Why I’m divided about about Rachel Dolezal after watching “The Rachel Divide.”

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Rachel Dolezal has three sons and they are black. That’s a fact.

Curiously, this information has been omitted in the truckloads of negative media that’s surrounded the writer and artist ever since she was outed as a white woman.

And it shouldn’t have been – because, for me, that information is a game changer.

I learned this detail about Dolezal’s sons whilst watching The Rachel Divide, a documentary by Laura Brownson that’s currently streaming on Netflix.

Dolezal, a prominent civil rights activist and former head of the Spokane National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People, gained international notoriety in 2015 when she was outed by a local news reporter as biologically Caucasian, despite insisting she was black.

But saying that Dolezal claimed she was black when she wasn’t is a simplification of what happened. Dolezal asserted she had African heritage on her social media accounts, even claiming that the father-figure in her life – a black man – was her biological father. Dolezal changed her hair and make up to look more ‘typically’ African – and to disguise her white reality.

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It was this concerted effort to mislead that gained the ire of the black community in her hometown of Spokane, and why her story attracted so much attention.

People who had believed in her, who had admired her for her passionate advocacy for the NAACP, were gutted. Dolezal had deceived them, and they couldn’t forgive her for that. Neither could the world.

At first, Dolezal tried to defend herself. “Race is a social construct,” she claimed – implying that race is a state of mind. Hundreds of years of slavery and oppression would indicate otherwise.

But far from dismissing their experience, Dolezal insisted that she loved black people. She wanted to be one of them. She had achieved a lot of good in their community.

She claimed she was “transracial” – in the same way a person could be transgender.

When acclaimed journalist Ijeoma Oluo published a scathing profile of Dolezal in The Stranger last year, she noted the many problems with Dolezal’s book, In Full Colour, Finding My Place in a Black and White World: the comparisons to slavery. That Dolezal was a black history professor who has degrees in art – not black history or African history, or even American history.

The MMOL team and Nama Winston discuss The Rachel Divide. Post continues after…

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But far from explain her motivations, Dolezal’s reasoning angered people further.

Their reasoning? You can’t possibly be black unless you were born that way.

As Oluo says in her piece: “no amount of visual change would provide Dolezal with the inherited trauma and socioeconomic disadvantage of racial oppression in this country.”

Dolezal, and her ancestry, and her lived experience, was the opposite of black. It was white. She could opt in and out of being black. She had a choice about which elements of black culture she adopted – and of course, they were only the positive ones.

If she were stopped by the police in a suspected stolen car, she could easily pass as white, and not end up with a bullet in her – as is the fate of too many black Americans.

So all we had here was a white woman pretending to be black. The situation was, to most people, literally simply black and white. And so it was for me, too.

Until I watched The Rachel Divide.

I didn’t start the documentary with an open mind. I was not prepared for any new information. Having followed the story closely since it broke, I truly believed there would be nothing that would change my mind.

I was wrong.

Within minutes, I understood what was motivating Dolezal, and it was three intertwined elements: family, identity, and loyalty.

And I also understood that Dolezal is so traumatised from her childhood that she couldn’t see this situation herself.

I knew that Dolezal was estranged from her Caucasian parents, whom she accused of being emotionally and physically abusive. I knew that her parents had adopted black children when Dolezal was a teenager.

I even knew that Dolezal’s biological brother was accused by one of the adopted children of sexually abusing her, and that the Dolezals were suspected of leaking Dolezal’s heritage in an attempt to discredit her claims of being receiving hate mail as NAACP president, not just to hurt her, but to discredit her as a witness in her brother’s trial. (Yes, a very complicated scenario.)

But what I didn’t know was that Dolezal’s parents were so unbearable, she rescued her adoptive brother from them, and adopted him as her own son.

Now that takes some heart. A lot of people wouldn’t do that. Most people wouldn’t be so brave. Most people wouldn’t feel a significantly stronger kinship with an adoptive brother over their own biological parents to this extent.

The three bros #weekendvibes #familylove

A post shared by Rachel Dolezal (@racheladolezal) on

And then we learn that Dolezal has another son – a biological one – that is also black. She is also pregnant with a third son, and gives birth to a little black cherub later in the documentary.

So why is this relevant? Why does this change my mind?

Seeing the family that Dolezal has created, everything suddenly becomes crystal clear.

Dolezal isn’t doing this just for attention. She is trying to create an identity for her family – the sense of belonging that none of them ever experienced in their childhoods – in a very confused and confusing way. But nevertheless, that is what she seems to be doing.

And as a mother of a biracial child myself, it’s something I can identify with. Because, my son, no matter how identical in personality he is to me, no matter how similar in features; because of his skin colour, people don’t think we are related.

This happens repeatedly: someone asks him where his mum is when I’m holding him at the playground. They ask if I’m the nanny. Then there was the time I lost him in Target and they wouldn’t give him back to me. It happens at airports, constantly, despite all the proper identification.

And just last week, a classmate called him a liar when he introduced me as his mother.

If you ask my son, he will tell you he is Indian. He has been raised solely by me. His loyalty is with me. No matter what anyone else tells him his identity is, according to their assessment of his skin colour.


So I know from vast personal experience, that a sense of belonging and a sure identity is vitally important to a child. And obviously, so does Dolezal.

Dolezal explains that growing up, she noticed her parents treated their adopted children as though “they had a skin condition” – never embracing their culture, but merely forcing them to assimilate to their community.

Hence, Dolezal made a huge effort to give her own sons that history and heritage – seeking the support of the black community. Which, of course, is noble and loving, and shows wonderful maternal instincts.

Does this mean I’ve ever considered pretending to be more “white” to help my son feel more secure? Definitely not. But then, I have a much more stable background than Dolezal.

And it’s for that reason I’ve found myself forgiving of her fraud.

Dolezal would have been better off saying, “Look here, I’ve got these boys and they need to know their community and heritage and can we please be part of that?” But she wasn’t capable of doing that. Her trauma has prevented it, even to this day.

Instead she chose fraud and deceit, which has only achieved isolating the family in Spokane, and, as the documentary shows, isolation within her family unit.

That’s the saddest thing for Dolezal, and even more tragic for her sons – that no matter how hard she tried to break the “social construct”, race still won.

 

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