Rachel Dolezal has been all over the news, sometimes misrepresented and frequently without a real hard look at the whole story. In some circles it hasn’t even been clear about what exactly the criticism was, and a misportrayal of it being about her “whiteness” have led some to throw around accusations of racism.
The fact is that Rachel was not the only white chapter head in the NAACP, Donald Harris of the Pheonix, Arizona chapter is still a chapter head. Although he acknowledges that being white leadership within the NAACP can be hard at times, there has been no media shit-storm calling for him to step down. The question is: why?
The answer is simple: Rachel mixed lies together with legitimate points about race and identity. We live in a time where race and culture are in many cases interchangeable and emerge from a period where people were discriminated against for having only “a drop” of a certain ethnicity’s blood. It is thus important that we separate the lying issue from the race issue, and discuss both individually.
Rachel Dolezal claimed to be born of an African-American father, to have been born in a tee-pee in South Africa (and to have been whipped there), and now to have no genetic relation to her birth parents. It sounds comically ridiculous until you realize that this woman stood behind these lies for quite a while, and that noone simply called her out as soon as she made the claim.
Although it would be believable that she had a black father, being born in a teepee and being whipped in South Africa are far-fetched lies. Her parents have said that they briefly lived in a teepee in 1974, three years before Rachel was born, and called the claims “totally false.” Her parents and adopted siblings also lived in South Africa as Christian missionaries from 2002 to 2006, however her parents dispute the claim that Rachel ever lived there. We could theorise about how she could create and believe false memories based on the stories and photographs that she was surrounded by as a child, however her track record of lying suggests that she may have instead just used the stories as inspiration for her own.
It is likely that Dolezal actually does identify as being black for various reasons, these include the fact that when she was a teenager her parents adopted three African-American children and one Haitian child. She also went to Howard University, a historically black college.
Her brother Ezra said, “Because of her work in African American art, they thought she was a Black student during her application, but they ended up with a white person.” She went on to marry an African-American man named Kevin Moore, and they have a son together named Franklin and received custody of one of her adopted brothers; Izaiah.
It really is the lying that has gotten her into hot water, since most of us today can agree that race is largely a social construct (the same person could be considered black in Argentina but white in Ghana). As Daniel Bowler, a South African columnist wrote “Blackness is a lived experience that you can’t opt into,” but this doesn’t mean that your birth determines your race, but rather that your experience determines how you view your own identity, which extends into race.
What is black? Well, if you answered African then you are leaving people of European ancestry born in Africa, and those of African ancestry born in Europe, as well as everyone in-between, in an unclear position. If behavior, culture, and appearance are the most prominent features of race, then how can we argue that being born looking a certain way can exclude someone from identifying with a specific demographic? The answer is that we can’t, and we shouldn’t, but we can expect honesty from everyone involved.
Identity is not a concrete thing, and both race and gender are more appropriately described as a piece of one’s identity than as “facts.” Gender and heritage are facts, but they aren’t facts that directly determine identity.
No matter how you choose to identify yourself, or where you were born, there is no reason to lie about it (unless avoiding a genocidal regime or violent persecution). Be who you are, be who you feel you are and don’t be ashamed of your roots. If Rachel had just said she came from a family with black siblings, identified more with the sub-culture, and favored to see herself that way: that would be fine. The real problem is not her “blackness” or “whiteness,” but her lack of honesty.