Rachel Dolezal – the former Spokane NAACP head who falsely, and with remarkable assertiveness, claimed to be African-American before her actual parents emerged last week – has already outlived the limitations of the six-hour news cycle.
Her behavior is so bizarre, her history so variegated, and the mélange of hesitance and stubbornness she projects in interviews so hard to pin down, that she’s only gathering steam as her story plays out. Nothing she does really matters, but everything she does is intensely interesting. Monday saw, among other news items, a media frenzy over what appeared to be a Dolezal sighting at the Spokane airport.
Dolezal was on her way to a Tuesday interview with Today’s Matt Lauer, who pressed the Czech/Swedish/German/Native American to confess that her fake ethnicity “worked” for her. Dolezal’s responses may or may not provide evidence that she is, as she claims, culturally black. (Her self-identification apparently began when she was five years old and “drawing self-portraits with the brown crayon instead of the peach crayon.”) But they do show that she is fully marinated in the culture of identity-politics doubletalk.
“It was a little more complex than me identifying as black,” Dolezal said, though her prior confirmations of blackness – including a lengthy screed about enduring microagressions from white audience members during a screening of 12 Years a Slave – are the precise opposite of complexity. Racist aggression can certainly be done covertly, but it is not ambiguous in nature.
Dolezal knows this better than most people. In her 2002 lawsuit against Howard University, she claimed the historically black institution had denied her academic and material benefits because she is (or was) white.
“The reasons for my full tuition scholarship being removed, and my teaching position as well,” Dolezal replied when Lauer asked about the suit, “were that other people needed opportunities and ‘You probably have white relatives that, you know, can afford to help you with your tuition.’ And I thought that was an injustice.”
That was actually as close to a concrete statement as Dolezal got in a whirlwind of postmodern jargon and feel-good clichés. Asked about her having told people a man named Albert Wilkerson was her father, Dolezal opted to problematize the text with a bumper-sticker slogan: “Any man can be a father; not every man can be a dad.”
Asked if she had any regrets about what most people would consider a fraud (albeit a fairly harmless one), she regretted the “viciously inhuman” nature of her critics but voiced pride in having moved the dialogue toward an understanding: “The discussion is really about what it is to be human. And I hope that can really drive at the core of definitions of race, ethnicity, culture, self-determination, personal agency, and ultimately empowerment.”
Dolezal apparently used her personal agency to five-finger J.M.W. Turner’s 1840 painting “The Slave Ship” and add it to her own triptych, without attribution. Now in one sense, the cis-racial colonial male Turner had co-opted Dolezal’s lived socio-historical experience of the middle passage, so she was just reclaiming the expropriated black-white self-concept for an awareness of authentic white-black intersectionality. In another sense, she ripped off an old painting and presented it as her own work.
But as always, Dolezal is a step ahead of us. In a rambling, white-wine-fueled video lecture, the artist considers the “psychological or sociological effects on us and our children” of artistic representations of George Washington on our money. It’s not clear whether Dolezal (who is said to possess some genuine artistic talent) is referring to art she actually made, to the art on the currency, or to some kind of meta-commentary she’s making in or with or through or toward actual paintings or drawings or conceptual creations.
And why should it be clear? When the Dolezal story broke, many social conservatives rushed to compare and contrast it with the tale of Caitlyn Jenner. After all, if the former Olympian-turned-Kardashian prop could unilaterally declare himself to be a woman, why couldn’t a white woman unilaterally declare herself black?
There was an obvious rebuttal to this – that Jenner’s gender switch was done in broad daylight and fueled by an inescapable publicity machine, while Dolezal’s race switch was dishonest and aimed at fooling people – yet as far as I can tell nobody made that response. Instead, the comparison itself was condemned as stupid or unscientific or transphobic.
Identity politics eliminate personal responsibility (or agency, as Dolezal might prefer) and decision-making. Many Dolezal scolds have pointed out that her wanting to Africanize herself wouldn’t have been a problem had it not involved defrauding people, with efforts that included passing off her adoptive brother as her son, passing off an unrelated man as her father, claiming to have been a victim of anti-black hate crimes, and averring that she received uncanceled hate mail that the Postal Service said could have only gotten into her P.O. box if she put it there.
This is all bad behavior. But in the truthy world of privilege and multicultural competency, behavior doesn’t really matter. It’s not what you do that counts, but what you are. That’s tough luck for Dolezal, who, some sympathetic observers have pointed out, appears to have made genuine efforts on behalf of the NAACP’s goals and might have been respected (though probably less well-known) had she made those efforts honestly.
To Dolezal, who told Lauer her antics are all part of her struggle to “survive” in her “journey on the life continuum,” honesty is beside the point. We have no right, from our positions of power and privilege, to judge her cultural appropriation anymore than we can condemn the Donner Party for cannibalism. She didn’t just have a 500-year history of racial oppression to overcome, but something even more painful: her own alienation from that history.
We can only imagine how Dolezal suffered, or imagined she suffered, from being part of that history, or not being part of it. The good news is that she found a solution as old as our republic: in America you can be anything you want to be.