The new Netflix documentary, “The Rachel Divide,” seeks to explore the identity of Rachel Dolezal, the erstwhile Spokane NAACP chapter president who was, in a viral 2015 video, outed as a daily practitioner of blackface. But what the documentary and its subject fail to fully explore isn’t her embrace of black identity, but just how white that embrace really is.
Dolezal’s insistence on maintaining an African American identity that she somehow believes she’s earned the right to claim — despite the protestations from the very community from whom she seeks kinship — has a strange rhetorical kinship with white people who insist that they have the right to use the n-word because of their proximity to blackness. The modern Miss Anne rigidly resists interrogating her own whiteness and the construct of whiteness that has shaped her, confounding viewers and even the black people who love her, unconsciously mirroring her white foremothers from the Harlem Renaissance who couldn’t reconcile their post-racial ideals with their learned racism. Dolezal’s surface interest in the harm this country does to African Americans has given way to a more full-throated expression of her interest in the harm done to her; she isn’t interested in truth nor reconciliation because she is still ill-equipped to fully reconcile and heal from her own pain.
“Who’s the gatekeeper for blackness?” Dolezal asks in the beginning of the documentary, seemingly without realizing that white people like her have, from the outset, been those gatekeepers, penning us into an identity into which she now seeks to let herself.
Rachel Dolezal hasn’t earned the right to question the evolving self-inquiry of black people or our check to her claims to it.
“Who can protect it, define it, own it?” she continues, posing these questions to suggest that black people (among whom she now counts herself) always had the power to define and own our identities, when we were defined as black and thus inferior without our participation, when black people were literally owned by white people, and when having black skin has never protected us in this country. It feels perverse coming from her lips to our ears; she hasn’t earned the right to question the evolving self-inquiry of black people or our check to her claims to it. African Americans for the last 50 years have challenged and reclaimed narratives of our many selves from the minds and mouths of our oppressors, but Dolezal simply proclaimed that she was a “trans-racial” black woman and could change the skin in which she was born without ceremony.
Race is, of course, a strange fiction — though how it’s lived and policed has always been very real. It is a social construction, designed by the powerful to organize society by skin color, privileging one type over another. Race is a fable perpetuated by real tangible, corporeal realities that enshrine systems inequalities between peoples. And though we often define race as whatever is not-white, whiteness is a race, too.
Dolezal’s continuing interrogation of blackness, both hers and other people’s, but not her own whiteness is the core issue in this intimate portrait by filmmaker Lauren Brownson. It becomes clearer that Dolezal’s resistance to confront the truth of her identity and her embrace of blackness is, at its root, a way to mask long-endured childhood traumas. She is a collapsing star of the tropes fomented in race and identity; she is trying to live a truth of pain and oppression deemed by white people as fundamental to blackness that is nonetheless rooted in fantasy, a fantastic lie that created strati of difference and harm.
Her misconstruction of black identity is evident to viewers is a tool to process pain inflicted by a kind of white violence. Dolezal is the second child born to white fundamentalist Christian parents whose faith and pro-life stance guided them to adopt four black children, who they raised in a socially isolated and homogeneous community in rural Montana. We learn in interviews that her adoptive sister was beaten with “glue gun glue stick” and “black baboon whip” and, later, that her adoptive brother and now-son Izaiah suffered similar abuses.
Though she’s never clear about what abuse she might have suffered at the hands of her parents, Ruthanne and Larry Dolezal (who in television interview clips present a “normal” and “respectable” kind of whiteness familiar to many). But their public efforts to discredit their daughter’s elaborate lie surround her identity was apparently in service to another kind of violence: To defend their birth son, Josh — who at the moment of the Dolezal’s unmasking, faced charges of sexual abuse against his adopted sister Esther.
Rachel Dolezal, too, claimed that her brother had assaulted her and was slated to testify in the case. After the fallout and frenzied national obsession with Rachel, Esther Dolezal’s case against brother Josh was dismissed by prosecutors. In a sense, Rachel Dolezal’s obsession with claiming blackness, apparently served once again to protect whiteness, not blackness.
Dolezal is a white woman who doesn’t want to admit fault for her facade and the harm it caused; apology is too great burden to bear.
What use is a good heart when it’s in the wrong place? When it is dishonest? A lie? For all the good work Dolezal purportedly done in the name of the Spokane’s black community, her own narcissism jeopardizes future confrontation and reconciliation of the anti-black racism that still pervades the place. Dolezal ignobility is the critical factor in her ostracism from Spokane’s black spaces.
Dolezal is a white woman who doesn’t want to admit fault for her facade and the harm it caused; apology is too great burden to bear. Dolezal doesn’t know who she is, even though she’s clear about who she ain’t by the film’s end. She is not Rachel Dolezal, but Nkechi Amare Diallo — a formal name change in alignment with her self-constructed dream narrative of black identity.
She’s still stripping away as much of her old self and her ties to a birth family that she must equate with terror, becoming black not because white people have defined her as such, but as a way to distance herself from them. But demanding the right to decide who is black and who is white is, ironically, the whitest thing thing she could possibly do.
Syreeta McFadden is a writer and a professor of English at the Borough of Manhattan Community College, City University of New York. Her work has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, Rolling Stone, BuzzFeed News and elsewhere.