EXCLUSIVE: Former JET, Ebony Editor on Suspicion that Woman Passed for Black, Led NAACP Chapter

“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.”

Former JET and Ebony editor questions motivation behind alleged impersonation by Rachel Dolezal of Spokane, Wash.
National Journal
Juleyka Lantigua-Williams
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Juleyka Lantigua-Williams
June 12, 2015, 5:47 a.m.

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?

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