The Rachel Dolezal Moment

Politics 150Last week the parents of Rachel Dolezal announced to the media that her daughter was white. This normally wouldn’t be news; there’s nothing special about a white couple having a white child. But Rachel had been passing as a black woman for years — through her collegiate education at Howard University, through a career of social activism centered around issues facing the black community, through her tenure as the head of the regional NAACP. Rachel was a professor of Africana studies at Eastern Washington University, worked with the city government of Spokane to ensure fair treatment of minorities by the police, and passionately spoke about black history, culture and issues.

But Rachel also straight-up lied about her background. She denied her parents, instead telling the university newspaper that her mother was a back-to-the-land hippie who gave birth to her in a tee-pee. She lived in South Africa for a time, where she was abused by her mother and stepfather with “baboon whips” “similar to the ones slaves were beaten with”. She submitted reports of racial discrimination and hate crimes to the police a number of times, claimed that she had been threatened by members of the Aryan Nation and received suspicious packages at the NAACP headquarters. So many of those claims have been disproven that it calls into question just about everything she’s ever said.

This story absolutely fascinates me. Rachel has managed to fool so many people for so long, rising to a position of prominence in the black activism community. Now that she’s been outed, the Internet has wasted no time in making her a laughingstock. And you know what, fair enough. Anyone who lies about being beaten by baboon whips in South Africa deserves to be clowned a little bit. But at the same time, Rachel lied about her background to…what, exactly? Put herself deep in the trenches for a fight that didn’t really need to touch her at all?

Why would a woman from an apparently comfortably-situated family forsake them to identify with a community that has a history of systemic oppression backed into its story? It couldn’t have been just to have a prominent position within that community, could it? The NAACP doesn’t bar white people from joining its ranks, or even holding leadership positions. So why go through this whole charade?

It’s too easy to dismiss her as crazy or attention-seeking. It’s also not compassionate. This is a woman who adopted a story of discrimination and suffering for herself — and while that ultimately diminishes the true stories that we live every day, I don’t think it was done with selfish or malicious intentions.

Let me be clear here: what Rachel Dolezal did was wrong. What’s worse, it hurt the cause she’s been working so hard to advance. Instead of talking about what happened in McKinney, Texas or the continuing stories of police brutality and murder in Ohio, Utah, Maryland, Missouri and so many other places, we’re talking about her. For God’s sake, we now have to explain to why “trans-racial” is not a thing and should never be a thing.

But when I think about Rachel, I find I just can’t be angry with her. While a lot of the clowning she’s gotten through Twitter is hilarious, I can’t join in. I feel nothing but compassion for her. She wanted so badly to belong to a world she wasn’t a part of she left behind a life of privilege and comfort to construct a crucible for her to be tempered by. And she didn’t do this to get a book deal or become famous; she did it to allow her passion for black rights a channel to be used.

One thing I have to say about us minority populations; we’re fiercely protective of our culture and history. The suffering of our ancestors is a birthright that we carry with us — the burden of it either breaks our backs or makes us strong enough to deal with the stuff that gets thrown at us today. It’s a complicated thing; it makes us sad and angry, suspicious about the dominant culture we must navigate every day. But it can also serve as the glue that holds our culture together, gives us a shared history that helps us understand the space we occupy in America today.

That attitude — the hyper-protectiveness of the space we’ve made for ourselves, and the suspicions of outsiders encroaching on that space — might make it daunting for allies who want to help. We can be tremendously insular, especially in our activist spaces, and I imagine it would be really easy for someone to feel marginalized even though they’re coming to us with the best of intentions.

Well, so what, right? We’re marginalized within just about every space we have to move in, and we don’t get a choice to retreat in most cases. It shouldn’t be our job to make someone else comfortable in our safe spaces.

But I think this is what happens when we take on that attitude. We get people who feel like the only way they can have a seat at the table is to fake their way to it. Imagine what a Rachel Dolezal could do if she didn’t have to build a fauxtobiography to build up her street cred? What could she have done if she actually had a healthy self-image and came correct to the black activism community?

We won’t know, and what’s worse is it’s quite possible we’ve lost a passionate ally. Of course, Rachel’s relationship with activism is going to need to be put on hold while she deals with herself for a little bit. But what lesson is she going to learn here? That she doesn’t need to lie to us to help us out? Or that her fear of rejection wasn’t entirely misplaced?

I don’t know that there’s an easy answer here. But I do think there’s a compassionate one, and that’s important to keep in mind. Rachel has a difficult road ahead of her, and the friends and allies she’s made through her activism, and the millions of eyes on her now, could either make that a bit easier or a lot harder. Why wouldn’t we lighten the load for someone if we had it within our power to do so?

What do we want to happen to Rachel Dolezal? What kind of life do we want for her five years from now? When the jokes die down and the news cycle moves on and she’s left to sift through the wreckage of her life, do we want her to discard what hasn’t worked for her and keep what will help her to continue the good fight with us? Or do we want her to forever live with that shame, unable to do something positive with it?

I think it’s vital we remember that Rachel Dolezal is a person underneath the caricature she’s made herself out to be. And our reaction to her carries so much power. Now is an opportunity to teach someone how to interact with us, how an ally can work peaceably and effectively with us, how we can move past mistakes together.

Our response to problematic interactions with our community can’t be a “one size fits all” outrage. Rachel has built her life around trying to be a friend to the black community, and while it was horribly misguided the attempt counts for something with me. We need to learn how to correct our friends without alienating them. We need to think about the effect our words have on friend and foe alike, and whether it’s what we want. And Rachel is a perfect chance to do that.

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