Debate over racial identity sparks tensions

On June 11, 2015, the real race of Rachel Dolezal, president of the Spokane, Washington, chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People was exposed. The civil rights leader’s parents revealed that Dolezal has disguised herself as a black woman for 20 years, when in reality she was born Caucasian. The shocking revelation of Dolezal’s racial identity has sparked many debates. Did Dolezal pretend to be black so she would be more accepted and respected as a civil rights leader? Did she change her identity because she felt like the African American community was where she belonged?  Or does she have mental issues?

In addition to teaching as an adjunct professor of Africana Studies at Eastern Washington University, Dolezal has also advocated for equal rights and community development in Mississippi.  She had been carrying out social justice and advocacy work with a fake racial identity until very recently, however. Dolezal resigned from her NAACP position on June 15 due to allegations of misrepresentation of her race. She also stated in an interview on the Today show that she “identif[ies] as black.”

Rumors regarding Dolezal’s racial background have been around for some time, but a recently reported hate crime incited serious questions about Dolezal’s standing. Dolezal reported to have received a package with racist messages and death threats in the NAACP’s post office box. The postal workers reported that the package was neither time-stamped nor canceled, which raised suspicion of how the package was delivered. In response, Dolezal said she would never fabricate threat letters.

Dolezal’s father, Larry, explained to the press that Dolezal cut off communication with him and her mother a long time ago, not wanting them “visible in the Spokane area in her circle because [they] are Caucasian.” Furthermore,  Dolezal called Albert Wilkerson, a black male human rights volunteer, her father. In a picture posted on Spokane NAACP’s Facebook page, Wilkerson appears next to Dolezal, with the caption identifying Wilkerson as “President Dolezal’s father.”

Whether or not it’s understandable to fake one’s own race in order to connect with another race is up for debate; however, it would be fair to suggest that the world is becoming more open-minded to condone an activist’s work for people of different racial backgrounds, if the activist truly cares for their well-being. Moreover, a number of other white or half-white activists, such as Tricia Rose and Melissa Harris, have contributed to the empowerment of the black community without concealing their true ethnicity.

Honesty and integrity are two of the most important traits of a leader, and Dolezal has clearly failed to act upon them. It is difficult to follow a leader who lies about his or her true identity in an attempt to gain followers. Even though Dolezal’s contribution as an activist is considerable, her identity crisis puts years of her work in question. Some have gone as far to suggest that Dolezal has “Histrionic Personality Disorder,” in which subjects dramatically change their appearance and over-exaggerate their emotions to gain attention.

Dolezal’s fake identity not only makes her less trustworthy as a leader, but it can also potentially offend members of the African-American community. Race is a serious matter deeply connected to history and culture. To disguise oneself as a member of another race can be seen as putting on an ethnic costume without considering its historical and cultural implications.

Even so, Dolezal’s supporters continue to argue in her defense. One of her supporters asked on a social networking site that if Caitlyn Jenner can decide that she is a woman, why can’t Dolezal decide she is black? Well, she technically can, but the argument fails to acknowledge the legal way to change one’s ethnicity by submitting forms and waiting for approval by the law. One cannot simply “decide” to present oneself as black, especially while working for a cause as sensitive as civil rights. In the end, it’s all about what we can do for the community as a whole.

Khyati Kohli is a rising sophomore  studying business administration.

1 reply
  1. Don Harmon
    Don Harmon says:

    Good article, Khyati. To me and many others, Dolezal is a fake, a phony a fraud. Was her deception well-intended? Maybe. But even so, I can only feel pity for her and the psychological problems that compelled her to commit this bizarre imitation.

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