Rachel Dolezal stepped down from her leadership position at the NAACP on June 16, 2015 because part of her identity made her continued work there impossible.
The part of her identity that many question (in culture studies we say "the part of her identity that is contested") is her racial identity. Earlier this month Dolezal's parents made a public statement that Dolezal is not the race she claims to be. Dolezal is, according to her parents, white. Dolezal identifies as black.
For several days I was quite confused about why or how a woman who was born to two white parents would identify as black. Usually, we identify as the race our parents identify as their own. I also felt extremely uncomfortable with anyone telling another person that their identity was false. I tend to take people at their word when they tell me about any aspect of their identity and I work to support their identities. But, the more I learned about her life, the more a picture of Dolezal's tortured identity emerged. Dolezal had experiences that led her to turn away from her parents and away from Whiteness. When that happened she became blinded to her own Whiteness and the privilege that she couldn't escape.
Let's take a look at a theory that will help ground our understanding of the moment where Dolezal's identity development got "stuck" or "stunted".
In cultural studies much work has been done on "Minority Identity Development" substantially less work has been done on "Majority Identity Development". However, one of my favorite theories of identity development includes both. In Judith Martin and Thomas Nakayama's 4th edition of Experiencing Intercultural Communication the authors introduce a construct to help explain majority and minority identity development. Here, I'll just focus on majority identity development. In the theory there are four levels of majority identity development, many people live their entire lives in a single stage of this development scale, though the authors see the final stage as a pinnacle that we all might strive for.
- Unexamined Identity: In this stage members of the majority are unaware of their majority status or privileges gained as a result of membership in the majority.
- Acceptance: In the acceptance stage members of the majority gain an awareness of the inequalities in our society but often don't feel like they are part of any group. Their majority status often remains invisible to them. Often they feel like they don't have a culture like minorities do and may feel uncomfortable communicating with people from groups that are the minority counterpoint to their majority group. Often, in this stage of majority development people don't realize that things they say are subtly elitist or that they make unfair assumptions that everyone has the same access to everything they have access to.
- Resistance: In this stage people in the majority are fully aware of their status as a member of the majority and feel uncomfortable with the unfairness of having privileges that they didn't work to gain. People begin to grapple with their privilege and often begin to disdain their majority status and other people in the same majority category. In this stage people begins to identify more fully with one or more minority groups whose status is negatively affected by the majority.
- Redefinition and Reintegration: In the final stage, people come to grips with their status as a member of a majority group and begin to appreciate their own group while also appreciating other groups. In this stage people recognize that systems exist that privilege their group and often begin to work to change these systems to eliminate the privilege in the future.
The "resistance stage" seems to be where Rachel Dolezal retreated from whiteness and erroneously believed she could identify as black (in a later blog entry I'll talk about why this adopted identity just can't work in our culture as it exists today). Throughout her lifetime she has had to negotiate a number of identity contradictions in constructing an identity that, while livable for her, is deeply problematic for the people who now feel betrayed by her. Here are some of the binds that Dolezal had to negotiate as she constructed her identity:
- Dolezal grew up feeling extremely isolated on her parents' Montana homestead. She was homeschooled* in a strict environment that embraced corporal punishment as part of the educational process.
- Dolezal is a survivor of both childhood family violence.
- Earlier this year Dolezal claimed she was born in a tipi in Montana and spent most of her childhood living off the land. Her mother disputes this claim, stating that she (the mother) had lived in a tipi for a time but wasn't living in it when Rachel was born. She also claimed that their family has faint traces of Native heritage.
- When Dolezal went away to school in Mississippi, she became part of a black family that she felt closer to than her own.
- Dolezal seemed to bond more fully with her younger adopted siblings than with her parents or biological brother. Her siblings were adopted in her teens. Their adoption led her to embrace black culture in order to teach them about it. In 2010 Dolezal became the legal guardian of her youngest brother, Izaiah. In the petition to the court, reports CNN, Izaiah wrote that he wanted to live "in a multiracial household where black culture is celebrated and I have a connection to the black community."
- Dolezal met and fell in love with Kevin Moore, an African American physical therapist.
- While she was married to Moore, Dolezal attended grad school at, historically Black, Howard University. While she was a student she sued the school for racial discrimination alleging that she was denied a teaching assistantship, other employment and a scholarship because of her race. The courts found that Howard University's actions were not racially motivated and Dolezal had to pay Howard University over $3,000 in damages.
- Dolezal is a survivor of domestic violence in her marriage.
- After grad school she and her husband moved to Idaho and her marriage ended after an ugly battle for custody of their child, Franklin. While in Idaho she did art and held a variety of civil rights/social justice jobs. Between 2005-2008 her racial identity shifted from white to black.
- By the time she was hired by the North Idaho Human Rights Education Institute in 2008, Dolezal portrayed herself as black.
I can understand Dolezal's struggle for identity. Race is a social construct that affects each of us differently over our lifetimes. I haven't walked in her shoes and I never will. It seems like in her resistance to Whiteness and everything that comes with it she got stuck in an identity that doesn't make sense in our society today. I feel bad for everyone, including her, who have been hurt by her perceived deceptions. I still don't think she perceives that she was deceptive. I hope she has support for the day that it finally hits her.
I'm not negating the harm she has caused as she maintained her identity. I'm pointing out that people from messed up abusive backgrounds do messed up things. She made no sense to me until I understood that she was a person in crisis who found a place she felt safe and stayed there.
Personally, I don't think any of us are "racially pure" and really, who would want to be? Race is a social construct used for centuries to subjugate many groups of people below another group of people. When we do our blood tests to find out our origins we learn that we are all mixed and interconnected. "Race" and "Culture" are really two separate things. Dolezal may feel culturally like she fits in most and feels the safest in the Black community. Erroneously, she decided that the only way to be part of the Black community was to become Black...which is just the plot of a really bad comedy....one that she probably never saw or learned from since she came from the isolated experience of an abusive home school* environment out in the middle of nowhere (think about it....her world and all of her references before college were within the confines of her parents' home and just about nothing else).
Yeah, she made a whole lot of really bad decisions. But, what part of her experience ever equipped her to make any good decisions?
* I know some home schooling alumni who had remarkable, even brilliant personal and educational experiences. I also know some home schooling alumni who were abused and/or left/fled the home schooling environment because of severe abuse.
For further reading: Kareem Abdul-Jabar: Let Rachel Dolezal be as Black as she wants to be
- What the Rachel Dolezal controversy can teach us about race, part 2: Whether she identifies as White or Black, she still passes the "brown paper bag" test so she still has light skinned privilege.
- What the Rachel Dolezal controversy can teach us about race, part 3: Dolezal's identity feeds the emerging narrative of "White fragility".