NAACP leader Rachel Dolezal. It’s a shame it couldn’t have gone to someone more worthy of the limelight. Dolezal, who was born to white parents of German and Czech ancestry, falsely tried to pass off an African-American man who accompanied her in a recent photo as her father. She also planted fake hate mail in her post-office box; an investigation revealed that the mail was never processed by the USPS and was put into Dolezal’s mailbox by someone with a key. Given the opportunity to come clean in an interview with Matt Lauer, the activist refused to admit to any wrongdoing, or even acknowledge any regrets.
As consumers of media, we love the juicy fallout and comeuppance that come from catching someone in a lie. And let’s be clear: Whatever conflicts Dolezal may be dealing with when it comes to her racial identity, she deliberately deceived those around her, and that’s inexcusable. I’m not a minority, and I’m no expert in racial politics, but people of any race who are acquainted with the concept of basic human decency should be able to see where she went very wrong.
It’s perfectly fine, even laudable, for a white woman like Dolezal to have such an interest in black culture that she makes it her life’s work. It’s also fine for Dolezal to pick up on the style trends of black culture, and change her appearance in any way she pleases. She was raised with black siblings, so I have little doubt that her scholarship and activism came from a genuine place. But Dolezal’s pattern of deception and evasion is simply not defensible, especially since she’s used others as part of her ruse. Her usefulness as an advocate would not have diminished if she’d simply told the truth; her race wouldn’t have excluded her from being part of the conversation.
But it isn’t just Dolezal’s ill-advised lying that fascinates us. Her 15 minutes of fame have come right on the heels of Caitlyn Jenner’s widely publicized transgender coming-out, at a time when we’re as interested in ever in transitions and identities. Dolezal upped the ante on Jenner, introducing us to a type of transition that was heretofore totally unheard of. But while Jenner was hailed as a hero, Dolezal is the butt of jokes, and a widely reviled figure across racial demographics. Things could’ve turned out differently for the latter woman if she’d simply been forthright.
When Caitlyn Jenner announced herself to the world, there was no cover-up or attempted erasure of the past. Bruce Jenner was a person who existed up until a few weeks ago, and Caitlyn Jenner is a person who exists now. The concept is a little tough for some people to wrap their heads around, but most people have accepted the fact and moved on. Dolezal simply should have stood up and said, “I was born to white parents, but I have black siblings, and I identify with their culture to the point where I want to live as an African-American, both physically and in my work.”
It remains to be seen whether “transracialism” is a real identity issue, or if it’s just an attention-grabbing ploy by someone whose troubles are more than skin-deep. I suspect we’ll find out soon enough, if more people with similar stories start coming out of the woodwork (it’s beyond a longshot, I know). But in the unlikely event that there are more individuals out there struggling with this, Dolezal has done them a huge disservice by lying, hurting others, and refusing to own up to her mistakes. If nothing else, she’s provided tabloid fodder and stoked conversations; the whole story has been at turns bizarre, hilarious, and genuinely thought-provoking. Just the way we like our news.
Also, check out our video with Cory Booker on race in America.