Rachel Dolezal not only runs the Spokane chapter of the NAACP, she also teaches “Africana education” at Eastern Washington University, lists a master’s degree from traditionally black Howard University on her CV, and claims to have been the victim of several instances of racial harassment. She also personally identifies as African-American, which came as a surprise to her parents, who are both of European Caucasion descent. A long-simmering family feud broke out into the open after her family told local media that Dolezal is in fact white and has been lying about her heritage all along. BuzzFeed had the story last night:
But on Thursday, Dolezal’s parents also told local media outlets that their daughter’s heritage is Czech, Swedish, and German — including possible traces of Native American.
Larry Dolezal told BuzzFeed News he could not fully explain why his daughter might have wanted to pose as a black woman.
But, he added: “She has over the past 20 years assimilated herself into the African American community through her various advocacy and social justice work, and so that may be part of the answer.”
He went on to say that Rachel cut off all communication with him and her mother, and “doesn’t want us visible in the Spokane area in her circle because we’re Caucasian.”
There has been a debate in the US for decades — centuries, really — over identity and race, and how one calculates that for those of mixed heritage. The Dolezal case isn’t that debate. Her parents — who adopted three African-American sons, one of whom Dolezal claimed to be her own son — state that there simply is no African heritage in either side of the family.
Either they’re lying, or Dolezal is, and there doesn’t seem to be much reason for the parents to lie. They also produced childhood pictures of Dolezal which show a blond, freckle-faced young girl with straight hair in contrast to how Dolezal appears today. The response from Dolezal on these inconvenient facts emerging is … gobbledygook:
Dolezal, 37, avoided answering questions directly about her race and ethnicity Thursday, saying, “I feel like I owe my executive committee a conversation” before engaging in a broader discussion with the community about what she described as a “multilayered” issue.
“That question is not as easy as it seems,” she said after being contacted at Eastern Washington University, where she’s a part-time professor in the Africana Studies Program. “There’s a lot of complexities … and I don’t know that everyone would understand that.”
Later, in an apparent reference to the origins of human life in Africa, Dolezal added: “We’re all from the African continent.”
What about those hate crimes Dolezal reported? Those look a little suspicious, too:
Neumaier said he was suspicious of several incidents Dolezal reported in Coeur d’Alene, including her discovery of a swastika on the door of the Human Rights Education Institute when the organization’s security camera was “mysteriously turned off.”
“None of them passed the smell test,” he said.
He said that after Dolezal left the institute and he saw her gaining prominence in Spokane – becoming head of the NAACP, chairman of the police ombudsman oversight commission, teaching at Eastern Washington University, and speaking frequently in public on racism and justice issues – that he became worried that there might be “blowback” for the institute for not doing a better job of vetting her.
Part of Neumaier’s job on the board is to look at complaints of human rights violations and help victims take action and seek justice.
“In all of these incidents (she reported in Coeur d’Alene), she was the sole witness to events that, when put under scrutiny, don’t hold up,” he said.
Two of her adopted brothers don’t seem impressed by Dolezal, either. One compared it to going in blackface, while another noted that Dolezal’s fraud extended to her Facebook page by posting a picture of an unrelated black couple and identifying them as her parents:
“Back in the early 1900s, what she did would be considered highly racist,” Ezra Dolezal, who said he is “25 percent black,” said. “… You really should not do that. It’s completely opposite – she’s basically creating more racism.”
Zach Dolezal, 21, said when he visited his sister in Spokane, he was told not to speak of Lawrence and Ruthanne as their parents.
“It’s a farce, really, is what it is,” he said, adding he thought Rachel had posted a photo of a black couple from Spokane on her Facebook page whom she referred to as her parents.
For some reason, Dolezal gave CBS an interview, and …. it didn’t go well for her:
Wow.This Dolezal interviewer is cold-bloodedly good. Like a spider slowly luring his prey further onto his web.
— Jonathan Capehart (@CapehartJ) June 12, 2015
So what’s to be learned from this? We will assuredly get some people arguing that if gender identity is fluid, then so can ethnic or racial identity as well. We will also hear that Dolezal may be compensating for trauma or attempting to embrace an identity to work for social justice. Those arguments make as much sense as claiming a common fossil ancestor to justify Dolezal’s posturing. There won’t be much to learn from this except that all claims require some verification, and people who commit fraud will sometimes go to great lengths to sustain it. But we’ll definitely call this Hot-Take Friday and have fun with it until the next identity-crisis story comes along.
Update: All right, I can’t resist adding my own hot take to this story. What’s the difference between this and people claiming different gender identities than their DNA demonstrates? Not one thing. Either one embraces both Caitlyn Jenner and Rachel Dolezal, rejects them both, or sets up a cognitive dissonance that will become truly epic between identity groups.