Why I Thank Rachel Dolezal

By Jazmine Steele 5-05-2017
Image via TEDx UIdaho/Flickr

You’re probably over Rachel Dolezal. I have to admit, the hair, the self-induced orange hue of her complexion, and the glossy stare she gives when asked if she is a black woman are all pretty tiring.

But one thing I wish to amplify is my appreciation for the example of her life as a catalyst for much-needed conversations on race in America. At Rachel’s expense, we are confronted with important questions about which most people probably don’t spend much time developing informed opinions. So despite people not wanting to financially support or “waste time” reading her book, In Full Color: Finding My Place in a Black and White World, I decided to give it a chance. I believe everybody’s story deserves to be heard — even if it is reduced to demented fluff.

In Full Color, Rachel is portrayed to be a highly intelligent and creative person. And I did appreciate her transparency: She opened up about her abortions, and bisexuality. Vignettes from her life’s story demonstrate her to be a natural leader and well-read individual. She graduated summa cum laude from Howard University with a master’s degree in Fine Arts. Rachel is smart, and smart about using her physical appearance to stimulate conversation on race. In her book, she asks: What is the history behind our race labels of white and black? Why have we invested so much meaning in the idea of race?

If we can all agree that race is a social construct designed for the sole purpose of oppression, the revolution comes in challenging that system. I went into reading the book genuinely seeking to understand and justify Rachel’s obsession or love for black culture. I wanted to understand her motivation in dedicating her career to fight for social issues that affect the black community, but also her desire to relate to this group by adopting the clothes, hair, and makeup traditionally seen in this particular group.

I got about halfway through Rachel’s memoir until my empathy unraveled.

She was born in rural Montana to strict fundamentalist Christian parents who were financially challenged. Her memoir includes several examples of the typical white male-slanted type of oppression that can arise from particular strands of Christian theology. She recalls that her father and brother walked around the house naked, while she and her mother were bound to wearing long dresses only. She claims to be guilted into adopting submissive behaviors as a woman out of fear of eternal damnation. Due to geography, she admits to being extremely sheltered from black people and culture. She developed a curiosity that later morphed into an affinity for the very things that were suppressed in her development.

A major turning point in her life came at the age of 15, when her parents adopted four black children. As an older sister and caretaker for the children, she felt compelled to learn more about their culture and how to properly care for her little sister’s hair. Dolezal says she became disgusted with her parents after learning they adopted the children for tax purposes. She also recalls her parents making the children sing church hymns as entertainment for house guests in addition to other gestures that could be considered exploitive. All of that sounds very reasonable.

And all these things could be the reason she became averse to the racist behavior she witnessed by the people in her community. In the book, Rachel admits to being diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, triggered by — among other things — religion, and men who leverage money or physical strength to gain power. Rachel’s cultural awakening in the midst of her white rural upbringing could be considered unique, or even a movement of God’s spirit. Somehow, Rachel pushed past the racist rhetoric that flooded her environment. This is commendable, because not many people are able to get beyond their social influence.

What bewilders me, then, is how she can call out a color-based system, and then buy back into it by checking another box to define herself as black. Why not reject the social construct of race altogether? Why not argue that your hair, clothes, or self-tan has more to do with personal preference than connection to a particular group of people?

This contradiction makes me question Rachel’s integrity. I believe she’s smart enough to come to this conclusion on her own. And if she has come to this conclusion, why would she continue to participate in the very system she challenges?

Multiple times throughout the book, Rachel refers to herself as a black woman. She provides a variety of examples of other people validating her blackness. Some of the examples are completely outrageous: She shares about teaching a black girl how to clap on beat, and another where someone allegedly told her she had “nappy eyelashes.” I literally laughed out loud about the eyelashes. I mean — are nappy eyelashes even possible? She used this incident as legitimate evidence of someone using a racial microaggression toward her.

At this point, Rachel is certainly reaching.

Parts of the book showcase Rachel’s personality as very competitive, and I believe that trait carries over in her attempts to prove her blackness. Her aggressive approach to legitimizing her blackness is off-putting, and not relevant to the task of social change which she claims to be her ultimate focus.

The revolution for black Americans isn’t going to come from a woman birthed with inherent privilege trying to outperform black people in the oppression game. Many times in the book she mentions how other people refer to her as being “blacker than most black people.” This is problematic, and leads me to a larger question: Where do Rachel’s intentions lie? 

If Rachel isn’t using her denial of being white to effectively challenge the social construct of race, then she is simply exploiting the issue for fanfare. And that would make her no different than her biological parents she is so critical of.

She expressed fatigue with seeing “white do-gooders” dominating narratives and spaces of change for people of color. Yet that is precisely what she has done with her entire career: She became a historian of the Black Student Union during her college years, and held leadership positions in several social justice groups, eventually becoming the president of the Spokane NAACP.

Rachel manipulated people by intentionally being ambiguous about race and allowing people to be misled about her identity. She used wordplay, and even excused her manipulation by calling it “creative nonfiction.”

Her “creative nonfiction” phrase sounds a lot like “alternative facts” — which is generally regarded to be a dressed up and evasive term for a lie.

In many of Rachel’s television interviews and in her book, Rachel uses the argument that all people are simply generations removed from an African woman, and that we are all from the same human family. Therefore, she reasons that she could also, technically, be considered a black woman. This ideology challenges the racist and sexist narratives in versions of Christianity that have been used as tools of oppression. Yet here is privilege in Rachel’s ability to speak out with such a large impact — there would be far less camera time for a person with the same message who also happened to have naturally curly hair and melanated skin.

If the goal is to challenge a broken system, does skin color matter for the person doing the challenging? Are black people, or others from an oppressed group, the more appropriate persons to lead change? If so, who are those leaders currently, and are they doing the best job? Does an ambitious white person have a place in racial reconciliation leadership? 

There’s an infamous scene in a Malcolm X biopic where a white woman asks this very question, and he bluntly tells her no. For the purposes of this piece, I will here say that ultimately it is imperative that the work gets done.

Like it or not, Rachel’s methodology for stimulating new conversations on race might be bizarre — but it is unique, engaging, and effective. Getting people to deeply reflect on race isn’t an easy feat. And despite our pain and exhaustion, here we are again talking about race, unpacking loaded definitions and tracing our history.

For this, we have to thank Rachel Dolezal for making herself a public spectacle. We may be annoyed or confused by her actions, but we simply can’t get over her, because we can’t get over race.

Rachel is something like a false prophet for racial reconciliation. She may not have taken the issue where it needed to go, but she certainly got things revved up again. Thanks, Rachel.

Jazmine Steele is Press Coordinator for Sojourners.

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