Yesterday Rachel Dolezal’s parents appeared on ABC’s Good Morning America and suggested that their estranged daughter was immersed in some sort of full-bore identity crisis and in need of help. Based on what we had read about her so far, it seemed likely that they were right about Dolezal, the former head of the Spokane chapter of the NAACP who stepped down yesterday after being outed as a Caucasian woman posing as a light-skinned black woman.
Yet when Dolezal appeared this morning on the Today show—her skin heavily bronzed, her hair worn in a sort of loose Afro, her facial features almost the carbon copy of her mother’s—she came across as composed, measured, in control of her own story, and, though this feels crazy to admit, sane.
As Matt Lauer questioned her about the ways, over the years, that she has misrepresented herself, encouraging the world to make faulty assumptions about her background, she repeatedly towed the same line: I identify as black, other people are uncomfortable with that, but it’s what’s in my heart that matters and it’s the experience I’m living that’s truly important.
What struck me most about Dolezal was her unwillingness (granted, it’s sometimes infuriating) to concede even a smidge to Lauer’s worldview, even as he pushed her further and further to the brink with questions intended to provoke. Nodding, occasionally smiling, Dolezal refused to take the bait. They seemed to be talking past each other, having two completely different conversations about race in America. Each time Lauer attempted to pin her down, Dolezal pivoted, scooting out from under his questions, reframing the conflict in her own words, using a very different framework of language and identity than the one we’re accustomed to or comfortable with.
For Dolezal, words slither and slip, their meanings unfixed and mutable. Language, she seemed to say, ought to serve a higher purpose, address emotional truths rather than physical ones. Her register was half academic—some sort of post-structuralist understanding of signifiers and signs and the gulf that lies between them—and half Free to Be . . . You and Me–era political correctness: I’m just living my own truth, she seemed to suggest. Why can’t you all get onboard with that?
Why did she represent Albert Wilkerson, a black man, as her father, when her actual father is a white man? “We connected on a very intimate level as family. Albert Wilkerson is my dad. Any man can be a father,” she explained. “Not every man can be a dad.” How can she, a white woman, be the mother of a black son? “He said, ‘You’re my real mom.’ And he’s in high school, and for that to be something that is plausible, I certainly can’t be seen as white and be Izaiah’s mom.”
It never quite tracks, but it’s also clear that Dolezal is living according to a set of rules that make perfect sense to her. “Are you an African-American woman?” Lauer asked at the beginning of the interview, getting down to brass tacks. “I identify as black,” she said with a politic smile, and the precision of that answer—“black” not “African-American”—feels very deliberate. Later, he asked her why, when she sued Howard University in 2002, she identified herself as a white woman. “The reasons for my full tuition scholarship being removed and my TA position as well were that ‘other people needed opportunities, and you probably have white relatives that can afford to help you with your tuition.’ And I thought that was an injustice.” Lauer was correct to point out the hypocrisy in this flip-flop, but Dolezal doesn’t see it as a problem; language bends, labels shift, but as long as the cause is righteous, what’s the big deal?
Refusing to engage when others try to define her is a trend for Dolezal. When did you start deceiving people? Lauer asked. “I was actually identified when I was doing human rights work in North Idaho as first transracial,” she replied. “Then when some of the opposition to some of the human rights work I was doing came forward, the next newspaper article identified me as being a biracial woman. And then, the next article, when there were actually burglaries, nooses, etc., was: This is happening to a black woman. And I never corrected that.” Why not, Lauer wondered, when you knew it wasn’t true? “Because it’s more complex than being true or false,” Dolezal replied. The point is clear: Whenever possible, our culture defaults to black or white, and the words we might sub in—biracial, or even the controversial term transracial—don’t quite do the job.
Watching this uncomfortable, disjointed conversation did not clear up for me whether Rachel Dolezal is truly sane or unhinged but well media-trained. It didn’t even really help me understand whether her choices are utterly offensive, deliberately deceitful, or weirdly enlightened. What it did make crystal clear is the fact that the vocabulary we currently possess to discuss race is bizarrely inadequate. In an America in which all other identities have become fluid, in which the spectrum of sexuality is a given and class mobility, at least in theory, is an essential tenet of our national identity, race remains the one thing we continue to see as fixed, binary.
It’s peach crayon versus brown crayon, as Dolezal reminds us, referring to drawing a self-portrait at age five. It’s black versus white, a comically elementary set of terms to throw at what is clearly a very tangled knot.
The post Matt Lauer’s Interview with Rachel Dolezal Shows Why It’s So Hard to Talk About Race in America appeared first on Vogue.
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