Rachel Dolezal’s “silence-breaking” interview with Matt Lauer on the Today show, along with a second series of interview excerpts with MSNBC’s Melissa Harris-Perry, didn’t reveal all that much we didn’t already know. So far, the biggest takeaway has been that Dolezal — in the cultural hot seat this week, to put it mildly — claims she has no deception to confess. She essentially ends up sticking to her story, saying she identifies as black. She even seems to give credence to the (widely criticized) theory that her identity is something akin to transgender, and that she experienced a sense of racial dysmorphia from an early age.
“I was drawing self-portraits with the brown crayon instead of the peach crayon, and black curly hair,” she told Lauer of her childhood. To Harris-Perry, she said, “I felt a spiritual, visceral, instinctual connection with ‘black is beautiful,’ with the black experience,” adding that as a young person, she was “limited to whatever biological identity was thrust upon me.” In the two interviews, she describes her life as a white woman as “performed,” while denying that she is performing blackface now. In fact, like a good activist, Dolezal says she deplores blackface.
Harris-Perry asked a lot of good questions that Lauer didn’t, pressing Dolezal about how she’s different from Harris-Perry’s own white mother, who raised black children without claiming the black identity herself, and reminding her subject that many of the people who are angriest about her story are black women. To this, Dolezal had a ready answer. If she didn’t know better, she’d be mad too. “I would probably say, ‘How dare she claim this?'” she told Harris-Perry. “But they don’t know me, they don’t know what I’ve walked through, and how hard it is. This is not a casual, come-and-go identity, or an identity crisis that will fade away. People have asked me, ‘So, are you gonna go back to being white?’ ‘If you’re rejected by the black community, what you will do?’ I’ll be me,” she said. “At the same time, I never want to be a liability to the cause.”
As both a professor and an activist, Dolezal clearly has a deep knowledge of race issues, including language and framing, that she’s using to portray her story in a sympathetic light. But we still don’t really understand where this all is coming from. Ultimately, what’s far more revealing than the interviews themselves are the bits and pieces about her life and family that are trickling out, including her discrimination lawsuit against Howard University (Dolezal told Harris-Perry that it arose out of financial desperation when she was pregnant). The Washington Post looked into her brother Joshua, who has sexual abuse allegations pending against him. The apparent source of Dolezal’s conflict with her estranged family, Joshua also depicts his sister’s marriage to a black man in disastrous terms, and describes a childhood of radical Christian, off-the-grid, biblical homesteading. This may explain some of Dolezal’s bizarre-seeming remarks about hunting with a bow and arrow as a child — as well as providing context for her life and outlook.
Without knowing her motivations fully, we can’t determine whether Dolezal is genuinely self-deluded, a manipulative impostor, or some combination of the two. But now that she’s spoken, I can’t be the only one who hopes we can move on from this story and get back to talking about more pressing race and gender issues (at least until the tell-all book or 60 Minutes segment inevitably arrives). As Rebecca Carroll wrote at DAME magazine, there are many in the black community, as well as allies, who remain baffled, hurt, and suspicious — and who also feel disturbingly ignored by this media firestorm:
With most of the criticism coming from the Black community (see Black Twitter), it is glaringly evident that Rachel Dolezal does not care what we think—those of us whose Black identity is unambiguous, whose racial existence is immutable.