The Heart of Whiteness: Ijeoma Oluo Interviews Rachel Dolezal
April 19, 2017 8:46 AM   Subscribe

From Seattle's alt-weekly The Stranger, The Heart of Whiteness: Ijeoma Oluo Interviews Rachel Dolezal, the White Woman Who Identifies as Black
I did not want to think about, talk about, or write about Rachel Dolezal ever again. While many people have been highly entertained by the story of a woman who passed herself off for almost a decade as a black woman, even rising to the head of the Spokane chapter of the NAACP, before being "outed" during a TV interview by KXLY reporter Jeff Humphrey as white, as later confirmed by her white parents, I found little amusement in her continued spotlight. When the story first broke in June 2015, I was approached by more editors in a week than I had heard from in two months. They were all looking for "fresh takes" on the Dolezal scandal from the very people whose identity had now been put up for debate—black women. I wrote two pieces on Dolezal for two different websites, mostly focused not on her, but on the lack of understanding of black women's identity that was causing the conversation about Dolezal to become more and more painful for so many black women.

After a few weeks of media obsession, I—and most of the other black women I knew—was completely done with Rachel Dolezal.

Or, at least I hoped to be.
posted by mhum (72 comments total) 40 users marked this as a favorite
 
I feel like this thread should be connected with the 'hate reading' thread, because that is the only way I would read Dolezal's book.

Great interview, though. The continued lack of self-awareness is frankly staggering.
posted by lumpenprole at 8:56 AM on April 19 [7 favorites]


Thanks for this. Like probably everyone, I could really stand to never hear about her again. But Ijeoma Oluo's writing and thoughtfulness was really worthwhile, and I'm glad I read this story from her.
posted by Dashy at 9:00 AM on April 19 [32 favorites]


Great interview, though. The continued lack of self-awareness is frankly staggering.

Exactly. I've know a few white people who grew up in majority black enviornments, and who dressed and spoke like their black peers, but if you asked them 'what they were,' they'd say "white", or more often whatever white ethic group they belonged to.

This ostensibly educated woman lacks even that level of getting it.
posted by jonmc at 9:06 AM on April 19 [14 favorites]


Site is being hugged to death. Google cache link of the article.
posted by slater at 9:07 AM on April 19 [5 favorites]


Oh, the shade. Photo caption: "Ijeoma Oluo (left)..."
posted by emelenjr at 9:14 AM on April 19 [38 favorites]


Wow. The part where her response to "don't you have privilege just by looking white" was mostly "no because I'm Rachel Dolezal, the famous one" and also "I look nonwhite" was pitiful. The arguments people make when you have them dead to rights are really sad. Like a trapped wolf chewing through its own leg.
posted by radicalawyer at 9:14 AM on April 19 [2 favorites]


Oh, the shade. Photo caption: "Ijeoma Oluo (left)..."

At the end of the article, the author comments on this:
Before I left Dolezal, I remembered that my editors had told me to make sure the photographer got a few pictures of us together. We were both sitting at the kitchen table, which provided an ideal photo opportunity.

The natural light from the sliding door by the kitchen was great for photography, but with our current seating arrangement, that light was falling on me and leaving her in the shadow. It is standard practice to have the interviewee sit in the best light, so I asked her to switch seats. The photographer thanked me for the suggestion, and I stood to allow Dolezal to take the chair I had been in.

Dolezal looked at me with a smirk and said accusingly: "Then you'll look darker and I'll look lighter, because the light's on me. I get it."

I realized that like all other black people who had challenged Dolezal, I had been written off as a bitter, petty black woman. She was concerned that the wrong lighting would make her look white.
posted by cjelli at 9:16 AM on April 19 [53 favorites]


I'm loath to give any more attention to Dolezal than I already have, but on the other hand I don't think Ijeoma Oluo would have pitched or published this interview if she didn't have some very good reason in mind for doing it. So I guess I'll have to begrudgingly add it to my to-read pile.
posted by tobascodagama at 9:21 AM on April 19 [1 favorite]


At long last, the profile she deserves.
posted by Myca at 9:27 AM on April 19 [8 favorites]


One of the more jolting experiences I've had recently was in a largely-white-and-progressive discussion group where the topic of Rachel Dolezal came up, and everyone pretty much agreed that yeah, she was awful, she was ridiculous, she was appropriative, etc. The conversation came to a sudden standstill as the one black woman in the group said, "I LIKE Rachel Dolezal. I think she's great." I waited for the punchline, which didn't come.

"The number one thing white people always do is take on everything good or cool that black people do, and leave the actual struggle to us," she said. "Dolezal at least did the opposite, she fought for black people, she tried to take on that burden, she tried to take on that struggle. If every white person did what she did, the world would be a better place."

I was very very surprised by this reaction, which has so far been literally the only time I've seen this sentiment expressed by anyone other than Dolezal herself. I disagreed, but didn't do so openly, because it seemed like I'd be adding another SUPER weird level by being a white man saying "no no, that's QUITE misguided" to a black woman about what it means to be a black woman. All I could really say was: "Huh."

This Oluo interview is excellent and interesting, and more or less exactly what I would hope and expect to read about Dolezal, but man alive, the surprise at my acquaintance's response has stuck with me, and I've kept turning it over and over in my head. I guess the point of this comment is to reiterate my initial response: "Huh."
posted by Greg Nog at 9:28 AM on April 19 [79 favorites]


Here's an account of her professional behavior that's pretty entertaining:
She isn't shown in a positive light.
posted by mfu at 9:33 AM on April 19 [4 favorites]


Anybody else wonder if Rachel Dolezal has seen Get Out yet?
posted by Strange Interlude at 9:33 AM on April 19 [15 favorites]


I know someone who is a much milder version of Dolezal, but appears to share some of the same delusions. It seems like, in the context of the US, this is likely a rare but diagnosable condition - a specific form or expression of mental illness based on our history of insane racism. I wonder if anyone has ever looked at it at a macro level?
posted by ryanshepard at 9:39 AM on April 19 [8 favorites]


This is what happens when instead of confronting your own privilege and white liberal guilt, you decide to run from it into a fantasy identity instead. It is delusion, for sure, but to be honest, as a white person myself, I feel a little sorry for her. She seems to have a profoundly vulnerable, unstable self-identity. That blind spot she's got that makes her incapable of seeing how offensive it might be to anyone else who doesn't feel privileged enough to believe racial identity is or ever could be a conscious choice seems like it might be either a touch of narcissism or some form of dissociation. Either way, to me, she represents an extreme of that impulse some liberal whites have to feel they can opt-out of shared responsibility for the legacy of white supremacist ideology. Basically, I think it just boils down to her being too weak to accept that she's white because she's too ashamed and full of self loathing. I think just about any white person of conscience can relate to that impulse, but most of us realize it's not really constructive as white people to be that preoccupied with assuaging our own sense of racial shame.

I mean, maybe one thing you could say in her defense: she obviously gets at a very visceral level that white people as a group still have a lot of ugly history in the U.S. to take responsibility and atone for. Unfortunately, she also narcissistically believes she should be entitled to claim a counterfactual identity for herself just to relieve her own guilt, rather than owning it and doing the heavy emotional work of coming to terms with and accepting that, at least until some imaginary future where we've dismantled racism, she's white and has to learn to own that without bigotry.

It's an ironic fact that, on average, there's more common genetic heritage between any random white person in the U.S. and any random black person. The reason that's true is that we lump all kinds of different ethnic groups and nationalities into the white pool in the U.S., while the ethnicities and nationalities we group together as black are relatively less diverse. In scientific fact, there's no basis for feeling more affinity or kinship for other whites than for black people or other groups, but culturally and sociologically, the logic of race is still an inescapable reality in practice in the U.S. And it seems like it must be an unhealthy denial of reality to see oneself as exceptional to such an irrational and self absorbed extreme in that context.
posted by saulgoodman at 9:48 AM on April 19 [17 favorites]


Here's an account of her professional behavior that's pretty entertaining:
She isn't shown in a positive light.


Wow, that white lady plays the Race Card like she doesn't have any other hands.
posted by leotrotsky at 9:50 AM on April 19 [11 favorites]


What a photo it is. Oluo sits there with an utterly and justly fed-up expression, Dolezal sits there with the same smiling explainy-mouth you might see on a photo of a community coordinator doing her coordinating, and between them, there's a sweet little boy grasping both of their shoes, knowing none of this thing above him, this performance of delusion that will define so much of his life.
posted by Countess Elena at 9:50 AM on April 19 [10 favorites]


I don't see why Oluo had to throw quite so much shade at Spokane.
posted by oddman at 9:59 AM on April 19


I don't think it's a coincidence that she suddenly has a book coming out, a media promotion tour, articles about how she's so poor now, etc. I'd guess that she got this deal because the Republican noise machine considers her a useful idiot. She's inflammatory to both liberals and conservatives for different reasons. She's a buffoon, an insistent buffoon, and her buffoonery is impervious to any other points of view. For the people who want to turn her into a talking point about liberal hypocrisy! and create some disgusting false equivalence about transgender rights, she is too good to pass up. She has already been turned into a bunch of shitty talking points about how some people just want to be what they aren't, and hasn't our culture just gone crazy these days? That she is a single, solitary nutjob doesn't matter.

I remember the right wingers absolutely GLOATING about this when it first blew up a couple years ago. They tried SO HARD to rub liberal noses in it. So, yeah. If you thought America was done with Rachel Dolezal, you aren't familiar with right wing media. (Can't say I blame you.)
posted by Vic Morrow's Personal Vietnam at 10:01 AM on April 19 [13 favorites]


This is a great article. The analogy with money as a rejoinder to 'but race is just a social construction anyway' strikes me as especially useful.
posted by Ragged Richard at 10:02 AM on April 19 [5 favorites]


What I thought worked so well about the interview was that for all that Dolezal had become a public figure, had a book deal, had a platform to discuss her vision of race, she was actually extraordinarily hard to talk to. Every paragraph includes another defensive gesture, a bit of off-putting body language, a sense of growing irritation and exasperation. A strangely large amount of leave me alone for someone who seems incapable of leaving public view. I've stayed away from the majority of the coverage of Dolezal, and this is the first interview where I feel like I've actually seen her. It's a confusing sight.
posted by mittens at 10:03 AM on April 19 [12 favorites]


I don't see why Oluo had to throw quite so much shade at Spokane.

Agree. It's "lily white" because it's about 80% white? African Americans are about 12% of the US population. The non-white slice of Spokane is pretty diverse with only 2% black (plus 5% who identify as multi-racial and 6% Hispanic which includes various races).
posted by beagle at 10:04 AM on April 19


I know someone who is a much milder version of Dolezal, but appears to share some of the same delusions. It seems like, in the context of the US, this is likely a rare but diagnosable condition - a specific form or expression of mental illness based on our history of insane racism. I wonder if anyone has ever looked at it at a macro level?

Yeah, this lady isn't the only one out there, and they seems they gravitate to academia: Take andre douglas pond cummings (he refuses to capitalize his own name) from soon-to-be closing Indiana Tech Law School who appears to publish primarily on critical race theory and on hip-hop, or Anna Stubblefield, a professor of Africana philosophy recently convicted of raping a mentally disabled black man.

This is not to say that white folks can't teach Black Studies, but only that the white folks who do teach Black Studies seem to have a higher than average kookiness factor.

It doesn't strike me as intentionally malicious, so much as deeply wrong-headed. They seem to take empathizing with the plight of black folks to such an extent that they begin to see themselves AS black folks. It's like the racial version of I Made This.
posted by leotrotsky at 10:04 AM on April 19 [8 favorites]


I would not be surprised if Dolezal is mentally ill and that this has contributed to her need to cling to her invented identity and attendant victim narrative* so strongly. But to say the specific behavior of pretending to be black might be a diagnosable condition -

Well, it bugs me. Because as you note, it's not without context. It's taking place within a system of insane racism. Why do we need to explain it that way? It seems like just a slightly more extreme version of a typical behavior.

* And what I mean here is that she hasn't just invented a black identity; she's also co-opted black oppression, which she uses to play up her status as a victim, to the point of inventing racist incidents against her, attacking POC or using them as props in her narrative, etc.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 10:05 AM on April 19 [14 favorites]


[A few comments deleted. We've had a number of threads about Dolezal, many have gone badly, and the only reason this one's surviving is if people want to directly talk about Oluo's article specifically. If you're wanting to comment in a kind of general vague way of "oh this situation sure makes you think", please pass this thread by.]
posted by LobsterMitten at 10:06 AM on April 19 [1 favorite]


Dolezal was also interviewed recently on this CBC radio programme. She echoes what she says in this interview. Hearing her voice I think helps clarify her tone.
posted by Ashwagandha at 10:10 AM on April 19 [1 favorite]


A good read - thanks for posting!
posted by Going To Maine at 10:14 AM on April 19 [1 favorite]


I don’t see why Oluo had to throw quite so much shade at Spokane.

Snark was The Stranger’s brand before Gawker was a glint in Nick Denton’s eye.
posted by Going To Maine at 10:16 AM on April 19 [8 favorites]


"Perhaps it really was that simple. I couldn't escape Rachel Dolezal because I can't escape white supremacy."

This is a good piece.
posted by sandettie light vessel automatic at 10:19 AM on April 19 [12 favorites]


Agreed, this is a great piece, thanks for sharing it.

Speaking of shade -- I laughed out loud at the title of a related article linked at the end: I Haven't Read Rachel Dolezal's Book, But I Identify as a Person Who Has.
posted by Two unicycles and some duct tape at 10:26 AM on April 19 [41 favorites]


For a white woman who had grown up with only a few magazines of stylized images of blackness to imagine herself into a real-life black identity without any lived black experience, to turn herself into a black history professor without a history degree, to place herself at the forefront of local black society that she had adopted less than a decade earlier, all while seeming to claim to do it better and more authentically than any black person who would dare challenge her—well, it's the ultimate "you can be anything" success story of white America. Another branch of manifest destiny. No wonder America couldn't get enough of the Dolezal story.

Ijeoma Oluo is wonderful and this is easily the smartest piece and most revealing piece I've read on Dolezal, but this assessment of the cultural reception of her story feels off to me, because as far as I can tell, no one thinks that Rachel Dolezal is black except for Rachel Dolezal.

I mean, 90% of the people who write or talk about her do so with pure disgust and anger. Then there are 5% who are "let your freak flag fly" people like the one Greg Nog discussed above, who are less persuaded by her decision to identify as black than invested in her right to identify however she wants, no matter (and indeed, precisely because of) how obviously bananas that claim is. Then, 5% are devil's-advocate jerks who just want to use her to attack the concept of black identity. These are her most vociferous defenders, but it's not like they think she's black - they're just using her to try and win an argument about a subject -identity- they don't actually understand. Her not-blackness is the baseline of their argument, which goes something along the lines of: "She's not black, but if you believe that identity is constructed than you can't say she's not black, therefore there's no such thing as blackness." It's inane, and hurtful, but it totally shares the same premise: the idea that Rachel Dolezal is black is absurd.

In a way, then, it seems like the one thing that America can agree on is that Rachel Dolezal isn't black. And to the extent that the conversation about her is anything other than pure internet hate fuel, then it feels like that has to be the premise of any conversation about the cultural reception of her story. We might not know exactly what blackness is, but we know it isn't Rachel Dolezal.
posted by pretentious illiterate at 10:39 AM on April 19 [8 favorites]


I want to quote this whole article, it is just so good. Some particularly salient points that felt like an ikea's worth of lightbulbs going off for me:

"I worked very hard, but I didn't resonate with white women who were born with a silver spoon. I didn't find a sentence of connection in those stories, or connection with the story of the princess who was looking for a knight in shining armor." She almost spits out the last sentences. I am beginning to wonder if it is blackness that Dolezal doesn't understand, but whiteness.

"I am more than a little skeptical that Dolezal's identity as the revolutionary strike against the myth of race is anything more than impractical white saviorism—at least when it comes to the ways in which race oppresses black people. Even if there were thousands of Rachel Dolezals in the country, would their claims of blackness do anything to open up the definition of whiteness to those with darker skin, coarser hair, or racialized features? "

This, especially, is such a good point. I'm not saying I buy that what she's trying to do is eliminate the borders of race as a caste system, but even if that's what she was trying to do, no amount of white people invading black spaces will allow black people into the 'sanctuary' that is whiteness.

If Dolezal's identity only helps other people born white become black while still shielding them from the majority of the oppression of visible blackness, and does nothing to help those born black become white—how is this not just more white privilege?

"It is not just our pettiness, it is also our lack of education that is preventing us from getting on Dolezal's level of racial understanding. She informs me multiple times that black people have rejected her because they simply haven't learned yet that race is a social construct created by white supremacists" I'm just going to leave this untouched.
posted by FirstMateKate at 10:42 AM on April 19 [16 favorites]


Great piece. I also thought about Get Out throughout the entire article, and likewise thought about Dolezal while watching the movie. Trying to avoid spoilers, I think that film elegantly pins down how liberal white people often appreciate black culture and experience in a way that is more about coveting blackness rather than valuing black people as people.
posted by Emily's Fist at 10:56 AM on April 19 [8 favorites]


That is a fine article. And I'm so glad this Rachel woman is there to help show Black folks how to be Black. Someone has to, I guess.
posted by rmd1023 at 11:00 AM on April 19 [2 favorites]


I hope that editors won't remain drawn to this story, as if to a one- woman Juggalo Gathering.
posted by thelonius at 11:03 AM on April 19 [4 favorites]


I gotta say, I remain drawn to this story, and I hate it. I think it's because I'm acquainted with a person who, like Dolezal, continues to pretend to be non-white in the face of a community who for the most part knows what's up. Maybe it infuriates me that there are so many (mostly white) people who shrug and claim it's no biggie.

I'm glad for this article because now I have something to fling at those people that explains why it is indeed annoying as fuck to have people idly validate nutty white people who are taking up space that doesn't belong to them.
posted by RedEmma at 11:10 AM on April 19 [2 favorites]


[Couple comments deleted; again, we've really discussed this case a bunch of times, and those threads have very thoroughly covered the suggestions about how we could see Dolezal in a sympathetic light (maybe she's mentally ill, maybe we should feel sorry for her, maybe we should see it from her perspective, hasn't she suffered enough); it's gonna tank this thread to insist on circling back around to them yet again. If folks want to talk about Oluo's points in this article that's great, otherwise please skip this.]
posted by LobsterMitten at 11:22 AM on April 19


I hope that editors won't remain drawn to this story, as if to a one- woman Juggalo Gathering.

Don't drag the poor Juggalos into this mess. I think even they would find her embarrassing.

/not a juggalo, but kinda digs them
posted by jonmc at 11:31 AM on April 19 [9 favorites]


Great piece. I also thought about Get Out throughout the entire article, and likewise thought about Dolezal while watching the movie. Trying to avoid spoilers, I think that film elegantly pins down how liberal white people often appreciate black culture and experience in a way that is more about coveting blackness rather than valuing black people as people.

I don't think it's about coveting Black culture so much as the attention Black people often get when they're successful in a given area, especially one that Blacks generally hadn't been particularly outstanding in before. Witness the movie references to Tiger Woods and Jesse Owens.

Oluo's article includes several photos, one of which is Dolezal's personal library with her own book prominently displayed. The caption is, "Is there a copy of Black Like Me on the shelf?" I chortled.
posted by fuse theorem at 11:55 AM on April 19 [6 favorites]


and hopefully this is end.
posted by Theta States at 12:15 PM on April 19 [2 favorites]


Not my idea of journalism. There's as much in this "interview" about Ijeoma Oluo as there is about Rachel Dolezal.
posted by Carol Anne at 12:46 PM on April 19


You say that like it's a bad thing. There's been way too much ink spilled over Rachel Dolezal as it is.

I was just thinking what a shame it is that Ijeoma Oluo is such a great writer and the only reason I discover her stuff is because she wrote about Rachel Fucking Dolezal. But no! She also wrote Welcome to the anti-racism movement, here's what you missed which I read a while ago and probably found on metafilter! And her brother is married to Lindy West! And you can read more of her stuff here!
posted by selfmedicating at 12:53 PM on April 19 [33 favorites]


I've said here before, but I'll say it again: if you're not following Ijeoma Oluo on some form of social media, you should be.
posted by palomar at 1:26 PM on April 19 [14 favorites]


I love this interview because it's so much about Ijeoma Olou as about Rachel Dolezal, allowing me to see how she's coming off to a black woman whose approval she would probably secretly love to have, and to see how pissy she becomes when she doesn't get what she feels she's entitled to.
posted by bile and syntax at 1:26 PM on April 19 [22 favorites]


The way Dolezal reacts to switching positions for the photo is rich.
posted by grumpybear69 at 1:42 PM on April 19 [2 favorites]


I follow Ijeoma Olou on Facebook and you should too. She's really a fabulous writer.
posted by ceejaytee at 1:42 PM on April 19


I don't think it's about coveting Black culture so much as the attention Black people often get when they're successful in a given area, especially one that Blacks generally hadn't been particularly outstanding in before. Witness the movie references to Tiger Woods and Jesse Owens.

Yeah, great point and observation. Culture, in general, was probably the wrong word for me to use. I meant that I see a similarity between general widespread white appropriation of Black culture, Dolezal, and the movie's targets. They all sort of defend themselves by implying that they're not racist because they actually appreciate something about Black people, but really their desire seems to be to inhabit/possess blackness for themselves, whatever they project or imagine it to be.
posted by Emily's Fist at 1:47 PM on April 19


I’ve said here before, but I'll say it again: if you're not following Ijeoma Oluo on some form of social media, you should be.

If she doesn’t toot, I don’t give a poot.
posted by Going To Maine at 1:49 PM on April 19 [2 favorites]


(She is, sadly, not on Mastodon. At least not that I know of.)
posted by tobascodagama at 1:53 PM on April 19


I'm loath to give any more attention to Dolezal than I already have, but on the other hand I don't think Ijeoma Oluo would have pitched or published this interview if she didn't have some very good reason in mind for doing it. So I guess I'll have to begrudgingly add it to my to-read pile.

Oh I feel the same way. But the last few paragraphs at the end are completely worth it.
posted by emjaybee at 1:57 PM on April 19


*Oluo.
posted by anem0ne at 2:51 PM on April 19


I hope this gets Ijeoma Olou a lot of attention. She is such a great writer, and important for anyone who wants to consider themselves to be getting "woke."
posted by apricot at 3:42 PM on April 19 [2 favorites]


We should all avoid trying to achieve "wokeness" and instead consider ourselves in a perpetual state of awakening. It is not a checkbox on a to-do list, it is a lifelong process of being incrementally less shitty.
posted by grumpybear69 at 3:49 PM on April 19 [30 favorites]


We should all avoid trying to achieve "wokeness" and instead consider ourselves in a perpetual state of awakening. It is not a checkbox on a to-do list, it is a lifelong process of being perpetually less shitty.

So, like the Buddhist notion of enlightenment then?
posted by acb at 3:52 PM on April 19 [2 favorites]


I keep seeing Olou instead of how Oluo spells her name. Oluo, u before second o.

Her piece speaks of identity, constructed and given. If we could respect her name I think it would be a good start.
posted by anem0ne at 3:52 PM on April 19 [2 favorites]


Oh - loo - woh. Three syllables.
posted by glasseyes at 4:16 PM on April 19


She points out on Twitter:
The response to my Dolezal piece has been overwhelming. Thank you to all who reached out. I want to point out something important :
This piece was written by a black woman working w a black editor (@mudede ). If you are wondering why a piece like this didn't happen sooner
Understand how much of this Dolezal conversation has been dominated by white voices. How often these interviews were done by white journos
Understand that this debate of black female identity has largely silenced actual black women.
& understand that with all the places I write for, @mudede is the only black editor I've gotten to work with in about two years, 1 of 2 ever
Maybe next time pubs want a great piece on black female identity that gets so much traffic it breaks the damn site- they'll hire black women
posted by rewil at 4:52 PM on April 19 [33 favorites]


I understand how effing annoying it must be to be asked about Dolezal constantly but I'm glad Oluo sat down with her and wrote this -- I'm glad to have the insights she presents. Really interesting.

"Basically, I think it just boils down to her being too weak to accept that she's white because she's too ashamed and full of self loathing. ... I mean, maybe one thing you could say in her defense: she obviously gets at a very visceral level that white people as a group still have a lot of ugly history in the U.S. to take responsibility and atone for. Unfortunately, she also narcissistically believes she should be entitled to claim a counterfactual identity for herself just to relieve her own guilt,"

I think in her case, it's also that her white parents were apparently fairly abusive, and her rejection of whiteness and embrace of blackness has a lot to do with rejecting her parents and forging an identity separate from them. Which is maybe why she's so totally solipsistic about her racial identity, and maybe why she can't sort out that race has social effects and isn't just available for personal claiming; realizing she isn't black and can't become black would require her to lose her entire method of coping with her abusive childhood. She'd have to say she was in some small way like her abusive parents, and not like her adopted siblings that she protected from them.

Which isn't meant as an excuse -- she's done a lot of harm with her inability to engage with reality or to listen to black people about their own experiences -- but I think in her case the triggering event is only partly racial guilt. I think a HUGE part of it is rejection of her parents and their abuse, and that's why she's so impossible to get through to.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 5:04 PM on April 19 [11 favorites]


There is a question here that the piece walks up to, acknowledges, and then walks away from: if, as a white person, you do not relate to the portrayals of “whiteness” that exist around you, how should you understand your whiteness?
posted by Going To Maine at 6:49 PM on April 19 [1 favorite]


That's a good question, Going To Maine, and I think about it a lot. Oluo certainly doesn't have to answer it for white people. I personally think it's a lot like grumpybear69 says: we just have to wake up every day prepared to hear that we're doing wrong and we need to start doing it right. And that I can accept. We have all sinned and fallen short of the etc., etc., because we can't act completely outside of a system of structural racism. We just have to work on it so that there might be some future free of that. Dolezal, for all the reasons that Eyebrows McGee outlined above, could not and is probably never going to accept that kind of perspective.
posted by Countess Elena at 7:05 PM on April 19 [4 favorites]


I don't see why Oluo had to throw quite so much shade at Spokane

...Because she's a Black woman who's had to live in Spokane? (speaking as a Black woman who visited frequently, I was pretty down with the shade).
posted by TwoStride at 8:09 PM on April 19 [9 favorites]


I don't see why Oluo had to throw quite so much shade at Spokane.

Spokane is an editorial theme connecting all of the articles in this week's edition of The Stranger.
posted by crotchety old git at 8:50 PM on April 19 [1 favorite]


I personally think it's a lot like grumpybear69 says: we just have to wake up every day prepared to hear that we're doing wrong and we need to start doing it right.

But to take this back to the article: it sounds as if Dolezal grew up surrounded by a conception of whiteness (rich, it seems to be implied) to which she didn’t relate, an experience akin to (tho’ totally different from) that of a black kid growing up finding that they don’t relate to the portrayals of blackness they see in the media. This isn’t a case of a white person waking up seeing that they need to do better - it’s a white person waking up and finding that the systems of “whiteness” as defined by society neglect them. That isn’t on Dolezal to do “better”, so to speak, beyond not deciding that if she can’t relate to being white then she must be black - which was her singular bad choice.
posted by Going To Maine at 9:06 PM on April 19 [1 favorite]


"But to take this back to the article: it sounds as if Dolezal grew up surrounded by a conception of whiteness (rich, it seems to be implied) to which she didn’t relate, an experience akin to (tho’ totally different from) that of a black kid growing up finding that they don’t relate to the portrayals of blackness they see in the media. "

Well, what's interesting is that she grew up in a fundamentalist Pentecostal Christian family in a semi-homesteading situation (pdf) without very much money, in a small town where none of her peers were rich; her description of whiteness as being rich and having a "silver spoon" is as much from media portrayals as her vision of blackness is.

To jump back to this comment: "if, as a white person, you do not relate to the portrayals of “whiteness” that exist around you, how should you understand your whiteness?"

I think part of her problem is that she sees both whiteness and blackness as monolithic. She utterly rejects the abusive-Christian-fundamentalist whiteness of her parents (easy to understand) and doesn't identify with the rich preppy whiteness popular in media (also easy to understand for a girl who grew up semi-homesteading in Montana). But there's a lot of other white subcultures in the US than just "Christian fundamentalist homesteader" and "preppy rich media people." And having fled from her parents' white identity, seeming to view it as THE Platonic form of whiteness, which once she (understandably) rejects it leaves no space for her to understand herself as white; she takes on a black identity and constructs a similarly limited and proscribed definition of blackness and refuses to hear or understand people's experiences outside of what she's decided the definition is, including this whole thing where she's insisting black people just aren't woke enough to understand how she's black.

I mean there are literally millions of ways to understand whiteness beyond the way she grew up and what you see on the CW. And again while it's understandable that she identified with her adopted black siblings she tried to protect as against her abusive white parents, there are an awful lot of people in the US who grow up in that sort of fucked-up fundamentalist Christian environment, down to the adoption of minority children (and typically erasure of their culture), who manage to reject it completely without deciding they're "transracial." There are big supportive groups of ex-homeschoolers and ex-fundamentalists online who grew up in situations very similar to hers that she could connect with and see her own experience reflected in; presumably she could find a depiction of whiteness in that community that she could relate to very directly.

Again, I sort-of understand how she got where she got, as a child of abuse whose parents had probably pretty toxic views about race (just guessing based off my knowledge of the "Train Up A Child" sorts of fundamentalists they were, and how those groups go about choosing to adopt minority children). But she doesn't seem to have done ANY of the work of thinking about whiteness and privilege, because she really wouldn't have to look far to find other white people who can identify with her childhood experience and adult rejection of it, and all its toxic racial bullshit, who write interestingly and eloquently about self-understanding (including racial self-understanding) in the wake of that sort of upbringing.

I have all the sympathy in the world for her fleeing her abusive upbringing, but the part where she's determined to bring a whole bunch of black people into it and use them as props for her reinvention crosses all available lines. You don't get to exorcise your childhood demons by turning other human beings into unwilling extras in your psychodrama.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 12:04 AM on April 20 [31 favorites]


It seems like there are so many ways to get out of that abusive background, which is something I've seen about half my friends do and had to do myself. A lot of people cut communication, moved out, tried to get emancipated, ran away, did drugs, threw ourselves into school or art, went to therapy, walked away from their parents' religion and either found another one or became atheists, a bunch of us were punks so there was a lot of tattooing and body modification to take back our lives and bodies and mental spaces... personally I realized when I came out that it was a license to write my own future, and a lot of the other LGBT folks I know have used that part of our identities to make our own spaces, to build our own families and futures that way. Dolezal is the only person I've ever heard of who decided to co-opt a racial identity. Even if it's about identifying with her adopted siblings, it's an incredibly strange response.

I kind of wonder what her siblings think of all this, but not enough to dig around for it.
posted by bile and syntax at 6:15 AM on April 20 [4 favorites]


The article is very good. It's hard to tell if Dolezal has some mental illness or if she likes what she interprets as Afro-American female style or if she somehow felt she could really be somebody as a Black woman, or whatever. As a white woman, it's notable to hear a Black woman describe a woman's whiteness.
posted by theora55 at 7:12 AM on April 20 [1 favorite]


Dolezal is the only person I've ever heard of who decided to co-opt a racial identity. Even if it's about identifying with her adopted siblings, it's an incredibly strange response.

I'm reminded of that set of Of Montreal albums in which the frontman, to cope with his disintegrating marriage, invented a flamboyant, polymorphously genderqueer alter-ego named Georgie Fruit for himself.
posted by acb at 7:41 AM on April 20 [3 favorites]


I was reminded of a scene in Paris is Burning, the person who was telling the interviewer about their desperate need to be a white woman, more specifically a rich, white, beautiful, blonde woman. And the things they would do to achieve that identity.

It's been years since I saw that film but that scene is etched on my memory. The burning, desperate NEED that person had, for something most people would consider unchangeable.

I've known some people who claim racial identities that others wouldn't assign to them without a lot of prompting. Usually these people are tiresome to be around; you learn to avoid triggering their harangues. Dolezal seems closer to that end of the spectrum, but the sheer neediness on display, is what makes me think of that other character.
posted by elizilla at 8:30 AM on April 20 [3 favorites]


Ijeoma Oluo posted to Facebook today why she didn't include discussion of transgender identity with Rachel Dolezal in the piece. It's very good and, as someone if the comments said, humble and consistent, and solidifies my thought yesterday that Ijeoma Oluo might be the only person on earth whose Dolezal interview I wanted to read.
posted by MCMikeNamara at 8:43 AM on April 20 [22 favorites]


Ooh, that Facebook post is great as well. Thank you.
posted by lauranesson at 8:59 AM on April 20


The article is very good. It's hard to tell if Dolezal has some mental illness or if she likes what she interprets as Afro-American female style or if she somehow felt she could really be somebody as a Black woman, or whatever.

I know it's been discussed to death, but one thing struck me in this article, probably because this is the first time I've known the interviewer was black and had that direct angle in questioning the privilege aspect. That is, that Dolezal doesn't seem fully delusional at all; I don't recall her saying "us, we, our" to a black person, at least not in these interviews. She probably did in working for African American organizations, but it's interesting that if she truly felt she were inherently black, as she seems to say, that she'd be trying to connect with African Americans more directly. She would be in the habit of speaking to them as if she were included and say "our experience; this matters to us; we face so many obstacles," etc etc. But she essentially says "I had difficult times and that's just like what black people face, so therefore I'm not privileged and I know oppression directly". That and "I connect with black people more than white people" (at least in what I read). She seems to be addressing the privilege aspect by saying "but I had a rough time and therefore it's just like being black; I understand oppression". And then she tacks on the bit about 'passing', completely ignoring the pragmatic necessity of passing in past eras as opposed to an emotional need to feel a sense of belonging to a race (self-loathing cases aside)

Because of this, I think on some level she knows she's basically a more extreme version, of say, Eminem. She is after all, an artist who has chosen a (quasi?) black genre (or maybe more accurately, subject matter). And she does seem to say "I connect more with this experience than the white one". So even though she's defending her position and trying to explain 'trans-racialism' she does seem to still speak about black people as if they are a group outside her own.

On some level, she's aware of what she's doing, therefore it's not a mental illness, but a choice that she knows she has to keep defending. Like how she backpedaled on her comparasin of making her own clothes to slavery. When she's called out, she probably knows it's completely stupid to say such a thing; a delusional person would maintain it.
posted by GospelofWesleyWillis at 8:05 PM on April 20 [6 favorites]


also meant to add that she's an academic, so she's a pretty skillful rationalizer
posted by GospelofWesleyWillis at 9:56 PM on April 20


it’s a white person waking up and finding that the systems of “whiteness” as defined by society neglect them

But the systems of whiteness as defined by society don't actually neglect her. In fact, her belief that her hardships mean she does not have white privilege is in fact a very white point of view. Her decision to take on a black identity was shaped by her whiteness.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 10:34 AM on April 24 [5 favorites]


« Older Wah lau eh   |   The Definitive Internet Oral History of Internet... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments