On BBC 'Newsnight' last night she tried to continue justifying her actions.
(Top photo: Rachel Dolezal and Emily Maitlis. Photo: Twitter / BBC Newsnight)
Can you change your race? That was the question posed on Newsnight following a UK exclusive interview with Rachel Dolezal. For the uninitiated, Dolezal was forced to resign as leader of Washington's National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) branch in 2015 after her parents revealed she was, in fact, white.
The Dolezal debate has always been an interesting one, as it potentially plays into ideas around the fluid and changing nature of identity. Since Dolezal's reveal as a born caucasian woman there have been plenty of intelligent, mostly white, liberal-minded individuals – like Newsnight's Emily Maitlis – voicing a "well… maybe", devil's advocate argument, likening Dolezal's choice to tan and wear certain hairstyles as potentially akin to people who opt to change their religion or gender in later life. The argument possibly has some merit. Possibly. But that's perhaps not for a cis heteronormative writer such as myself to write.
It's also an argument that completely misses the point. Because when we talk about Rachel Dolezal, we have to focus things exclusively on Rachel Dolezal. Because no matter how much critical theory or pondering we throw about, this story has and will always be about Rachel Dolezal, and the choices she continues to make.
Last night Dolezal explained her reasoning as: "the idea of race is a lie. So how can you lie about a lie?" It's an assertion that grates, because while it's accepted by some that race is a social construct, to say that race doesn't exist is a statement that only one couched in privilege could make. Race be felt in ways that Dolezal refuses to acknowledge; in ways she will never truly experience, no matter how hard she tries.
There have been times when I have wished I was white. When I have gone into a world – where, as a black man, I am more likely to be killed, imprisoned, be found unemployed or with a mental health condition – and thought, 'This would be easier if I was white.' My Ghanaian immigrant parents, seeking to protect me growing up, sought for me to assimilate quickly into British society. I do not speak my parents' mother tongue. I was not allowed out past 8PM, nor was I allowed outdoors wearing tracksuits for fear of getting in trouble. Growing up in east London I eventually found myself going to grammar school in the virtually mono-ethnic white spaces of deeper Essex, before swapping that for the similarly mono-ethnic space of Somerset for my further education. Since my teenage years I've existed on the fringe, acting like some sort of black emissary to my white peers.
The problem is, unlike Dolezal, my proximity to whiteness does not afford me the same privileges and benefits that her proximity to blackness afforded her.
Where I take out the bass from my voice and walk 30 percent slower in an effort to appear less frightening in white spaces, or to better help my job prospects, Rachel Dolezel wore a head wrap to a valuable seat on the NAACP.
Where black people are urged to forgo their birth names for more European "nicknames", or put "British Citizen" on their CVs to better assimilate, Rachel Dolezel boasted of people calling her Rachel Luther Queen, then legally renamed herself Nkechi Amare Diallo, and then complained about her diminishing job prospects. However, when she complained about her diminishing job prospects people listened to her and she got a book deal.
Where a leading news story yesterday was one that affects the black community – police racial profiling in Form 696 – Rachel Dolezel has once again co-opted valuable space for us to discuss the nature of being black in the 21st century, and used it to talk about her favourite subject: herself.
Black people only get their voices heard when they are asked to talk about other black people. If you are born white, you get to talk about everyone. Rachel's Dolezal's plight falls down for me because it is always rooted in a false equivalency. Me being called a choc-ice, a bounty and a sell out for acting more European is not the same as the reaction Rachel Dolezal got for doing what she does believes makes her black. My acceptance in white spaces is always temporary, based on my behaviours and actions. Dolezal's proximity to blackness being removed got her a book deal and continued space on media platforms that black people are frequently not seen on
"On Newsnight last night, as with every Dolezal action since her reveal, she has never come across as anything more than a gap year tourist, sampling pieces of the black experience without properly putting thought into how her assumed knowledge of those experiences come across."
Dolezal has continued to bring up her difficult childhood when explaining her life story. How she was hurt and chastised by her parents, and felt a kinship with the black community. That in suffering pain and a broken childhood, she found safety in the black community. That it was pain that helped her realise that she was culturally black.
Of course, this justifies nothing. In fact, her idea that "I have suffered, black people have suffered, therefore I am one with black people" feels particularly hurtful. As if that is all we're good for. Labour. The blues. Further soothing white pains such as hers. She heaps further comment by saying that if she could change one opinion in response to what happened, it would be from the black community. Once again, blackness is asked to make movements to work within rigid confines.
While Dolezal may legitimately feel as if she is a black woman, her continued lack of contrition or apology for her actions rings foul. On Newsnight last night, as with every Dolezal action since her reveal, she has never come across as anything more than a gap year tourist, sampling pieces of the black experience without properly putting thought into how her assumed knowledge of those experiences come across.
So: can you choose your race? Possibly. But probably not. And definitely not in any of our conceivable lifetimes, where white is seen as "dominant" and mainstream, and otherness is not.
Can you choose your race, lie about it, take up valuable space that could have been used by BME voices, continue to lie about it when called out, go on to pick and choose what pleases you about that race like some sort of a la carte menu, and then continue to take up valuable space that could have been used by valuable BME voices?
Probably not. At least, not without some resistance.