Why I Miss Rachel Dolezal

Stephen A. Crockett Jr.
Rachel Dolezal poses with her tribe. How can you not miss this?

I miss Rachel Dolezal. I want her back. Not the actual her, since I don't know her, but the story of her (and let me be clear that I don't want the actual story of her because that story is the story of a dysfunctional family and possible sexual abuse, and I don't want that story).

But I miss the Rachel Dolezal story and the barbershop conversation that started almost like a fable—the one about the white girl faking black in all her sister-girlness, because the Rachel Dolezal story allowed for a very real conversation on race without anyone dying.


I miss the discourse, the countless think pieces, the interviews, the memes, the Vines, the public raking by black Twitter over the Internet coals—and, most important, the faux natural. Because in the end, a conversation about race is nothing if not a faux natural: an agreed-upon social construct of unprocessed coils tightly wound with racist extensions.

And I miss all of it because it was everything a discussion on race could be: informational, spirited, divisive, lighthearted and painstaking. She didn't kill anyone. She just posed as a black person and worked herself out of her self-imposed oppression to become the head of the Spokane, Wash., NAACP (a nonpaying position).


For the life of me, I still can't get what she gained, which is kind of the beauty of her tragedy. It's almost a crimeless crime. Like breaking into someone's home and leaving all the valuables. Something definitely took place; I'm just not sure what.

But it all came out in the wash shortly after the gasp, the dead-eyed stare, the panicked blinking. When asked whether her father was African American, Dolezal gave what has now become arguably the most poignant Dolezalian answer to all of this: "I don't understand the question?"


None of us does. Race is weird that way. There are rules to this that most of us don't understand but follow anyway. For example, I am African American. I am also an editor. My colleague is half-Nigerian. She is a writer. Whenever she writes a story involving an American-born black person, she writes that they are "black American." I change it to African American. She doesn't argue. I don't explain. That is race in this country, which is why the Dolezalic levity became enthralling and needed.

Here's why. Race conversations are usually divided into two categories for me: academic or tragic. On the one hand, no one wants to sit and actually debate the origins of the hue of man or the creation of race. But on the other, having a conversation about race after nine black people have been murdered in a place of worship by a white man isn't the time. But those are the choices we get.


The first is too boring; the second, too raw.

Until Dolezal, who came in with her trumped-up NAACP status and her fake light skin and her head wraps. She sparked a conversation that had everyone talking. She and all her defiant, self-tanning blackness was a fun time, like a race water park. It was the absurdity of it all, the pictures of her dressed in tribal garb, the one with her calling herself the postmodern Rapunzel, the story of her racial-discrimination lawsuit against Howard University as a then-white woman. That was the stuff of legend.


And it was all shared and hashtagged across the Internet, and finally a natural discussion about race was popping like it was June 7, 1892, and Homer Plessy had just taken a seat in the white-riders-only section of a New Orleans train headed for the Plessy half of Plessy v. Ferguson.

The sad part is that prior to Dolezal's mockery of black skin, real black lives were lost to police and white men who wished they were police. Activists were fighting not only for the recognition of black lives but also for the actual hashtag created in their memory.


The discussion around it all was intense, and Dolezal provided some "Rachel" levity. I miss that because what pushed Dolezal off the front pages was the horrific violence allegedly at the hands of a punk white man whose allegiance to hate was stronger than his connection to humanity. For a moment, Rachel Dolezal didn't divide us; in fact, she connected us—even if the connection was a poorly done version of us—to a space that didn't end or begin with the actual death of black life.

She was humorous and tragic, sad and academic.

But if asked specifically why I miss Rachel Dolezal, I would probably look blankly and blink aimlessly and state, "I don't understand the question?"


Stephen A. Crockett Jr. is associate editor of news at The Root. Follow him on Twitter.

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