Last night, a local Washington state television station broke news that the city of Spokane has launched an investigation into Rachel Dolezal, a local woman who identified herself as “African-American” in an application to serve on a commission. Why would that prompt an investigation? Because Dolezal is not African-American; she’s white. What’s more, Dolezal is president of Spokane’s local NAACP chapter. The news that a woman was “passing” as black instantly went viral on social media, igniting a heated debate about identity, race, and culture in the 21st century. Next America asked former Jet and Ebony editor Mitzi Miller to weigh in on some of the key issues and questions surrounding this developing story.
What was your initial reaction to the allegations that Rachel Dolezal passed herself off as black?
My reaction was: This is where we are in 2015. Now we have moved from cultural appropriation to trying to pass. There’s something wrong here. There’s no need to impersonate a black person to be empathetic. She has negated all the work she ever did while at the NAACP by the revelation that she was masquerading as a black woman. She could have accomplished the same things by being herself and collaborating in the efforts she believed in. Her deception creates a veneer of falsehood that cannot easily be removed.
Can a person claim to be black by association?
That’s ridiculous. Unless you have a mental disorder, there’s no way to wake up confused about your ethnic identity. Dolezal assumed what she perceived as the identity of a black woman with clear intent to live out a life that was foreign and different from her own. The fact that she associated herself with black people and married a black man does not justify her actions in any way.
“Jet and Ebony readers will find it very ironic that this woman who was born with the inherent privileges that the rest of us are striving for would choose to be on the side of the underdog.”
In some of the images of Dolezal making the rounds on social media, she is seen with braids, hoop earrings, and very curly hair. What is your response?
She was very thorough in her indoctrination—she wore braids, teased her hair into an Afro, wore curls. She certainly appropriated from various eras and styles that were associated with black women. So she did her research. The sad part is that it feels like the ultimate mockery. It takes more than a haircut to be black. It takes more than being married to a black man to be black. You can be empathetic and respectful of a culture without appropriating and impersonating it. Impersonation is not flattering in any way.
In light of the growing influence of campaigns like #BlackLivesMatter and #SayHerName, which fight to make the struggles faced by African-Americans in this country more visible, what do you make of Rachel Dolezal’s actions?
I suspect there is something emotionally damaging that happened in her life that pushed her to identify with any other culture beside her own. And there’s something to be said about the fact that it was her parents that outed her. My initial question was, why would her own father take to the media and embarrass his child in the manner that he has? Doing this has thrust her into the national spotlight and erased her entire life as she sought to live it.
As a journalist who helmed two publications aimed at an African-American audience, what do you think the readers of Jet and Ebony might be thinking as they learn about Dolezal?
I think people of color are going to find it very interesting. With everything going on right now, with all the attacks on black children and black women, there’s a palpable antagonism against people of color in this country. Jet and Ebony readers will find it very ironic that this woman who was born with the inherent privileges that the rest of us are striving for would choose to be on the side of the underdog. It’s ridiculous and ironic. Again, I go back to the suspicion that something was really messed up in her life and she had to find a way to cope. Adopting another identity and creating a life out of it was her answer.
Do you think her actions taint the legacy of the NAACP’s work?
No. I don’t think anything she has done is important enough. No single person can taint the legacy of an entire people’s struggle that stretches back through history.
What do you think the NAACP should do?
They were lied to. To my knowledge, they did not recruit her. Like any other organization that is lied to by one of their representatives, I’m sure they will take appropriate action.
Should she apologize? To whom?
Who is she apologizing to? This is the way that she attempted to live her life. She chose to live a lie. I don’t think anyone was hurt by her choosing to represent herself as black. The losers here are her and her family because they will have a hard time moving on from this. Will she forgive her father for outing her? And will they forgive her for denying that she belongs to them?