Recently I decided to watch the documentary The Rachel Divide — it follows Rachel Dolezal and takes an in depth look at her point of view and her critics’ — on Netflix. I’ve always had a deep, personal interest in the plight of Rachel, the woman who was exposed to the world as a white woman pretending to be a black one. Part of this is due to my own lifetime struggle to define myself racially — as a biracial person it can be difficult to feel like you belong in any one community. But part of this is also due to the confusion I have had in identifying my feelings for what Rachel was doing — after all, it’s difficult to argue that a woman working to end racial injustice, regardless of her race, is an inherently bad person. As someone who has had difficulty knowing my own place in the black community, I can empathize with a woman who wanted so badly to fit into a community, she felt like she had to visibly change herself to do it.
In learning more about Rachel, I can appreciate the way she chose a community and the ways she stood up for and tried to call attention to the injustices being faced by that community. I can also understand her hurt in being cast out of that community, the only one in which she felt she belonged. I can understand her desperate attempts to explain herself correctly, to tell her story in the way that would finally make people understand and accept her again.
I do not necessarily approve of her position as head of the NAACP in Spokane, but I do approve of her work as head of the NAACP — any person working to end discrimination and raise awareness of inequality should be recognized for their efforts, regardless of whether they originate from the community that they defend.
Before I continue, for those of you who have not watched the documentary, let me summarize a little:
In The Rachel Divide, we first see a glimpse of what Rachel’s life has become since her story went viral (spoiler — it’s not great). We get introduced to her two sons, one of whom she adopted after gaining custody of him from her birth parents. It’s clear that her sons love her, they come to her defense often, and Franklin, her younger, biological son, is shown multiple times speaking in justification of his mother as being a good person. We follow Rachel to Los Angeles, where she is interviewed on the popular BET show The Real; she is applauded by the studio audience when she admits, openly, that she is biologically white, but identifies as black. We see the birth of her third son, Langston, and watch her struggle to fill out a birth form identifying her race. According to Washington State law, as Rachel explains, the race she puts for herself will mark her son as well; if she were to check white, Langston would be, in her words, “whitewashed”.
One scene that sticks out as particularly poignant to me features a young, black, male professor, Ronnie Gladden. He is first pictured interviewing Rachel onstage during an event titled “Clearly Transparent” at Cincinnati State, where she is hosted onstage for an interview. “2016 is becoming a lot about race.” starts Gladden, “Race is so complex, and there’s a lot to say about that.” The camera switches to Gladden offstage in an individual interview, and we learn that though he was born black and male, and still “inhabits this body”, as he words it, he does not truly align with this identity. Instead, he identifies as more white and female. Gladden credits Rachel as a pioneer of standing up against a conflict with her racial identity, and claims that as people begin to feel safer, there will be more widespread stories from people who don’t align with their racial, or other physically manifested aspects of their identities.
Following this scene, we are shown two female NAACP members, both of whom claim that the idea of racial fluidity is not valid. “Trans-racial is the epitome of white privilege,” explains Kitara Johnson, “If every ethnic group cannot do that in the same capacity and be received in that manner, then it’s a privilege.”
The documentary ends with Rachel changing her name, from Rachel Ann Dolezal to Nkechi Amore Diallo. After widespread criticism and lackluster sales of her memoir, In Full Color: Finding My Place in a Black and White World, Rachel decides that in order to truly have a new start, she must change her name and therefore adopt a truly new identity. However, like all her previous attempts to defend her story, her identity, and the idea of trans-racialism in general, the name change backfires, resulting only in additional anger from the black community at Rachel’s constant cultural appropriation. And regardless of how innocently motivated it was or was not, regardless of how much she researched or did not research the name, regardless of how this name is accepted or not accepted, I think this decision by Rachel is a classic example of her ignorance at the effect of her actions, and her complete misunderstanding of the true depths of white privilege. It is a good way to end the film, as it shows that Rachel has, despite all she has gone through, decided not to change a thing about herself or about her self-proclaimed identity. And as part of this, Rachel has decided not to take in any additional understanding as to why her actions have yielded such vicious backlash.
In short, Rachel’s name change was just another attempt to force herself into the black community without being welcomed. Her decision to give herself a name with such cultural significance is symbolic of the ways African culture has been pillaged and re-appropriated by non-African people throughout history. Oftentimes in history, traditional names have been one of few ways African Americans have been able to hold on to their lineage — and even this was stolen when African Americans were forced to take the names of their slave-owners, and even recently when African Americans have been forced to change their names in order to appear more appealing on job applications. So to take a name so charged with historical significance is not akin to simply changing one’s name in order to have a fresh new start. There is a whole history at play that Rachel has chosen to ignore in pursuit of an identity that she feels fits her.
In continued pursuit of acceptance for her self-imposed identity change, one thing Rachel defends without fail is the idea that race is a construct. When accused of lying, or falsifying her identity, or even when accused of not being black, she fiercely stands by the idea that race is a social phenomenon created by humans, therefore it should be able to be ignored by humans. According to this logic, race is no more real than the binary system of gender. Race was created by Europeans as a way of discriminating against those who looked different; it’s nothing but a cultural norm that has been repeatedly enforced despite the clear evidence of people who don’t fit so neatly into its boxes. And the thing is, she’s right. Race is a construct, and I know this particularly well. As a mixed-race woman, I am familiar with the discomfort of looking ethnically ambiguous. I know all the questions asked by people who don’t like this ambiguity and therefore compulsively try to fit me into a box as soon as possible. I know what it’s like to feel neither black nor white. Sometimes it doesn’t seem like there is a place for me at any table when it comes to culture.
What I do not know is what it is like to have a clear choice regarding my race. I cannot understand the idea of being trans-racial, because I have never been given the option. I, and all clearly “non-white” people in the world, do not have the privilege of deciding how we would like to be recognized. In my case, this has caused an erasure of my racial identity — people decide when they look at me what race they feel most comfortable assigning to me. For others, this causes discrimination in the form of police brutality, and housing discrimination, and harmful, painful stereotypes, and lifetimes of inequality. People of color do not have the privilege of deciding to be another race; the appearance of their skin at birth defines how they will be received and treated by society. Yes, race is a construct, created by humans, and not to be taken as inherent, biological truth. But the real-life implications of this construct are tangible, and difficult, and must be taken seriously.
In the face of this, Rachel’s stark belief in race as a social construct falls flat. As a biologically white woman, she has had the privilege of rejecting her race and the culture associated with it, instead seeking refuge in the black community. It is her white privilege that has given her such a platform so that she may lie about her race in the first place. It is also her white privilege that has given her the firm belief that because she feels black but does not feel white, she should have full, unrestricted access to being a black woman. This is made clear when, after being questioned about the authenticity of her identity as a black woman — since she has not had to live the true experience of discrimination black women face every day in this country — she has only these words: “I can’t cease to exist, I can’t just go away, I can’t stop being.” Of course she can’t. She doesn’t understand why she should. And of course, she cannot stop feeling like she identifies more with the black community than with the white community around whom she grew up. She shouldn’t be expected to.
But what she can do is exist, and stay around, and continue being. What she can do is continue calling herself black, continue identifying with a race she has chosen for herself. Who else but a white person inflicted with white privilege at birth would be able to do that? What she was able to do was pass for a race based on nothing other than her own personal desire. To be white and wish to be black is not a choice made in fear for one’s life. It is not a choice made in hopes of improving one’s future, or one’s children’s futures. It is not a choice made in the absence of any other options. It is a choice. To be a person of color is not a choice. And Rachel, blinded by her privilege, does not understand this.
This privilege, not some desire to attack and exclude out of anger and resentment, is what bothers people of color about Rachel Dolezal. She is not the first person to identify as a race different than the one like which she appears — for generations people of color have had to hide their true heritage in order to be truly accepted by American society. I’ve done it myself, I’ve pretended to be white, not admitted my blackness to people I know would discriminate against me if they knew I wasn’t just a “tan” white person. To be a person of color means to have immediate stereotypes thrust upon you, it means a higher likelihood of childbirth complications thanks to stresses of modern discrimination, it means less accessibility to jobs in all realms, including entertainment, it means an increased gap in wages after white men, the highest paid in the United States, it means a higher likelihood to be questioned unnecessarily, arrested, or even killed by police. To be a person of color means taking on all of this from the minute you are born, despite the fact that you are an individual person with individual interests, experiences, and understandings of the world. Let me repeat myself: to be a person of color is not a choice. In addition, to be a person of color is nuanced, and to be black cannot be summarized by changing your hair, or feeling more comfortable around your black adopted siblings than your white biological parents, or by having black children and understanding the struggle of racial injustice by proxy. What angers people of color about Rachel Dolezal is her decision to limit what she can do for the black community based on a purely selfish decision to cast off her biological heritage and instead steal a different one.
If it were me, I would have ended this film with a different scene, one that appears a few minutes before the final cut of Rachel reborn Nkechi pushing Langston down the street in her neighborhood in Spokane. After showing a montage of the backlash resulting from Rachel’s book, we see her sitting alone in the backyard of her home, speaking with a person behind the camera. “From my outside point of view,” the interviewer explains, “it does feel like the black community has spoken…I think there is no disagreement that, you know, ultimately, black people govern blackness, right?” At this, Rachel stumbles a little, a bit at a loss for words. Eventually, in response to the interviewer’s explanation that people are emotionally motivated when they attack her, Rachel, on the verge of tears, can only offer these words: “I’m never going to be that 12-year-old looking 18-year-old girl in Montana again, wearing Amish dresses. I can’t live in that particular mode again. I can’t subject myself to the punishment of my parents.”
It’s a moment of vulnerability that gives true insight into who Rachel Dolezal really is — a woman with a past that scarred her, a woman with a family she wants nothing to do with, a woman who found a community who opened its arms and accepted her — and this community became something she would do anything to belong to. Her declaration here, to me, is the most honest she’s ever been, and the most relatable. What one of us hasn’t wanted so badly to belong that we tried to lie or change ourselves in order to fit in better? Rachel’s situation is simply more emotionally charged, and, ultimately, more damaging because of all the history of cultural theft from the black community that she chooses to ignore in pursuit of fitting into it.