What I Learned From My Weeklong Obsession with Rachel Dolezal

Is Rachel Dolezal blacker than I am, or a misguided white woman in need of a reality check? I asked two black women—one who worked with Dolezal and another who is a leader in the #BlackLivesMatter movement—to weigh in.
Rachel Dolezal

YES! illustration by Jennifer Luxton.

Rachel Dolezal was born white. She has two white parents and was born into white privilege. I’m pretty sure—although not positive—that no one, including Dolezal, would argue with that. But today Dolezal insists she is a black woman.

Dolezal was born into white privilege. 

When this story first broke last Thursday, I, along with the rest of America, was like, “Wait, what’s going on?”

I had a lot of questions. Can Dolezal actually choose her race? What made her feel that this was a better option than just appreciating black culture and being a white ally? Is “transrace” an up-and-coming form of identity—akin to being transgender?

In a story with so many twists and turns, it’s probably easier to focus on what we know for sure.

We know that Dolezal was raised in a household with four adopted black siblings. We know that she went to Howard University, a historically black school, which she actually sued for discrimination while she still identified as white. But, at some point, she began to identify as black.

We also know that Dolezal has been deeply involved in racial justice activism. When her story broke, she was the president of the NAACP chapter in Spokane, Washington, and sat on a local police oversight committee. We know that until last Friday she was an instructor at Eastern Washington University, where she taught classes in—you guessed it—the Africana Studies program.

I’ve spent hours glued to my computer, Googling everything I can find about Dolezal. It’s been a weeklong addiction. And I’m not alone. #AskRachel has trended on Twitter. I hear her name on every talk radio program when I drive to and from work. And when I turn on the news, there she is, staring back at me.

“Rachel is blacker than I am.” 

Despite all the coverage surrounding her, I had no idea how to feel about Dolezal’s story. So I reached out to two black women I thought could help me sort out my thoughts. One was Angela Schwendiman, a professor who worked with Dolezal at Eastern Washington University. Schwendiman teaches classes that focus on race, ethnicity, and identity. The other woman was Alicia Garza, a longtime racial justice activist, and co-founder of #BlackLivesMatter.

Schwendiman worked with Dolezal for years until last Friday, June 12, when Dolezal’s contract expired and was not renewed. I wanted to know what Schwendiman thought about Dolezal’s case, and her explanation only added to my confusion.

“Rachel is blacker than I am,” she said.

Yeah. This just got weirder.

“I was just shocked, as all of us were initially,” Schwendiman says about the reaction across campus when Dolezal’s secret went public. “There were a lot of things that I would have questioned about Rachel, but her blackness—her black identity—would not have been one of them. … Rachel knows more about the black experience, black history, and black culture than most black people.”

Even after she heard the news, Schwendiman says she never imagined Dolezal’s story would have blown up the way that it has. “To me, this tells us that we still have a long way to go in terms of this binary relationship in America between black and white,” she says. “Because we still want to say ‘white means this,’ and ‘black means this,’ and you cannot cross between the two.”

Schwendiman says she has seen the arguments against Dolezal and the black identity she now claims fall into two general camps. One group of critics says that blackness is a set of experiences and that Dolezal can’t be black because she didn’t have those in her childhood or young adulthood. Schwendiman sees this as problematic because it seems to assume that all black people share similar experiences.

“You’re saying you have to have a certain experience to claim your blackness?” Shwendiman asks. “That’s ludicrous! Do you have to have a certain type of experience to claim your whiteness?”

“Identity is not just what you’re born with biologically.” 

A second set of critics, Shwendiman says, focus on race as a genetic or biological set of features, and then argue that Dolezal can’t be black because she doesn’t have them. “There is nothing biological about race,” Shwendiman says, referring to a long-established position within physical anthropology. “There is no race gene that we can retrieve that says this is somebody’s race. Race is completely a social construct.”

So Schwendiman feels that the chief criticisms of Dolezal are flawed. But how does that justify Dolezal’s decision to claim a black identity and live as a black woman?

Knowing something about the details of Dolezal’s politics might help make sense of that. “Rachel, to some degree, has adopted a black separatist ideology that goes along with black nationalism,” says Schwendiman. More specifically, Dolezal was interested in the approach advocated by Marcus Garvey within The Universal Negro Improvement Association back in 1917. “She has internalized that philosophy, that ideology. But for her to do that, she couldn’t remain white.”

Schwendiman’s not angry with Dolezal for identifying as black, but she understands why other people are. “She deceived people,” says Schwendiman, “ They have a right to be angry.”

When it comes to the lies Dolezal told about her past, Schwendiman says that she definitely crossed ethical lines. But that doesn’t mean the situation is simple. “Identity is not just what you’re born with biologically,” Schwendiman says. “Identity has another component, which has to do with how you perceive yourself and how others perceive you.”

“The reason people feel so strongly about [Rachel’s story] is because black people are still having a different experience here in America based on race. That’s the conversation we need to be having,” says Schwendiman. “And that’s one of the reasons I think Rachel chose to switch. If we were all having the same kinds of opportunities and the same kinds of experiences, there would be no need.”

 

When I was done talking to Schwendiman, her initial words still rang in my head: “Rachel is blacker than me.” As a mixed-race person, I’ve heard this kind of talk a lot. My ethnicity is something people often ask me about. And although I’ve always thought it’s none of their business, the regular questioning of my ethnic identity from strangers has forced me to think about this topic often.

“The notion that you could choose your race erases power relationships."

And, honestly, as much as I agree with some of what Schwendiman said, I have a hard time believing that Dolezal is in fact more black than her. Schwendiman was born black, to two black parents who grew up during Jim Crow. She’s been black in every interaction with every person she’s ever met. There hasn’t been one single waking moment when Schwendiman walked this earth that she wasn’t a black woman.

And I’m not the only one that is having trouble accepting that Dolezal is blacker than, well, a black person.

“We know that race is a social construction and is not biological, yet those social constructions hold a lot of salience in our society,” says Alicia Garza, special projects director for the National Domestic Workers Alliance, and a co-founder of #BlackLivesMatter. The way Garza sees it, using a term like “transracial” is a way to distract from what is really going on here—the “appropriation of a social and political identity.”

Garza says that Dolezal’s actions, and the fact that her story has been so prevalent in the media, has added problematic ideas to the emerging conversation about race in America.

“The notion that you could choose your race erases power relationships, but also invalidates the experiences of so many who barely survive structural racism,” Garza says. “If you can choose race, what is to explain the disparities between black and white communities?”

Today, a week after Dolezal’s story first made headlines, Americans have been reminded why conversations around race can be so emotional and painful for black Americans. The tragic mass murder in South Carolina’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church is a heartbreaking reminder that racial violence is very much alive.

“An act of domestic terrorism has stricken South Carolina, and nine people are dead because of it,” Garza says. “This is the reality of being black in America. We are not safe anywhere.”

Garza says our obsession with Dolezal’s identity is proof that we, as a society, still place more value on white lives then we do on black lives. “Dolezal is receiving more attention than a Black girl who was assaulted [by police] in McKinney, Texas not less than two weeks ago. She's receiving more attention than hundreds of thousands of Haitians who are being deported from the apartheid state of the Dominican Republic.”

“This is how white supremacy works,” Garza says. “Like a vampire that feeds on the lifeblood of a people who have survived and been resilient in the face of a planned genocide.”


 

Just like Schwendiman, I can see where Garza is coming from. Black people are dying because of racial violence. Why are we so obsessed with this one woman who is trying to abandon her white identity when we have more important things to worry about?

I don’t know exactly why I’m fascinated by Dolezal’s story, but I am. It’s become a part of the larger conversation about race in America, which includes the tragic shooting in South Carolina, the latest accusations of police brutality and racial bias, and years upon years of racial justice activism that, until last week, Dolezal herself was a part of.

“This is the reality of being black in America. We are not safe anywhere.”

And she might still be part of it, as hard as that might be to accept right now. “I don’t see Rachel giving up her social activism,” Schwendiman says. “There’s going to be people in the black community who despise her, but there’s also going to be people in the black community who continue to support her, I guarantee you that, just because of how endeared they feel toward her and her commitment to the cause.”

Garza also hopes that Dolezal continues her social activism, but in a different way. “My hope for Dolezal is that she actually use her power and privilege to dismantle white supremacy as a white woman, and support other white people in facing the cancer of white supremacy in this world,” she says. Garza also hopes that Dolezal resists the temptation to become a celebrity.

It wasn’t until I heard details of the terrifying events in South Carolina that I finally realized why I find Dolezal’s story so fascinating. It’s a less heartbreaking, less maddening, and less disturbing entryway into a conversation about what it means to be black in America today than the events that usually bring us into that conversation.

Thankfully, we weren’t talking about an unarmed black teen being shot in the back of the head or a handcuffed black man having his spine almost completely severed in the back of a police van. We were talking about a real-life, soap-opera-style drama—unbelievably addicting but not heartbreaking.

You can be angry with Dolezal or not. You can support the work she’s done or not. You can accept how she identifies or not. But in the end, I don’t think Dolezal deserves to be a national icon of scorn. There are other people more deserving of that position. What Dolezal’s attempt to choose a new identity highlights is the fact that black people don't get to choose whether or not to be black. And sometimes, as true today as it was 100 years ago, that identity can cost us our lives.