"I identify as black," -- Rachael Dolezal on NBC's Today Show.
Well, we all have a face that we hide away forever. And we take them out and show ourselves when everyone has gone. Some are satin, some are steel, some are silk and some are leather. They're the faces of a stranger, but we'd love to try them on... Billy Joel, "The Stranger," 1977
The bizarre saga of Rachel Dolezal, 37, continues, despite her resignation yesterday from the Spokane, Washington NAACP chapter she helped revitalize after a media firestorm engulfed her for publicly identifying as black despite being born to white parents, from whom she is now estranged. If someone could come off both deceptive and cringe-worthily oblivious in the same conversation, Dolezal did just that in an interview this morning with the Today Show's Matt Lauer. She offered no apologies and remained firm in her sincere, yet deceitful self-identity as a black person.
Her nuanced answers and calm composure today were a definite improvement over her previous train-wreck response before walking off frame, to a Spokane television reporter of "I don't understand the question," when asked whether she was African-American. Still, today's responses were hardly satisfying. There was just something unsettling about her admission to a string of deceptions and omissions when pressed, without a consciousness, that there was something truly wrong about it, notwithstanding her sincere feelings. It almost seemed to be a carnival mirror reflection of the opening scenes to Steve Martin's 1979 comedy The Jerk:
Navin: My story? O.K. It was never for easy for me. I was born a poor black child. I remember the days sitting on the porch with my family singing and dancing, down in Mississippi...
Navin: It's like I feel different. It's like I don't belong here.
Mother: It's your birthday, and it's time you knew. Navin, you're not our natural-born child.
Navin: I'm not?
Mother: You were left on our doorstep. But we raised you like you were one of us.
Navin: You mean I'm going to stay this color? (Navin cries).
Mother: Navin, I'd love you if you were the color of a baboon's ass.
While her upbringing in a white family with adopted black children, education at predominantly black institutions in Mississippi and Washington, D.C., laudable human rights work and inter-racial adult familial relations had an impact on her apparent genuine empathy and self-identity, they simply do not translate into a license to deceive constituents on actual facts about her lineage, her "replacement" black father, a reverse discrimination lawsuit or her upbringing as a blonde child who looked remarkably similar to a girl on the Swiss-Miss Hot Cocoa box.
Race Matters, But Is More Social Than Scientific
Dolezal, however, is a victim not only of her own deceit, but of the inexactness of race as an amorphously flexible social category, doing its own masquerade as a scientific construct, rather than something inextricably tied to emotion, history and experience. Homer Plessy's eighth of African blood was enough to have him assigned to a segregated rail car, while for others, their dark skin was a license for whites to segregate and lynch them. From Donald Sterling's rants to Walter Scott's murder to juvenile justice, access to education, health care and the voting booth, race still matters. The race buzzsaw is so unwieldy it even ensnares racists. White supremacist Craig Cobb's home was vandalized with the words "BACK IN BLACK" by another bigot, when Cobb was outed on national television as being "14 percent sub-Saharan African."
God may see no color, but most of us do, oftentimes implicitly. African-Americans are the most targeted group in the United States for hate crime, at roughly three times their proportion of the population. Interestingly, research by Northeastern University scholars Jack McDevitt and Jack Levin, show that most perpetrators are young males with shallow prejudices out for a thrill, rather than hardened bigots like Cobb.
Negative, But Mixed Response
The response to Dolezal from prominent African-Americans has been mixed. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, said "Let's give her a Bill Clinton Get-Out-of-Jail-Free card on this one (#Ididnothavesex) and let her get back to doing what she clearly does exceptionally well -- making America more American." CNN contributor Marc Lamont Hill was less forgiving, stating its the "ultimate exercise in white privilege to say, "I'm gonna be black for a little while." The Washington Post's Jonathan Capehart concluded a damning catalogue of her deceit by calling her "nothing but a cultural carpetbagger living a lie." James Wilburn, the former Spokane NAACP President, who Dolezal later defeated, agreed, stating, "When you build a foundation of lies, everything you build on it is a lie... You don't have to lie"
The Racial Justice World Is Inclusive
On that final point Mr. Wilburn is completely right, though Dolezal isn't so sure. When asked by Lauer today if she would have been as successful in her calling as a white person, she answered: "I don't know... I haven't had opportunity to experience that in those shoes. I'm not sure." Well I have a little insight, having made a living trying to right wrongs and educate as a white person. And at every critical point along the way, whether in college, law school, or in my career there were marvelous mentors or helpers, many of whom were African-American, who generously extended their hand not only to my fledgling civil rights work, but to my personal evolution as well. They include beloved Federal Appellate Judge A. Leon Higginbotham. He overcame numerous obstacles, including a vicious challenge to his first judicial appointment by an n-word-using Senator, and who along with Southern Poverty Law Center President Richard Cohen was the most brilliant lawyer I ever worked under. Grassroots legend Alvin Sykes, another compatriot, who by sheer force of will and despite barely a middle school education, changed or helped enact two federal laws and get a group of us a meeting with the Attorney General. Viola Liuzzo, John Doar, and Bobby Kennedy did not have to change their color to contribute to racial equality.
Is Whiteness the New Blackness?
What is so sad about this media storm is there is so much more that has to be done about routinized injustices, once the spotlight shifts to the next scandal du jour. The NAACP just announced a historic march to highlight injustices and possible solutions. Interestingly, commentator Larry Elder's comments on the Dolezal conversion debacle as an indication that contemporary racism against African-Americans isn't so bad drew sarcasm from Jon Stewart last night.
Not so fast Stewart, Elder may be on to something as us whites face our own struggles and embarrassing stereotypes. Escaped white murderers and their wacky female groupie are all over the television screen; white supremacists are running around with African bloodlines; hockey season is over; Senator Mark Kirk called Senator Lindsey Graham, "a bro with no ho;" and birther-esque Donald Trump just announced his cartoon candidacy. With all this mishegas going on in white culture, maybe Rachael, if not particularly candid, is smarter than we think.