Column: Patt Morrison asks: Rachel Dolezal on racial fluidity and her changing identity
In June 2015, a few days before Donald Trump declared that he was running for president, the news cycle was dominated by a different person: Rachel Dolezal. She was the head of the Spokane chapter of the NAACP, an artist, a teacher of black-themed subjects — and, as it turned out, the daughter of white parents. She said she identified as black, and was living the life she felt was authentically her own. Her critics, and there were many, believed she had been living a lie, letting people assume she was black when years before she had filed a lawsuit as a Howard University graduate student, alleging that the university had discriminated against her because she was a white woman.
Long divorced from her African American husband, Dolezal is bringing up three black sons, the youngest a year old. And she is still living as she was when she decided to “be black without any explanations, reservations, apologies or room for negotiation.” Her new autobiography, “In Full Color,” strikes the same tone: The wrongs in her story belong to a race-obsessed society that doesn’t permit people like her to be who they really feel themselves to be.
Why do you think your story created such a stir in this country?
I feel like people really want to talk about race and need to talk about it. America’s never really had something like a truth and reconciliation commission [as South Africa had] or reparations or some substantive means of settling the score per se and really healing the wounds of racism. Presenting my story in full context is another opportunity, another chance to heal.
We’re familiar with stories about black people “passing”; that someone would want to be able to live in a white world with its advantages is pretty obvious. You stumped everybody that you would want to do it the other way.
My identity [in] coming to claim a black identity really didn’t feel like something that was appropriated or foreign or added, or in any way different than who I was. It was actually a journey toward who I always had been, and I feel like I first encountered a black identity within myself, and my response to “black is beautiful and inspirational,” and it really grew from there.
You wrote that living as a black woman made your life “infinitely better” but it also made it “infinitely harder.”
In that it made it infinitely better being exactly who I am and being able to fully express that, and live that truth, I think was a huge relief for me. So that’s the upside, right? That’s the good of it all.
The trade-off, of course, is it’s not easy being black in America, and being more qualified for a job, and constantly being overlooked or rejected in favor of someone who fits more neatly into the cookie-cutter mold, somebody who’s not, as I am, a radical progressive feminist with a pro-black agenda.
But being constantly mocked, ridiculed, bullied, discriminated against because of the style of my hair, the clothes I wear, the values I promote, the culture I love — I think that would also be an essential experience of a black woman.
People just assumed from the way you talked and where you lived and that sort of thing that you were black?
Well yeah, that’s not inaccurate. Some people assumed I was born to one or more black parents, which was kind of the big surprise in 2015 to a lot of those people.
It’s hard for me to express or say, hey, if people saw the realness of me then, through the work that I did, and my vibe, and the culture that I lived, and really saw the real blackness of me. They weren’t just seeing my hair or some kind of a disguise or a fake thing — they were really seeing me for who I am. And other people were just kind of not able to make that jump because race is a social construct until we don’t want it to be. And for then for some people, it’s just a social construct in theory, but in actuality, they believe that race is very biological.
There is a biological element to it. In the book you note that NAACP President Benjamin Jealous’ DNA is 18% sub-Saharan African and 80% European.
So over the years there’s been three or four or five [categories]. Now we have 15 categories on the census. It’s constantly changing and I would say it’s really more proof that race is not biological more than it is. So some people ask me that if race is a social construct, why would I identify as black? Why would I just not identify as transracial or nonracial? I unapologetically stand on the black side with my internal values and sense of self. But by no means did I intend to somehow underscore some sort of biological aspect of race being legitimate in bringing up DNA.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar wrote about you in Time magazine, arguing that “the black community is better off because of her efforts,” and that yours seems to be more a case of “standing up and saying, ‘I am Spartacus!’ rather than a conspiracy to defraud.” And there were black people who thought, “What is she trying to get away with here?”
There’s a new awareness of gender identity and gender fluidity. Are you putting racial identity on the same basis as that? At about the same time as your story, there was the news of Caitlyn Jenner, formerly Bruce Jenner, embracing a female identity.
The parallel that was most obvious was the way the public and the media reacted to those stories, which almost came out simultaneously. So Caitlyn Jenner and my story were like a one-two punch on identity, and “identity” was actually named the [dictionary.com] word of the year for 2015.
Certainly every category of identity has its unique qualities and challenges and experiences. I’m not by any means trying to say that it’s exactly the same. But inasmuch as someone like Caitlyn Jenner and I were both born into a category and really feel that we fit in a different category better — some people will forever see both of us as our birth category and nothing further. I think that’s the parallel.
I also think that when it comes to the need to harmonize the outer appearance to synchronize with the inner being and feeling in the core of the person, there’s also a similarity in that process.
There’s also a huge difference in the stigma because transgender and just gender identity has made so much progress socially, being moved from the very binary mold it once had to a much more expansive and empathetic view to a spectrum of gender identity.
You write about all the boxes we check in our lives — more boxes, as you noted, about race and about gender, too. Is it time to get rid of these boxes? Don’t they serve some purpose?
I think we need to evaluate what purpose the boxes are serving and not serving and in what ways are they helpful or in what ways are they hurtful. For that one form that was so publicly scrutinized with my application for the unpaid position as chair of the [Spokane] police ombudsman commission …
This is where you checked the box that said black?
I checked off three — white, black and Native American — and I still feel like that is the best representation for the reality of who I am, and what I would do in that position.
You have changed your name to Nkechi Amare Diallo. Has that helped you find work?
I’d hoped that it would, but what happened is the reality that once there’s a [job] interview, whether my hair is curly or in braids or whatever, no matter how I appear, people just recognize me. I have looked in academia. I’ve looked in nonprofit sectors. I’ve applied to government jobs. I’ve even applied as an entry-level grocery store worker. Nothing.
From your book, it seems people think because you were born white, you had the privilege of making a choice, where people who are born black do not.
I don’t feel like I chose my identity in a way that people think I have. Some people say that I brought all this negativity on myself, and to suggest that the negative reaction is really my doing is massively inaccurate and kind of an attempt to shift the blame I feel, really disregarding the epic amounts of ignorance and hatred and shaming that were constantly directed toward me.
Me just being myself I don’t feel should be considered an open-ended invitation for people to initiate their hate. I’m still here and I’m still me and I hope to live a full life and provide for my kids and fight for the cause and hopefully this book will be an important part of history and maybe even a teaching tool for educators at some point.
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