The True Lies of Rachel Dolezal

© Justin Bishop
© Justin Bishop

It’s safe to say that Rachel Dolezal never thought much about the endgame. You can see it on her face in the local-TV news video—the one so potently viral it transformed her from regional curiosity to global punch line in the span of 48 hours in mid-June. It is precisely the look of a white woman who tanned for a darker hue, who showcased a constant rotation of elaborately designed African American hairstyles, and who otherwise lived her life as a black woman, being asked if she is indeed African American.

It is the look of a cover blown.

At first, as I watched Dolezal’s story rise from meme to morning show, I wasn’t completely sure what to think, or particularly sure how much I cared; there are, obviously, a host of more crucial issues facing black America. But despite my initial reluctance to even acknowledge Dolezal’s presence in the national conversation, she slowly began to win my attention. There have been women over the years who’ve spent thousands upon thousands of dollars for butt injections, lip fillers, and self-tanners for a more “exotic” look. But attempting to pass for black? This was a new type of white woman: bold and brazen enough to claim ownership over a painful and complicated history she wasn’t born into.

After making calls to what felt like everyone in black America, I was able to get a hold of Dolezal’s e-mail and cell-phone information, and we began a friendly month-long correspondence. We spoke on the phone and exchanged e-mails as events quickly shifted the nation’s focus from Dolezal’s fantastical story to an actual tragedy in Charleston. Eventually, I visited her in Spokane, Washington, where she had been voted head of the local N.A.A.C.P. chapter in November 2014, the crucial, profile-raising step on her rapid ascent in the city’s black community. Throughout our exchanges, as the cameras moved on to their next assignments and public interest waned, she has simultaneously defended the identity she has carefully crafted and insisted that she deceived no one in creating it.

“It’s not a costume,” she says. “I don’t know spiritually and metaphysically how this goes, but I do know that from my earliest memories I have awareness and connection with the black experience, and that’s never left me. It’s not something that I can put on and take off anymore. Like I said, I’ve had my years of confusion and wondering who I really [was] and why and how do I live my life and make sense of it all, but I’m not confused about that any longer. I think the world might be—but I’m not.”

After her estranged parents set her downfall into motion by telling a local newspaper , in no uncertain terms, that their 37-year-old daughter had been born Caucasian, Dolezal was relieved of her paid and unpaid positions in Spokane. She resigned from her position with the N.A.A.C.P. (though odds are she would have been ousted if she hadn’t), and was asked to step down from a police oversight commission. Eastern Washington University, where she had a beloved part-time teaching job in the school’s Africana-studies program, did not renew her contract. Her life bears little resemblance to the one she and her 13-year-old son, Franklin, were living just six weeks ago.

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Source: Vanity Fair | Allison Samuels

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