I’ve thought for about a week now on this Rachel Dolezal mess. I’ve read a hellacious amount of articles, looked at videos, and did all types of research without coming to a conclusion. This story has dominated the discussions within my family, meaning I’ve been surrounded by it at every possible level. I’ve wanted to find an answer to this, something that satisfies my curiosity about Dolezal, my need to understand this woman, and just to make sense of it all.
To be honest, there are way too many elements at play in this story. Not only is there the element of Dolezal pretending to be black, but there’s also the element of her sketchy parents, her brother who has been charged with child molestation, and Dolezal’s assertions that she’s “transracial” and her claim of knowing struggle and “the black experience” when she was not born in that skin or the culture. But, after talking once again to my mom and after taking a look at a new post by Gawker, I think I’ve distilled my disparate ideas into a cogent argument. I, like Poirot, am proud of my little gray cells, since I was beginning to think I’d never come to a breakthrough that would make me feel at ease.
I’m going to break this down in three separate areas. Then, I’m not writing any more thinkpieces on this story, because my brain is literally tired of thinking about this.
Before I get into the argument, let me note two things, because I, as a black person who has always been handed the label of being “weird” or “not being black enough,” do not feel like other black people saying my opinions are invalid because they don’t line up with theirs, something I’ve seen on Twitter a lot in the past few days.
• Some of my argument might appear sympathetic towards Dolezal. That doesn’t mean I’m “caping” for a white woman. Also, trying to empathize and find understanding with a case as unique as this doesn’t mean I want to put a random white woman on a pedestal. At the end of the day, she’s still a human. But more importantly, finding sympathy with someone doesn’t have to mean you like them.
• I am going to bring up mental illness in this article strictly because Dolezal’s own mother has invoked such talk in the affidavit filed against Dolezal’s brother. On Twitter, some black users have been angry about mental illness being brought into the discussion about Dolezal when, clearly, something mental is going on, whether that’s illness or something else entirely. My particular discussion of mental illness doesn’t mean that I’m giving Dolezal an out. I’m especially not giving her an out simply because she’s white.
There are probably more things I need to point out, but those are the two that have been bugging me most as I’ve written this article. This doesn’t mean you can’t put your opinions out there about this post; I love fielding people’s opinions, and you can feel free to leave whatever opinion you want in the comments section. But since this is also an open website, I just wanted to put those disclaimers out there just in case.
Okay, onward with the three-pronged argument about why the Dolezal case is the most confusing, annoying story of the century.
The family component
Dolezal’s family has a lot to answer for in this case. Dolezal might have been perpetuating blackness, but what was the reason for her parents outing her when they hadn’t outed her in about 20 years?
Dolezal’s parents’ holier-than-thou shtick is getting old, and I feel this means that they’re hiding a lot more than what they want put out there. It seems like they’re trying to shame Dolezal into coming back into the fold. It also seems like they’re trying to protect Dolezal’s brother, Joshua.
According to the new article from Gawker, which goes into detail about the affidavit against Joshua, it’s alleged that Joshua molested a six-year-old girl with whom “he was in a position of trust.” The affidavit, secured by the Denver Post, allege there was another victim as well. TMZ states that the victims involved in the affidavit are Esther (an adopted black girl) and Rachel. To quote The Washington Post:
The alleged incidents of sexual assault, according to a Clear Creek County [Colorado] affidavit in support of an arrest warrant obtained by the Daily News and reviewed by The Post, occurred at Lawrence and Ruthanne’s house in Colorado “in 2001 or 2002.” The victim, whose name was redacted in the affidavit, “was 6 or 7 years old,” and Joshua Dolezal was “19 years older.”
Among other accusaions: On two occasions, according to the affidavit, Joshua Dolezal allegedly forced the victim to perform oral sex on him. On “7 or 8” other occasions, Dolezal performed oral sex on the victim. “Don’t tell anyone or I’ll hurt you,” Joshua allegedly said.
Another, older sexual abuse incident, occuring in 1991, included mention of black women. Again, to quote The Post:
The family had a subscription to National Geographic magazine…Joshua Dolezal showed [redacted] his collection of photos of topless and naked African women…Joshua Dolezal was turned on by the black body and was curious about black women sexually.
TMZ goes into much more graphic detail. However, the reason for the accusations, which were filed in 2013, was an effort to protect Joshua’s one-year-old daughter, according to the affidavit.
Joshua isn’t the only problem here. The parents’ consistent denial of the allegations and blame of Rachel ring suspect to me, especially since Rachel’s mother, Ruthanne, brought up talk about Rachel being diagnosed as having “reactive attachment disorder.” As PEOPLE reports:
“Our son wasn’t even home a lot of the time it was alleged it was happening, and I was a stay-at-home mother and very attentive to the kids because of her disorder. I never left her at home with our son or anything like that.”
Rachel’s adopted brothers also assert that Rachel’s making the whole thing up. Ezra Dolezal said Joshua and Rachel “used to have a really good relationship, until Rachel decided to tear our family apart,” with Ezra alleging that the false accusations against Joshua were a ploy for Rachel to gain custody of Izaiah, the youngest of the adopted siblings.
So what is reactive attachment disorder? To me, the disorder reads as less of a “disorder” and more of a problem with parenting. To quote the Mayo Clinic:
Reactive attachment disorder is a rare but serious condition in which an infant or young child doesn’t establish healthy attachments with parents or caregivers. Reactive attachment disorder may develop if the child’s basic needs for comfort, affection and nurturing aren’t met and loving, caring, stable attachments with others are not established.
This disorder seems important, mostly because Rachel didn’t say it. As for right now, the most “credible” people in the story so far are Dolezal’s parents, and that’s only because they present an image of stability. Whether they are actually credible or not is a different story, since I’m beginning to think they aren’t that great. But it’s interesting that Ruthanne would mention the disorder, especially in how she’s using it. She’s making it seem like reactive attachment disorder can’t be cured and that everything Rachel has said and will say is false. She’s scapegoating Rachel to a degree.
In actuality, reactive attachment disorder can be cured. The Mayo Clinic states that with treatment, children who have this disorder can develop better relationships with their parents/caregivers and others.
Treatments for reactive attachment disorder include positive child and caregiver interactions, a stable, nurturing environment, psychological counseling, and parent or caregiver education.
The basis for a child developing the disorder is that they don’t feel safe in their environment. As the Mayo Clinic states, it’s unclear as to why some kids who have been in similarly neglected situations don’t develop the disorder and others do; more research is necessary. But if it’s true that Rachel does have the disorder, then why does it seem like her parents haven’t done what’s necessary to help her have a better outlook on her life? I’m no psychologist, but it seems like the parents either don’t know how to help her or are, for some reason, neglecting their daughter’s clear cry for help of whatever sort. Outing her to the public certainly won’t endear her to them, especially if she has this disorder. This will only push her further away.
Again, I’m no psychologist, but I’d say it does seem like Rachel does have some kind of dissociative disorder if not reactive attachment disorder. In several interviews, including the ones done earlier this week, she’s mentioned over and over again how a random black dude is her dad, how she doesn’t feel her parents exhibit parental traits, and even doubts her parents are her biological parents. In an article by the Easterner written in February of this year, Dolezal says “Jesus Christ” was the witness on her birth certificate and invents a fiction of being born in a teepee, her mother believing in living off the land, and her mother and stepfather physically abusing her and her siblings.
Of course, most of this story, which includes living in South Africa, has been debunked by other family members. But the one thing that does ring true to me is Rachel saying “It’s a painful thing to talk about my childhood. I kind of don’t talk about it much.”
I don’t know what happened for sure in Rachel’s childhood. Perhaps her parents treated her adopted black siblings better than her. Perhaps, after her own alleged trauma, she saw herself in those images of the women in National Geographic and, in a split from reality, felt that the women in the pictures had been victimized like she was, thus the beginning of her aligning herself with black women and the black experience. There’s a reason she keeps saying the black experience is, to her, about survival and struggle. But whatever the reason, her family needs to come to terms with what happened and figure out a way to help her, because she’s been in a state of crisis for decades, it would seem.
The “transracial” component
First of all, “transracial” is not a term to be used with someone who is living like Rachel. I don’t know what term would be used, but the term “transracial” was created to talk about a family of one race adopting children of another race. So, if we could stop using that term to describe Rachel, that would be great. But, to go further into Rachel’s supposed racial change, there’s still a lot that seems to go back to whatever trauma she experienced as a child.
I know that there are people who feel more akin to another race than their own, whether that’s due to their environment (growing up with kids of a certain race in their neighborhood or school) or feeling a culture aligns more with their beliefs or ways of life (per se, if a person adopts a way of life that more aligns them with India and Hinduism). Or, for the Eddie Huangs of the world, they might identify with another race because there’s a sense of community or “up by the bootstraps” mentality that they connect to. Of course, in all of these cases, most people wouldn’t say they are that other race. Most would say they identify with the culture, but they wouldn’t ever claim to be that race.
Rachel’s affinity for black culture can be explained in the terms I just used up to a point. As Rachel said on Today, one of her sons explained her unique position as this: “Racially, you’re human; culturally, you’re black.”
But it gets weird when 1) she actually creates a “black” look for herself and 2) starts stating that she knows the black experience because she’s the mother of black children and feels the experience is one of struggle and survival. To be fair, the black experience does entail a history of struggle and survival, but it’s a lot richer than that. Most importantly, the black experience is one of a people who have not only survived, but excelled in the face of inhumane and seemingly impossible odds. We have managed to make a way for ourselves that is uniquely ours. We are not perpetually living by the Good Times theme song of “keeping your head above water, making a way when you can.” We tend to follow Jay-Z’s “I’m not a businessman, I’m a business, man” model of living. Despite what Western society will tell you, we always aim to be the best, even when we’re given nothing.
Rachel’s experience of trauma is something to be explored and, at some point, healed. In her mind, her trauma equates her with being at one with the experience of blackness, particularly that of being a black woman. However, her trauma isn’t unique to just blackness. She’s found a way to cope with her trauma through the guise of blackness, but that doesn’t mean she’s truly lived as a black woman, because not all black women have the same experiences. Rachel’s self-created experience of blackness only revolves around victimhood.
Rachel seems very quick to say that she has been victimized as a black woman, just like other black people have. She speaks about her experience of raising young black boys. She has said the TSA has searched her hair (something that’s happened to me, even though my hair was in braids). She has faked hate crimes against herself to increase her appearance of a black woman victimized by The Man. Even though she was suing as a white woman, her black experience at Howard had to include her going against Howard—once again alleging victimhood. Despite all she did achieve, it seems the thing Rachel is the most proud about is how much of a victim she is.
Her comfort in victimhood rests in how black she’s seen by the world. Indeed, her constant policing of others concerning about “passing” and ethnicity reveal how important it is for herself to look like what she’s representing. One student has said that while taking Rachel’s Africana Studies class that she didn’t look Hispanic enough because she looked more ethnically white than ethnically Hispanic, even though Hispanic Americans come in all types of hues.
Her own evolution into her black persona, with her varying hairstyles and increasingly darker skin color, reveal how adamant she is about portraying a convincing air of blackness, of course, but her discussions about light-skinned privileges, something that isn’t really well-known outside of the black American population, is seemingly used as the clincher in masquerading as a black woman. As a black person, if someone like Rachel was having a conversation with me about light-skinned privilege, I would believe she was telling the truth, especially since I have light-skinned family members, some of whom complain about being thought as biracial or white by others. I wouldn’t even think a person like Rachel was fibbing about her blackness since she would be complaining about such a specific microagression.
If you can say anything about Rachel, it’s that she did her homework. Which leads into the last part of this dissertation.
The tribalism component
As I wrote above, I’d done tons of thinking, reading, watching, and discussing over the past week and felt like I’d gone nowhere but in circles. But all of the parts finally came together as I remembered a video I’d watched of Bill Nye talking about the construct of race and tribalism.
“Tribalism is at the base of [race and racism],” Nye said. “This is what I think is at the base of this. ” He goes into talking about how everyone is from Africa and our ancestors gradually migrated outward, and the environment dictated the evolutionary process of that particular band of people. Thus, the beginning of what we now think of as “race.” “[Racism] started because you get these tribes and they have different skin color as a result of ultraviolet light,” he said. “…We’re all the same thing, from a scientific standpoint. So there’s no such thing as race, but there is such a thing as tribalism.”
I think tribalism is at the root of why so many black people are up in arms, black women especially so. Our shared experience makes us a type of “tribe,” and Rachel has expertly woven her way through. I think the outrage against Rachel has a lot to do with the fact that she deceived the “tribe,” as it were, and cloaked herself among us, only for us to find out that she’s not really one of us.
As we have seen from the #AskRachel Twitter hilarity, there are many, many things that make up the black American experience, from Blue Magic hair grease to fears of bad potato salad to certain movies and songs and even parts of songs (like “He plays so beautiful, don’t you agree,” taken from a live 1975 Earth Wind and Fire performance of Reasons). There are many serious, hilarious, and sometimes nonsensical things that make up our shared experience, an experience which also includes intra-racial politics surrounding hair, skin tone, privilege, facial and body features, and more. Like I wrote above, Rachel’s mention of light-skinned privilege is something that not too many outsiders know about, much less deal with on a daily basis.
Rachel is a very smart, very cunning woman. Her ability to assimilate into black culture came from her ability to learn everything there is to know about the black experience, even microagressions that a lesser white wannabe would gloss over, and regurgitate it in a way that seemed authentic to the casual observer. She was able to speak about hair, skin tone, and other factors of the black American experience so authentically that people didn’t see a reason not to believe her at her word about her own blackness. She duped tons of black people, including black women, this way.
I highlight black women because it’s our lives she’s saying she knows so much about. She raises black sons, therefore she thinks she knows what it’s like to be a black mother. She became a hairdresser to know how to fix her hair in our styles. She took classes on our culture so she would know more about how we lived. She studied us so carefully, she was able to pull off something no one would have deemed possible. In short, she stole from us.
She studied black people so intently and used our shared experience—the experience of struggle, determination and triumph, something we hold so dearly to us as a source of power and a form of currency to get us through this Western society we live in—to help fill her own needs. She became part of the tribe and then took from the tribe for her own ends. People made jokes about it, but it is true that it’s almost like she laid in wait, stealing our secrets and then revealed them to the public.
Rachel was able to become part of the black American tribe and marched with us, suffered with us and, in many ways, held onto our collective pain and secrets. But now that she’s been found out, she’s broken the trust of the tribe. If we look at racism in the terms of tribalism politics, those that aren’t of the tribe are ostracized because they are deemed untrustworthy. Those that are of the tribe but act not accordingly are also deemed untrustworthy, but are still considered, on some level, redeemable. However, in the case of Rachel, she is not of our tribe and she has tricked us. She’s doomed herself twice over.
Personally, I hold no ill will towards her, since I find her to be quite pitiable and I sincerely hope she gets help. But I know that Melissa Harris Perry hit on something when she asked Rachel how she would feel if she were ostracized by the black community she loves. I don’t know how she would feel, but I do know that while individual black people might give her forms of encouragement or help, the majority of black Americans might not be so quick to extend the olive branch. For many, she’s lost her place in the tribe and for her actions, she will not ever be let back in.