The tragic murder of nine black Americans in a church in Charleston, South Carolina has taken the wind out of the controversy surrounding the borrowed identity of Rachel Dolezal. The fire isn’t out completely. But national attention is slowly being diverted away from Dolezal, and back to matters of importance.
This is good because the less attention given to Dolezal, the better. Rather than slink away after being exposed as a fraud, the woman who spent decades pretending to be black has gone on national television to defend her charade. She refuses to believe that just because she was born to a white family in Montana, she can’t just up and switch races. Her intransigence speaks to the larger issue of what we mean when we say “race” and what it means to be black in America.
Conservatives have a point in all this hubbub: if race is a pure social construct with no biological foundation, Dolezal should unquestionably be able to claim the mantle of blackness. Anyone who challengers her is a bigot, ignorant of basic social science. Thus, Dolezal might have been born to a white family and grew up white, but can still identify as black without the fear of being unaccepted. That’s the logical conclusion of the “race is not biology” meme.
Liberals aren’t treating it that way, of course. For the left, Dolezal is mocking the black race by pretending she is something she’s not. This argument was made pointedly by Errin Whack, a Washington D.C.-based journalist. Writing in Politico Magazine, Whack (seriously, what a name!) called Dolezal’s race fantasy the “epitome of white privilege.” The strange thing is, I actually agree with her. Dolezal embracing her black-but-not-actually-black self is something a person of a historically more prominent race can do without trepidation. It’s a voluntary lowering of one’s self in society. As Whack writes, “Dolezal’s choice to be black allows her to willingly take on the indignities of the African-American experience while embracing the positive sides of being black as a member of the group.”
Now, Whack’s analysis may be correct, but it’s missing something. Dolezal identifies with being black in America. She tries to own a history that isn’t hers. And what tradition is that exactly? One of systematic and legitimized ownership and, to borrow a word from Ta-Nehisi Coates, “plunder.” Blacks in America have been subject to grossly unfair treatment by both government officials and private individuals. The so-called “black experience” isn’t so much living your life with a certain shade of color fixed to your skin, but understanding the roots of where you come from and what your people endured.
All humans everywhere lifted themselves out of hand-to-mouth existence. All of our ancestors had to create society from dust. Thanks to the Devil tempting Eve, we’ve been tossed out of Paradise and must make do with finite resources. But just because our forebears all struggled doesn’t mean some haven’t suffer more than others. Much of what defines the black experience in America revolves around the country’s legacy of slavery, codified discrimination, and deliberate government policies meant to keep whites ahead of the game.
Rachel Dolezal, try as she might, cannot own that identity. She can put her hair in dreadlocks or a weave. She can pretend to have a black father and black children. She can head a chapter of the country’s leading organization to empower black Americans. But she can’t ultimately be black. While race may be largely socially constructed, there is a biological element to it. And just as you can’t surgically mutilate your private parts to change sexes, you can’t dye your skin and simply change races. Or in Dolezal’s case, spend a lot of time in the sun.
So that leaves the question: why did she do it? Why adopt a race that has historically been treated as the lesser in American society? And, as CNN producer Lisa Respers France asks, “In this day and age who in the world willingly wants to be black?”
Victims, that’s who. There is speculation out there that Dolezal may have mental issues, but my sense is that she is perfectly aware of what she is doing. This is a deliberate attempt to own the struggle of other people so as to command a more flattering public image.
On numerous occasions, Dolezal has highlighted abuse she suffered at the hands of evil white men. She complained that as a child, her father’s house was graffitied with the word “n*gger.” She claimed that her brother was physically beaten for being black while they lived in South Africa. In an interview with a student newspaper earlier this year, Dolezal claimed that her parents beat her and her siblings based on “skin complexion.” They would use bamboo wimps that, in her words, “were pretty similar to what was used as whips during slavery.”
In a surprising twist, Dolezal sued Howard University, an historic black university, for discriminating against her, you guessed it, race. At the time (2002), Dolezal still identified with being white. She alleged that Howard denied her a teaching position and student aid because she wasn’t black. Dolezal’s brother believes the scrutiny she faced as one of a few white people on an all-black campus fed into her need to adopt the black racial identity. I think it only enforced the image of herself as a victim of circumstances beyond her control.
“Victims are the heroes of the politically correct; their victimhood confers unique moral authority upon them ex officio,” Theodore Dalrymple recently wrote in City Journal. By claiming the black identity, Dolezal also claimed the legitimate grievance black Americans have against our country. Like many left-leaning social justice crusaders, Dolezal is able to own her victim status while being black. As Dalrymple writes, “since many would like to be a unique moral authority, it follows that they would like to be a victim.”
Is the need for moral authority the real reason behind Dolezal’s ditching her white ancestry? There may be more to the story, but the fact is our politically-correct media and elites encourage victimhood status. When you’re a member of the oppressed class, your words mean more when speaking out against wealthy, powerful interests. You are put on a pedestal. And you are typically awarded government goodies for your trouble.
It was recently discovered that Dolezal and her sister accused their brother, Joshua Dolezal, of molesting them. The brother Dolezal has also been accused of sexually abusing other female minors. Combined with the strange and violent upbringing by her real family, Dolezal really is a victim. But she isn’t the victim of embedded racism in American society. Rather, her parents appear to be wild-eyed evangelicals with outré ideas on how to best worship God. For our race-obsessed media, the former is more sexy than the latter. Dolezal just went along with the popular trend; a mistake she is paying for now.
In light of the Dolezal controversy and America’s overabundance of victim-philia, it may help to look to the sufferers of the Charleston shooting. Instead of being victims, the families of those unnecessarily slain did the real Christian thing. They forgave. They forgave the man who senselessly killed their loved ones. How powerful. How endearing. And how triumphant in the face of real, unadulterated tragedy.
The families of those taken in Charleston are no longer victims. They are in God’s grace. They are models for those who truly want to stand up to evil while still being endlessly forgiving. Their hearts aren’t complaining any longer, which is more that can be said of some who relish their hardships.