Over the weekend, the country became obsessed with Rachel Dolezal, the woman who claimed she was black, even though she wasn’t (Not even a little. Not even by way-back-in-the-day standards, when octoroon was an official census designation).
This is one of those cases that is just fascinating to all because it has all the elements of a great story. I thought I’d talk for a moment about what makes it so fascinating that it fills hundreds of news stories and hours of talk show time.
It’s Unexpected. There’s that old expression that there only basic seven stories in the world and people just retell them with a different spin. Well, this is definitely an unexpected twist that makes you go, hmm. Because of the racial history of this country (and much of Europe), white has been right. That has been the ideal. It was no uncommon for slave children who were very light to attempt to “pass” as white to get away from slavery and racism. But to go the other way. That’s different.
It’s about a core human desire. When I first heard about this case, about Rachel Dolezal’s story, my first thought was that she simply wanted to fit in. She had a deep interest in African-American culture, attended the same HBCU (a historically black college or university) I attended, Howard, and was deeply involved in the NAACP. She was living in a world of Black people and just wanted to be a part of the group. I’m not condoning what she did, but I think, story wise, we are fascinated because everyone yearns to fit into the in group. Countless books have been predicated on character’s desire to fit in with some group. What lengths will they go to in order to achieve it?
It’s Controversial. While most people have condemned the lying, some are asking the question, “Why can’t she black if she wants to?” I won’t answer that, because this is not that post (and there are others who express why way better). But, Dolezal has defenders of her concept, as well as several naysayers.
Family Strife. Her parents narced on her. From the minutes her parents came out and said, ‘she’s lying to everyone, she’s white,” people asked why. Why were her parents choosing to rat her out? Was it just to do the right thing? Were there other motives? As the story grew, reporters unearthed a custody battle between Dolezal and her parents over an adopted sibling. Also, Dolezal is now suggesting her parents are attempting to discredit her because she is supposed to testify in a sexual abuse case against her biological brother. Frankly, family strife is always good fodder for novels. If this were a novel, I’d say the author had gone a bit 0ver-the-top in the strife department. Sadly, this is very real, and a very bad situation for any family to be in.
Irony. The interesting thing is, Dolezal’s desire to fit in caused her to do this horrible thing. Now, the exact opposite is going to happen. Ultimately, what she has done leaves her outcast from the very group she hoped to be closer to. The group she deceived will not accept her because of her deceit. Had she just been honest, she would have had a better chance of receiving the acceptance she sought.
Race. While in-your-face racism has become unacceptable, racism is still a problem in this country. After slaves were freed by Lincoln, the people of the US made a hard pledge to ensure that former slaves had little value or freedom. The best way to do that was laws that declared you were white or non white. It fostered the one-drop rule (one drop of black blood means you’re black) and ensured that anyone with the faintest of pigmentation that could be traced to a black person was considered black. Therefore, it made it easier for Ms. Dolezal to pass. A white parent and a black parent, means all your whiteness
Hypocrisy. Some of the most fascinating parts of this story are that Dolezal sued Howard, claiming she was discriminated against for being white. The suit was dismissed as being meritless. Even though it wasn’t racism, Dolezal was offended enough by her treatment that she sued over it. Yet, if you look at media stories, Dolezal, in her role as NAACP president, often shot down white speakers when they were suggested, solely because they were white. After the story of the deception broke, white anti-racist essayist Tim Wise revealed that Dolezal “recently objected quite strenuously to my coming to Eastern Washington University to speak, because in her estimation a white person cannot speak legitimately about racism issues concerning black people.” I can just imagine Dolezal saying at meetings, “Can’t we help our own people? Can’t we hire speakers of color?”
Anyway, the story isn’t quite going away, as Dolezal hit up the Today Show yesterday to stir the pot. But it’s also not going away because it hits all the right notes of a good story. It’s something people wish to talk about and explore. If only all our fiction could be as juicy and detailed. Sadly for the people involved, this is truth. But, as story tellers, we can certainly observe what about this makes the people keep discussing it.
Because I’ve been as absorbed in this story as everyone else, I’ve found some pretty interesting stories on the subject, so I thought I’d share.
- Rachel isn’t the first white person to pass for black. Read about a famous New Yorker who secretly pretended to be a black Pullman porter and married a black woman in Brooklyn. This from NPR: American Lives: The ‘Strange’ Tale Of Clarence King
- Spokane Review: Rachel Dolezal told student that ex-husband forced her to live as a white woman