The bizarre case of Rachel Dolezal, white NAACP leader who pretended to be black

June 12, 2015 Originally published on SFGate

Here’s 10 things you need to know regarding what is by far the weirdest and most surreal story of the moment, exploding right now all over the Interwebs, to set your weekend off right:

1) Rachel Dolezal is (or by the time you read this, surely was) the 37-year-old head of the Spokane, Washington chapter of the NAACP – which, depending on your knowledge of Spokane (it’s my hometown; I left in 1985), might very well inspire an immediate snicker of wry amusement, given how Spokane is not exactly known for its diversity and the city’s entire black population could probably fit into a single Starbucks.

It's all about the hair. And, presumably, some daily bronzer

It’s all about the hair. And, presumably, some daily bronzer

I might be exaggerating. But not by much.

2) Rachel Dolezal is – or again, was – a professor in the Africana Studies Program at Eastern Washington University, where she’s taught a wide range of classes on race, gender and art, one called “The Black Woman’s Struggle.” More recently, Rachel Dolezal was appointed by Spokane’s mayor to serve as a police commissioner for the Office of the Police Ombudsman, “to oversee fairness and equity in law enforcement.” She writes social commentary for The Inlander and recently contributed as chapter to a new textbook, “The War on Poverty: A Retrospective”. From her EWU bio: “[Dolezal’s] scholarly research focuses on the intersection of race, gender and class in the contemporary Diaspora with a specific emphasis on Black women in visual culture.”

There. Right there. Note that phrase, “the intersection of race and visual culture,” because it’s certainly a major clue, and could go far in explaining at least part of the grand scandal/mystery that’s exploding up in Spokane right now, given how…

3) Rachel Dolezal is white. Her parents, Ruthanne and Larry Dolezal, who live in northwest Montana, are white – as if their names didn’t scream that fact at you already. They claim Rachel Dolezal has been, sadly, pretending to be black for all these years, but that they, like pretty much the entire Internet, have no idea exactly why. So she could get a cool job with the NAACP? To gain empathy? To radically distance herself from her parents and her past? Because she genuinely feels herself to be black? Because she’s suffering from a severe personality disorder? Is it performance art? Just weird? Because Spokane? The mystery deepens.

But wait, it gets stranger.

4) Ruthanne and Larry are not close with their daughter, and have not spoken for years. Rachel Dolezal claims this is due to litigious issues surrounding alleged family abuse. But it was Ruthanne Dolezal, Rachel’s own mother, who finally busted her daughter, after being contacted by the Spokesman-Review. Ruthanne brought out photos, birth certificates. Ruthanne says the Dolezal family is of Czech, Swedish and German decent. Not a drop of African American anywhere in the lineage. Whoops.

Like the man says

Like the man says

According to the Review, Ruthanne says her daughter “’began to disguise herself’ back in 2006 or 2007, after the family had adopted four African-American children, and Rachel Dolezal had shown an interest in portrait art.’” (Which explains her MFA degree and interest in identity. Is she messing with her own portrait? Is this performance art, and a very successful performance (until now, anyway) at that? Does Dolezal even know she’s doing it?)

5) The Twittersphere has exploded. #RachelDolezal is the top trending term, with well over 200K tweets, and rolling fast. The posts run the gamut from outrage, hilarity, to disbelief, compassion, horror, hate speech, you name it. Be forewarned: Racists are out in force. Ditto misogynists, transphobics, sexists of every stripe and stance. Any sense of incredulity, disbelief, humor, sadness you might have will be quickly pounded down by the Internet’s infamous pile-on savagery. It is, as any Twittersphere explosion, something to behold.

6) You do not ever, under any circumstances, want to be the top trending topic on Twitter.

7) A new and ungainly term has been awkwardly birthed from this Twitter riot, “#transracial,” whereby some are suggesting that perhaps Dolezal really does feel she is a black woman trapped in a white woman’s body, and can that even be possible, and doesn’t that nevertheless contain all sorts of bizarre, racially charged issues?


8) Others take it further, are going so far as to equate gender identity with race, suggesting (sneering, IMO) that “if Caitlin Jenner can do it, why can’t Rachel?”, which to me is a crude false equivalence. Race and gender are not the same thing. Claiming to be another race, for whatever reason, and claiming you are part of a brutal history of injustice, slavery and suffering, to the point where you dare to teach others about the “truth” of what it’s like to endure hate crimes as a black women, is far different than knowing, at a soul/core level, you are not the gender you were assigned at birth. Those who make such a crude false equivalence are themselves suffering from inept, clumsy, reactionary, and insulting thinking.

If this story continues to explode – and it looks like it most certainly will, at least for a news cycle or two – watch for a slew of mediocre pundit psychologists try to explain this difference, mostly poorly.

9) On Thursday afternoon, Rachel Dolezal was confronted by a reporter from Spokane’s KXLY to discuss the hate crimes she’s reported over the years. But Dolezal quickly bolts for the shelter of a nearby boutique when the reporter holds up a photo of Dolezal’s very white father, Larry, and asks her, point blank, if she is white and her parents are white. It is one of the more awkward, hilarious and strangely sad videos you will see all month Here’s how the conversation went:

“Is that your dad?”
“Yeah, that’s…that’s my dad.”
“This man right here’s your father? Right there?”
“You have a question about that?”
“Yes ma’am, I was wondering if your dad really is an African-American man.”
“That’s a very — I mean, I don’t know what you’re implying.”
“Are you African-American?”
“I don’t understand the question of — I did tell you that, yes, that’s my dad. And he was unable to come in January.”
“Are your parents…are they white?”

At which point Dolezal blinks, is clearly flustered, and dashes away from the microphone, leaving her purse and keys, and hides in a nearby clothing boutique.

10) Some are claiming the ruthless, ever-savage Interweb should perhaps refrain from its normal levels knee-jerk cruelty (too late) and have a modicum of compassion, give how Dolezal is clearly suffering from some form of dementia, severe personality disorder, pathological lying. Others are, of course, not so sure, saying she seems to know full well the scale and timbre of the fantastic lie she has invented (she has an MFA, remmeber, and is well studied in visual depictions of gender and race) and has done a terrible, insulting disservice to the African-American cause – not to mention women.

No one, at least yet, can seem to land on just what this story is, besides deeply strange, and not a little bit sad. One thing’s for certain: It is, right now, a perfect Internet storm, a delirious news item seemingly custom-built for the modern, brutal takedown era. BYO compassionate, but deeply wary jadedness.

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Mark Morford

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