Exploiting the Archives Week: Color me bad Case File #87 Rachel Dolezal's In Full Color: Finding My Place in a Black and White World
Nathan Rabin's Happy Place (or rather, Nathan Rabin) is taking the week between Christmas and New Year's Off to prevent him from going insane (seriously, dude is on the edge! Writing about himself in the third person and everything). So the next week will be Exploiting the Archives week, where we'll be running some of our favorite pieces from the year that was.
When an otherwise obscure President of the Spokane branch of the NAACP named Rachel Dolezal became national news after her estranged biological parents outed her as having been born white rather than the biracial woman she was pretending to be, the road to public redemption seemed clear to everyone but Dolezal.
The media and public were fascinated and mortified by the surreal and unlikely turn of events. Yet it seems safe to assume that if Dolezal had publicly apologized, explaining that her self-identification as black was a extreme response to trauma and abuse, and then set out to live a more authentic existence, chances are good that a public that, to be fair, knew Dolezal only as that crazy white lady who pretended to be black, would have forgiven her. She could then probably leverage her weird fame for all sorts of weird opportunities, including the requisite memoir and reality television show deal.
Instead of backing down, however, Dolezal doubled down. She insisted that she was not a white woman pretending to be Black, but rather a Black woman who had the misfortune to be born into a race that was not her own (although, to simplify or confuse matters, she’s also big on the idea that race is purely a social construct with no biological elements) the same way a trans woman might be born a man.
To Dolezal, it didn’t matter that her parents were both white, or that she was fair-skinned, freckled and blonde as a child. Dolezal insisted that she was “transracial” and that people who denied her identity as, in the un-ironic words of her memoir, a “woke” “soul sista” were being bigots who’d end up on the wrong side of history, even if they were Black.
The backlash against Dolezal was culture-wide and wildly disproportionate to the level of power and status she held. Trans activists were offended by Dolezal’s attempts to link her struggle to theirs. Conservatives snorted derisively at Dolezal and used her as a tool to attack trans rights, as well as an example of the ultimate “Social Justice Warrior,” more obsessed with broadcasting righteousness than social change. Progressives were equally mortified. Dolezal wasn’t just appropriating a hairstyle or clothes or ideas: she was appropriating Blackness in its entirety. Despite Dolezal’s background as an academic teaching Black history, she didn’t seem to understand why that was wrong. She still doesn’t.
There was so much hostility towards Dolezal that her memoir, In Full Color: Finding My Place In A Black And White World, was apparently rejected by dozens of publishing houses before it was published by BenBella Books despite the enormous attention her story has received.
The response to the book was scathing. At Amazon, the book has an abysmal 2.3 star rating and in a widely read, much passed around (as of this writing, it has been liked 183 thousand times on Facebook, which is good) and totally devastating interview published in The Stranger , black writer Ijeoma Oluo depicted Dolezal as not just delusional and myopic in her conception of race, both as it applies to her and in general, but also pretty damn racist.
It’s a very popular article, but one I imagine Dolezal despises for reasons that go beyond it starting with, “I’m sitting across from Rachel Dolezal and she looks…white” and containing sentiments like, “Something else, something even sinister is at work in (Dolezal’s) relationship and understanding of blackness.”
In her denunciation of Dolezal, Oluo comes to the same conclusion that I did after reading In Full Color. Dolezal seems to think her Black identity must be authentic because she’s better at what she sees as the core of Blackness than people born Black. Dolezal seems to think that since she’s read all the books, gone to all the protests, joined all the civil rights groups, made all the speeches and rocked all the natural Black hairstyles, then how dare anyone tell her she’s not Black just because, you know, by literally every standard other than her own, she most assuredly is not Black?
What makes In Full Color so heartbreaking is that Dolezal’s sense of herself as Black comes from a place of deep pain and rejection. According to Dolezal, her early life as the daughter of racist, deplorable Jesus Freaks Larry and Ruthanne was a cross between Little House On The Prairie and Carrie (Carrie On The Prairie?). Dolezal wasn’t just white: she was the progeny of what appear to be the two worst, and the two whitest people in existence. Rachel compares her early life to that of a sharecropper forced to toil endlessly in the fields, from morning till night, for what can very generously be deemed food and shelter and nothing more.
It was nothing but elk tongue sandwiches, fiery sermons about the Lord’s angry wrath and physical, emotional and sexual abuse for Rachel as a child until she was introduced to another world through images of naked, powerful and beautiful Africans in National Geographic magazines. The author felt an intense feeling not just of fascination and obsession but also of identification. This was the beginning of a life-long love affair with black culture that would eventually lead to Dolezal choosing to identify as Black.
In Full Color alternately resembles a fairy tale and a superhero origin story. In the fairy tale version, Dolezal is a beautiful Black princess doomed by a witch’s curse to be born with the wrong skin color and to live with a pair of tiny white oafs who only pretended to be her “real” parents and forced her to work pre-magical-transformation-Cinderella hours and for as much appreciation and pay.
In this version, it is not a Prince who finds and saves our plucky heroine. Instead, Rachel finds the tools to not only save herself, but also save the people closest to her—in this case her son and adopted siblings—and underprivileged black children everywhere by embracing her Black identity and Black soul and working tirelessly for Black rights not as a white ally but a proud soul sista.
Though it is certainly not Dolezal’s intention to do so, she ends up using the black people she professes to love and honor as props in her hero’s journey. They come to seem less like flesh and blood people with agency and issues and complications of their own than magical mirrors that reflect Dolezal’s Black identity back to her in exhilaratingly flattering ways.
In In Full Color, Dolezal is forever dealing with gushing comments from Black people about how she could be their sister, or her hair is absolutely flawless, or how, whatever her biological origins, she’s Blacker than they’ll ever be. In Dolezal’s telling at least, a deeply scarred and emotionally traumatized blonde white woman’s attempts to pass herself off not just as a black woman but as a Black Civil Rights leader, was met by the black community with universal cheers of, “You go, girl!”
The only exception to the universal cheers of the Black community seem to be the enormous number of Black people who were deeply insulted and offended by Dolezal’s conception of herself as Black. These include her ex-husband/father of her child, a Black man Dolezal portrays as a man who hated his own Blackness so much that he forced Dolezal to live as a white woman, two of Dolezal’s Black adopted siblings and pretty much every Black interviewer and talk show host she encountered while doing press following her outing as a woman born white.
Dolezal pretends she wants to start a deep and perhaps painful but important conversation about race. She doesn’t. She has an opportunity to have a conversation like this with the Black women who interview her during her post-outing press tour but when she’s challenged by these descendants of slaves, she refuses to acknowledge the legitimacy of their arguments because, in her mind, they just don’t understand the true nature (and inherent fallacy) of race the way that she does, either because they simply haven’t read the same books, or because of their internalized racism. Dolezal seems to think that she alone understands race, and is cursed to share the planet with people who are so unenlightened that they are to be pitied more than hated.
In the superhero origin story version of Dolezal’s tale, she was born into perversely humble, even cruel circumstances yet realized at an early age that she had an identity that set her apart from her family and everyone around her. While the world might look at this little blonde white girl and see, well, a little white blonde girl, she was secretly a Black Superwoman.
In this version, Dolezal set about becoming the guardian and protector of Black children everywhere, and became so good at what she sees as the core of Blackness—reading about Black History, leading marches, doing Black Hair, protesting, Black Art, mentoring Black Children—that she crossed some invisible line and became Black.
Identifying as Black didn’t constitute part of Dolezal’s idenity. No, Dolezal’s manufactured Blackness instead constitutes her entire identity. Everything she did was rooted not just in an obsession with an idealized and romanticized fantasy conception of Blackness, but in her own idealized, romanticized Blackness.
Dolezal certainly did a lot for the Black communities that she lived in. I know this because In Full Color is, among other things, an endless catalog of all of the things Dolezal has done for Black communities. If Dolezal won an award, acquired a job skill, held a position or got a raise she dutifully records it in the book to the point where her memoir begins to feel like a very long resume. At the end of the book, I wanted to tell the author, “I’m sorry, I know you need a job but I can’t give you one and even if I could, I wouldn’t, because you seem unhinged and accidentally pretty racist.”
Oluo sees Dolezal as deeply emblematic of white supremacy at its most clueless. It’s hard to derive any other conclusion from Dolezal’s fierce conviction that she, a woman born blonde and white and freckled, to a pair of racists, should be the voice and face and soul of Black Spokane, and not people with slightly more legitimate claims to Blackness.
Dolezal did not just attend marches and meetings. She relentlessly sought out media attention and wrote columns about her Blackness and shouted her Blackness from the mountains without ever predicting that parents she depicts as angry and sadistic and vengeful and vindictive might blow her cover. Dolezal depicts her outing as an attempt on her parent’s behalf to discredit her as a witness in her brother’s molestation case as well as an attempt by the corrupt police establishment of Spokane to get rid of her. But it seems like Dolezal was always going to be found out. What’s surprising is that it took so long.
Dolezal is intent on convincing readers that she’s black. But she also makes it clear that she doesn’t need anyone else’s approval or validation to consider herself black, just her own knowledge of her fundamental racial truth. The author sees true Blackness as something that was always deep inside her, but needed a certain set of circumstances to flower. But she also seems to see herself as someone who attained a state of Blackness by virtue of working so hard in traditionally black realms. Dolezal gives herself permission to identify as Black but she also never stops mounting a phenomenally unconvincing argument as to why she’s Black.
In what might qualify as humor if anyone other than Dolezal had written this book, she states that while race is an inherently artificial construct that means nothing, white people are so stiff and corny that they always clap off-beat, on the ones and threes, whereas the soul brothers and the soul sistas, with their natural sense of rhythm, clap on-beat, on the twos and fours. Needless to say, Dolezal righteously claps on the twos and fours.
Late in the book, as terrible argument 379 as to why everyone should just shut up and accept that she’s Black, Dolezal brags, “When my friend Nikki in college, multiple boyfriends and girlfriends, and a professor at Whitworth all made statements to the effect of, “Rachel is blacker than most black people”-something that happens to this day—they clearly weren’t talking about my complexion or my hair. They were pointing to my commitment to the cause of racial and social justice, my work on behalf of the Black community, and the sense of self it took me multiple decades to fully embrace.”
At one point in In Full Color Dolezal mentions that because of the Dickensian manner in which she was brought up, she has no sense of humor. This is tossed off as an aside, just another example of the infinite ways in which the authors is different from people on both sides of the color line Dolezal wants so badly to erase.
The rest of the book more than backs up Dolezal’s contention that because she grew up in a world with no joy, or laughter, or humor, she can neither understand what makes something funny or be funny herself. When Dolezal was exposed as someone who grew up white and blonde and freckled in the whitest parts of the white Midwest, she became an instant punchline to everyone but herself.
Dolezal doesn’t just seem to not understand what made her a figure or fun, or a comic figure. She doesn’t seem to understand the concept of fun or comedy at all. And that, I think, says something profound about Dolezal and her inability to understand the world, or race, or the way the world sees her. In Full Color is fascinating in part because it is a book about a tiny white blonde woman who became the President of an NAACP branch while identifying as Black from an author who seems to have no idea why anyone would find her story funny.
We understand the world through religion, and through art, and through spirituality and philosophy and storytelling and politics. But just as essentially, we understand the world through humor. This is particularly true when it comes to race. Someone with a sense of humor might interpret a comment like “Rachel is blacker than most black people” to mean something along the lines of, “Damn, Rachel, for a tiny little freckled blonde white girl, you are trying way too damn hard to be black.” But Dolezal does not have a sense of humor, nor does she seem capable of understanding nuance, and she’s so desperate to have her self-conception as Black confirmed by people born Black that she’s incapable of seeing comments like these as anything other than a stirring affirmation that she truly is a strong Black woman and a credit to her race.
Because Dolezal cannot understand comedy, or humor, or the roles that either play in how we understand and process the world, she fatally misunderstands herself and the world. Hell, if she had a sense of humor, she might have made a joke about the fact that she spends In Full Color gushing continuously about all of the opportunities she’s provided for Black people and Black women and Black children and how she’s constantly looking to uplift the race, 24/7, yet when it came time to choose a ghostwriter to help her sing her truth of infinite Blackness from the mountains, she didn’t just pick a white guy, she picked a white guy named Storms Reback, whose name sounds like a White Supremacist organization.
But Dolezal does not make jokes, nor does she undercut the memoir’s relentless self-mythologizing, self-promotion and self-aggrandizement with anything resembling self-deprecation. Dolezal’s humorlessness seems central to her inability to grasp the complexities and ambiguities of the world. She does not seem to understand why her life is both a dark comedy and a tragedy. Because of Dolezal’s fatal lack of self-awareness, a fiery, indignant manifesto Dolezal intends as a triumph of self-realization actually reads more like a tragedy of self-delusion.
Failure, Fiasco or Secret Success: Fiasco
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