Talking to Dolezal in Spokane

Ijeoma Oluo talked to Rachel Dolezal for The Stranger.

Dolezal has argued many times that her insistence on black identity will not only allow her to live in the culture that she says matches her true self, but will also help free visibly black people from racial oppression by helping to destroy the social construct of race.

I am more than a little skeptical that Dolezal’s identity as the revolutionary strike against the myth of race is anything more than impractical white saviorism—at least when it comes to the ways in which race oppresses black people. Even if there were thousands of Rachel Dolezals in the country, would their claims of blackness do anything to open up the definition of whiteness to those with darker skin, coarser hair, or racialized features? The degree to which you are excluded from white privilege is largely dependent on the degree to which your appearance deviates from whiteness. You can be extremely light-skinned and still be black, but you cannot be extremely or even moderately dark-skinned and be treated as white—ever.

By turning herself into a very, very, very, very light-skinned black woman, Dolezal opens herself up to be treated as black by white society only to the extent that they can visually identify her as such, and no amount of visual change would provide Dolezal with the inherited trauma and socioeconomic disadvantage of racial oppression in this country.

Because it’s not exactly the same, is it. Adopting (some of) the outward appearances is not the same as living the experience from birth, is it.

When we have been together for three hours, I feel it’s time to ask The Question.

It’s the same question that other black interviewers have asked her. A question she seems to deeply dislike—so much so that she complains about the question in her book. But even in the book, it’s not a question she actually answers: How is her racial fluidity anything more than a function of her privilege as a white person?

If Dolezal’s identity only helps other people born white become black while still shielding them from the majority of the oppression of visible blackness, and does nothing to help those born black become white—how is this not just more white privilege?

Mind you, it could be just more white privilege without being harmful in and of itself…but that would depend on how Dolezal put it into practice, and especially on how she talked about it and explained it.

I try one more time to get an answer to this question, but from a different angle: “Where does the function of privilege of still appearing to the world as a white person play into this and into your identity as affiliating with black culture?”

Dolezal seems to struggle for a moment before answering: “I don’t know. I guess I do have light skin, but I don’t know that I necessarily appear to the world as a white person. I think that since the white parents did their TV tour on every national network, some people will forever see me as my birth category, as a white woman. But people who see me as that don’t see me really for who I am and probably are not seeing me as a white woman in some kind of a privileged sense. If that makes sense.”

It doesn’t.

It’s familiar though.

Maybe in a dusty Eastern Washington town like Spokane, where only 2 percent of the people are black, something as “exotic” as box braids might be enough to convince the locals that you are not white, but I cannot imagine this working elsewhere. I’m looking right at her. I know what white people look like. I decide to say so.

“Really? Like if you don’t say, ‘I’m black…’ because I’ve read a lot of interviews with other people who said when they first encountered you, people who’ve worked with you, that they automatically assumed you were white until you had asserted otherwise, vocally. I personally… like if I were to run across you in the street, I would assume that you were white.”

Dolezal sighs and looks at me as if I am truly all that is wrong with America. “Well, I guess it’s like in the eye of the beholder.”

It is obvious by then that Dolezal does not like me, but I don’t appear to be alone in that feeling. Throughout our conversation, I get the increasing impression that, for someone who claims to love blackness, Rachel Dolezal has little more than contempt for many black people and their own black identities.

The dismissive and condescending attitude toward any black people who see blackness differently than she does is woven throughout her comments in our conversation. It is not just our pettiness, it is also our lack of education that is preventing us from getting on Dolezal’s level of racial understanding. She informs me multiple times that black people have rejected her because they simply haven’t learned yet that race is a social construct created by white supremacists, they simply don’t know any better and don’t want to: “I’ve done my research, I think a lot of people, though, haven’t probably read those books and maybe never will.”

Ah yes, I recognize that too.

I point out that I am a black woman with a political-science degree who writes about race and culture for a living, who has indeed read “those books.” I find her blanket justification of “race is a social construct” overly simplistic. “Race is just a social construct” is a retort I get quite often from white people who don’t want to talk about black issues anymore. A lot of things in our society are social constructs—money, for example—but the impact they have on our lives, and the rules by which they operate, are very real. I cannot undo the evils of capitalism simply by pretending to be a millionaire.

No. No you can’t.

or a white woman who had grown up with only a few magazines of stylized images of blackness to imagine herself into a real-life black identity without any lived black experience, to turn herself into a black history professor without a history degree, to place herself at the forefront of local black society that she had adopted less than a decade earlier, all while seeming to claim to do it better and more authentically than any black person who would dare challenge her—well, it’s the ultimate “you can be anything” success story of white America. Another branch of manifest destiny. No wonder America couldn’t get enough of the Dolezal story.

Perhaps it really was that simple. I couldn’t escape Rachel Dolezal because I can’t escape white supremacy. And it is white supremacy that told an unhappy and outcast white woman that black identity was hers for the taking. It is white supremacy that told her that any black people who questioned her were obviously uneducated and unmotivated to rise to her level of wokeness. It is white supremacy that then elevated this display of privilege into the dominating conversation on black female identity in America. It is white supremacy that decided that it was worth a book deal, national news coverage, and yes—even this interview.

And with that, the anger that I had toward her began to melt away. Dolezal is simply a white woman who cannot help but center herself in all that she does—including her fight for racial justice. And if racial justice doesn’t center her, she will redefine race itself in order to make that happen. It is a bit extreme, but it is in no way new for white people to take what they want from other cultures in the name of love and respect, while distorting or discarding the remainder of that culture for their comfort.

That too is familiar.

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