Conventional wisdom on the peculiar and seemingly otherworldly case of Spokane, Wash., NAACP President Rachel Dolezal might offer us the old maxim, “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.” Others might hope that we wake up tomorrow and discover that Dolezal was indeed the long-lost stepchild of Black Like Me white journalist John Howard Griffin. That maybe this was all part of some bizarre, yet well-intentioned experiment in modern black experience, a racial road trip that simply swerved into a ditch full of bad reactions, and that (maybe) we’d discover insight that would make us all the better for it.
Yet there are frantic cautionary Rachelisms that are hard to ignore. Dolezal became her own living black doppelgänger, successfully molding herself into a black activist superhero taking out Pacific Northwestern white supremacist networks and kicking a Cover Girl stylishness while at it. And while Dolezal herself may have rationalized that she brought some form of dignity to that image, that—at least—she had not defiled black femininity in fits of pasty twerkiness or an unfiltered oversexualized homage on the cover of Paper magazine, there is still something fantastically weird and quirky wrong about it.
It’s as if she were pulling brands of Angela Davis, bell hooks and Melissa Harris-Perry from clothing racks, defiantly trotting around Spokane in rebellious rags of blackness. Some, like commentator Earl Ofari Hutchinson, do make a cogent point: Her actions spoke louder than the supposedly fabricated tightness of her curls. “She’s taken a small chapter in a neck of the woods that in times past has been near an area well-known as a hotbed of white supremacist and armed militia organizing, and made it a true fighting organization,” says Hutchinson. And as hashtagging trolls pile on, there’s something to say for that, all transracialism aside. It wasn’t as if any of us knew Spokane had an NAACP until she came along.
White empathy for perpetual black struggle and pain is, especially these days, in very short supply. Much of that stems from the unwillingness of most whites to fathom or conceptualize or live near black people. As a 2013 PRRI American Values Survey found, white social circles are a whopping 91 percent white—compared with black social circles, which are 65 percent black.
In this case, Dolezal went so far as not only to destroy any evidence of a white social circle (obliterating all public traces of whiteness and completely estranging her white parents) but also to go beyond constructing an alternative black social circle to actually living it. So, OK, let’s give her that.
But why run that kind of distance? Why not simply embrace your humanity and show that you can totally embrace the humanity of others, despite your whiteness and the institutional barriers that separate us? Her inability to do just that is an ominous statement about the state of race relations in America. It basically says that white people have to culturally butcher themselves or genetically alter appearances in any effort to truly understand their black counterparts.
That’s where it gets rather complicated. In this age of gum-popping white women misappropriating black female stereotypes for their own financial gain, from Izzy Azalea to Kim Kardashian to Miley Cyrus, there is something in the tale of Dolezal that doesn’t differ too much from that. In a twist, she went for a sex-appealing nerdiness, putting on fragrances of black intellectualism as a way to make it all look much smarter than it was.
Still, it really wasn’t that. Instead, there is a subtle betrayal there, a feeling that black had become Dolezal’s mental playground and pharmaceutical of choice. We find that she was a sneaky anthropologist, not much unlike the late, great Margaret Mead, who trekked through the jungle to study her apes.
Toni Morrison spoke of this phenomenon in her 1992 essay “Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination” (pdf), in which she describes white narratives creating “black or colored people and symbolic figurations of blackness [as] markers for the benevolent and the wicked; the spiritual and the voluptuous; of ‘sinful’ but delicious sensuality coupled with demands for purity and restraint. These figures take shape, form patterns, and play about.”
Yet Dolezal never lived that, can never really know the full extent of that black experience with which she took great pains to replace her whiteness. As the embarrassment braves a short-lived burst of news cycle, Dolezal will eventually braid her way into equal infamy and novelty, with all the book deals and movie adaptations that most black women with great stories never have, but that this white woman who played them will surely get.
Charles D. Ellison is a veteran political strategist and a contributing editor at The Root. He is also Washington correspondent for the Philadelphia Tribune, a frequent contributor to The Hill, the weekly Washington insider for WDAS-FM in Philadelphia and host of The Ellison Report, a weekly public-affairs magazine broadcast and podcast on WEAA 88.9 FM Baltimore. Follow him on Twitter.