Passing or Transracial?: Authority, Race, and Sex in the Rachel Dolezal Documentary
May 10, 2018
By Lisa Page
For some of us, racial identity is elastic. We can pass. For white, for black, for Middle Eastern. For Latinx. I am one of those people. I know what it is to assimilate to a group you identify with, because I did it myself, against my white mother’s wishes. She hated me calling myself black.
For this reason, my response to The Rachel Divide, Laura Brownson’s new documentary about Rachel Dolezal, is complicated. Dolezal famously passed for black, for years, before her white parents outed her in 2015. I feel two ways about this. I completely get the outrage that followed the reveal. But I also have sympathy for Dolezal. I know what it’s like to turn your back on the white side of your family.
The film opens with clips of Dolezal’s activism, as president of the Spokane NAACP, which came to a screeching halt once she was revealed to be a white woman who darkened her complexion and wore a weave.
Dolezal doesn’t call that passing.
“Who’s the gatekeeper for blackness?” she asks, near the beginning of the film. “Do we have the right to live exactly how we feel?”
Dolezal feels black. She has black sons. She has a black ex-husband, a black ex-boyfriend and black adopted siblings. She supports herself, doing hair, specifically weaves for black women. Box braids. Twists. Dye jobs. She calls herself “transracial” and argues that if Caitlyn Jenner can live her truth then so should she.
The documentary shows the very real damage done to the Spokane chapter of the NAACP, once Dolezal was exposed as a fraud. Her claims of receiving racist hate mail came under scrutiny, and set the organization back.
“She created the destruction and hurt the people who needed to be advocated for,” one NAACP member argues.
Her thirteen-year-old son, Franklin, can’t even go to the barbershop without witnessing his mother’s harassment. Like so many others, he wants her to admit she was born white instead of calling herself transracial.
“I wish this would’ve happened when I was older,” he says. Her older son, Izaiah, wants to go to Howard University, but when the family goes for a college visit, they are run off campus. The tweets that follow are horrific. Dolezal’s notoriety hurts her sons, too.
But there is more to this story than a white woman passing for black. This story is full of secrets and scandal tied to Dolezal’s complicated childhood. Her white parents were Christian fundamentalists in Montana who had two biological children and then adopted four more, all them black, because the mother felt called by God. According to Dolezal’s adopted sister, Ester, they were abused terribly, with baboon whips and glue guns. Ester also claimed her white brother sexually abused her, beginning when she was five. Rachel supported her sister with her own story of being sexually abused by the brother. The case was about to go to trial when the parents shifted the narrative. By discrediting their white daughter to the press, their white son was temporarily exonerated. The trail remains on hold.
For me, this is a story that should’ve made the news, not just the sensationalistic story of a woman passing for black. It speaks to our short attention span and our flat-out disinterest in anything complicated. It also speaks to the complications of authority, race, and sex.
“People love to say that women lie,” injects Rachel.
“She is being treated the way black people are treated when we raise issues,” says Spokane journalist, Sandra Williams.
Dolezal writes a book, explaining her views, but it only sells 596 copies. No-one is interested in her challenging the system and being transracial.
In the end, she legally changes her name to Nketchi Amare Diallo and looks hopeful.
That’s her latest approach to finding work and moving forward. But will her plan work?
Racial identity can be elastic for some of us. Dolezal is far from the only person to pass for another race. But again, she isn’t passing. In her own mind, she’s living her truth. One can only hope her sons can live their theirs.
About the Author
Lisa Page directs the creative writing program at George Washington University where she is assistant professor of English. Her work has appeared in the Virginia Quarterly Review, American Short Fiction, the Crisis, Playboy, and the Washington Post Book World. She is co-editor of We Wear The Mask: 15 True Stories of Passing in America.