Authors: Rachel Doležal and Storms Reback
As I went over my notes after reading Rachel Doležal’s book, I had no intention of writing a multi-part article series discussing her book. But I found myself marveling at the way her mind works and I just couldn’t stop digging. Most of the time, when a person pens a memoir, that person has developed a certain amount of self-awareness and can analyze their actions and their motives as they make sense of their life. There are shallow celebrity memoirs that are just cash grabs and are meant to support the reality show trainwreck of the moment or take advantage of some celebrity scandal. I don’t think anyone is reading the memoirs from all the women in the Real Housewives franchise with an eye to understanding what makes them tick or to see if they understand the Faustian bargain they’ve engaged in, trading away their privacy and dignity for reality show compensation. You’re reading those books because your layover in O’Hare is four hours and you have time to kill.
Not so with this sort of memoir, or at least I’d hoped this would be different. Rachel Doležal was and is still involved in a serious look at how race is constructed and perceived in the United States. She engaged in what most of us believe is a long-scale hoax and in so doing outraged blacks, people of mixed race, and to a lesser extent transexuals and surely the reaction caused her to experience moments of deep contemplation wherein she came to grips with who she is, who she thinks she is, and who she wants to be. Moreover, Rachel Doležal is a well-educated woman. She has a Master’s degree, is well-read within her specific interests, and one presumes she is intelligent enough to know when she is bullshitting herself. One presumes wrong.
Even as Rachel lauds blackness as something that makes her life fuller, causing her to feel more alive and more connected to the world, she devalues blackness with stereotypes and commercial interpretations of black beauty and worth. As she derides “white saviors” she has no awareness that she is herself engaging in such antics. I will later tackle the topic of “Rachel Will Never Get It” but much of what I discuss here today can also be subfiled under that heading. She just doesn’t see herself and her actions with any sort of clarity nor can she realize when she is stepping onto ground that is not hers to occupy.
Rachel Sees Blacks as Exotic “Others”
It doesn’t require me to walk out on a limb to state that Rachel Doležal sees black people as an exotic other, making a fetish of certain ethnic appearances and engaging in stereotyping that should have given pause to any woman who chose to be black because she feels black.
It started innocently enough when she was a child. As as I discussed in Part One, as a child she engaged in escapist fantasies, creating an “other” life for herself to help her cope with her miserable childhood, and she began to prefer the appearances of blacks over white people.
To me, the images of the Black athletes I found on the pages of the magazines were the very height of human beauty. Their complexions, their hair, their features, they were all so captivating to me. Florence Griffith Joyner, aka “Flo Jo,” and Jackie Joyner-Kersee became my idols.
Given the mores of the time when Rachel engaged in her childish fantasies, this is not that bad. Finding beauty in black athletes and accomplished black women compared to the insipidness of her life in Montana is not outlandish.
Stories of African life, for a girl who grew up without television, became an important source of entertainment.
Even though I was ten years old, Fabian was the first Black person I’d ever met, and this, combined with his regal manner, made him seem like a king to me. I found even the most mundane stories he told about life in Africa riveting.
This fetishization of another culture, a culture perceived to be better than the United States or one’s current time in history, is common. I dreamed of living in Victorian England during my teens and as a child I fantasized about being Laura Ingalls Wilder because I spent many hours as a child reading the Little House on the Prairie series. As an overworked only child with parents whose terrible marriage alienated all of us from the world around us, I liked pretending I lived in a place where parents were a team and loving, where I had sisters who worked beside me and who ran barefoot alongside me as we raced to the creek to fish. I bet lots of unhappy kids do this but you don’t really even need to be unhappy to engage in this sort of fantasy. We see this with so-called “weeaboos,” kids who adore all that is Japanese. Sometimes that cultural adoration becomes pathological but we seldom end up with people willing to engage in a sort of whole life cosplay like Rachel engages in.
The longer Rachel immersed herself in black history, the more she lost sense of who she really was – a biologically white girl. She worked very hard, admirably in my opinion, to make sure her younger black siblings learned about a black culture they would otherwise have been deprived of knowing about.
A funny thing happened while I was teaching my younger siblings about Black culture and history: I began to feel even more connected to it myself. I began to see the world through Black eyes, and anything that had to do with Blackness or Africa always grabbed my attention.
I suspect this was a crossroads of sorts, the time when Rachel left the realm of childish escapism and entered into the realm of self-deception that lead to wholesale deception.
Take this quote that becomes stranger to me each time I read it:
Blackness to me was bold, beautiful, and empowered.
She fantasized about being a black orphan struggling to feed her family. She read books with black characters and felt indignation at the suffering they experienced. She saw firsthand the racism, even down to the microaggressions, her siblings endured, and she found blackness to be bold and empowering? Those black athletes she admired were just one element of the black experience in the United States but it seems like in order to make the leap from the treatment of blacks in literature and in real life to seeing blackness as an entirely empowered experience, she had to eliminate the negative experiences and focus on what she specifically found beautiful.
This was easy for her to do because she was white and never suffered racism, no matter how much her sense of victimization allowed her to identify with blacks. I assert that there are three layers to Rachel Doležal’s experience of blackness: facile identification with black suffering that she recreated throughout her life to achieve a level of martyrdom, recognition of black suffering that she as a white woman felt she was better able to address than blacks, and extreme love of the esthetics of blackness. The latter may be unavoidable – her entire artistic life expresses what she believes is the black experience. Nothing wrong with that – plenty of white people study African culture, history and art and teach others about the topics. The problem comes when that admiration of esthetics becomes an exoticism mixed with stereotypes that overlooks the reality of individual black people.
For instance, she just loved the bad side of town when she lived in college:
Rich white people considered the neighborhood in which Antioch and the Pollard’s house was located to be “the bad part of town.” To me it felt like home.
Home in how Rachel perceived poor blacks to live, that’s what she meant by home. Never mind that many black people would love not to have to live in parts of towns that are “bad sides of town.” There is no way to read this other than this was a white girl slumming, enjoying a life grittier than she experienced in Troy, Montana.
Speaking of a college roommate who was black:
That I had rhythm while she did not, that she was uptight while I was chill, and that she dated white guys while I had dated two Black guys made us the butt of a running joke. People often said that I was a Black girl in a white body and Kim was a white girl in a black body.
Why is Rachel engaging in such stereotypes, never mind engaging in them with such pride, if she is trying to end racist perceptions of black people and encourage social justice? I posit it is because she is preoccupied with the appearance of blackness she idealized and was very happy when others recognized her efforts. Compared to a black friend, she was the better black woman, according to the stereotypes about blackness that she deemed important enough to matter. Remember in Part Three where Rachel derides two black girls in Idaho as not knowing they were black because they did not adhere to the behaviors Rachel felt indicated blackness. Rachel, a white woman, always feels she is the arbiter of blackness, and her version of blackness is a very limiting one.
Then there’s this, and I admit it’s subtle but read it and bear with me:
I’ve never had any surgeries or alterations done to change my appearance. I didn’t do any invasive makeup contouring. I’m a low-budget, low-maintenance woman. I liked to get a tan and occasionally used bronzer and I spent a lot of time on my hair, and with my somewhat broad nose, somewhat full lips, and somewhat curvy figure, that was enough to push the public’s perception of me from white girl to “mixed chick.”
Here Rachel is telling us her perception of the idealized black woman – bronzed skin, full lips, wide nose, full and curvy body. This is a specific interpretation of a specific type of black beauty, especially in the United States. Dark, but not too dark, lips that white girls try to achieve with plumpers and stupid shot-glass challenges, curvy bodies that are now in vogue causing girls who idealize these thicker frames to eat a bit more while doing plenty of squats. This is the current Madison Avenue portrayal of acceptable blackness. Absent from this vision of acceptable blackness is a large chunk of women on the African continent and a large chunk of black women in the USA. To Rachel her appearance read as “mixed chick,” not unlike women like Amber Rose. What would Rachel have looked like when outed as white had the contemporary American culture focused on women like Soledad O’Brien as the ideal “mixed chick.” Would she have tamed her hair and lined her lips to make them look smaller? It’s hard to say but it just so happened that the face that Rachel looked at every day in the morning was easily adapted into an image society recognized as black yet was still very pleasing to her.
Rachel almost seems to have a chip on her shoulder regarding darker-skinned black women.
Darker black women, on the other hand, had become one of the primary voices of opposition against me, calling the way I identified “the ultimate white privilege.”
You see, these women don’t have the idealized, sanitized, acceptable face of blackness that Rachel assumed. They don’t have the option of returning to whiteness – which Rachel can do any time she wants no matter how much she protests to the contrary – and they don’t have the weight of advertising and social acceptance making popular their appearance in mainstream white culture. That could change. Fashion is fickle. But ultimately these darker women may have felt a certain amount of bile realizing that this white girl who had assumed a black identity based on her idealized version of their reality was trying to tell them how to be black. File this under “Rachel Will Never Get It” as well. The only experience that matters is hers, and that experience is based on her assuming the commodified, socially “pretty” elements of blackness.
There were moments in this book where I was left stunned with what I had read. Seriously, if this is not the most… fucked up thing in this book I’m not sure what is. Just drink this in.
I didn’t work for the cause from the outside as a white ally, but from the inside as a Black leader, someone who was eager to not only model the philosophy of a great activist like Angela Davis but sport similarly textured hair as well.
I dare you to find a more obnoxious line in a biography this year. I absolutely dare you. Let’s just ignore Rachel comparing herself to Angela Davis in terms of accomplishment and legitimacy and look at what she’s focusing on – Davis’ Afro hair style. Having natural hair is an issue for black women – straighteners and pressure to conform to a white standard of beauty causes black women to spend lots of money and time to achieve a look pleasing to whites, especially in the workplace. Rachel recognizes that the way black women are often forced into assuming styles inappropriate to their hair type makes them feel unattractive or inadequate in some manner.
But as Rachel wanted to appear like she was modeling Angela Davis’ philosophy, she wanted to have her hairstyle, too. One very much gets the impression that Rachel was wearing a costume, a black liberator cosplay. There is no way to see this other than a fetishization of blackness. It doesn’t hurt that activists like Angela Davis and Assata Shakur are popular in the social justice circles online. As Che Guevara was popular a decade ago among leftists, we now see people sporting t-shirts with Davis and Shakur on them. There is a shallow affiliation with these two activists and one wonders if Rachel would have been as enamored with emulating Davis if she did not have the cachet she currently has or if her look was not so iconic. Shirley Chisholm and Septima Clark were pretty badass women who accomplished a lot for black people – one wonders if Rachel would have wanted to emulate the look of an activist whose image doesn’t appear on posters in college freshman dorm rooms.
Also at play in this bizarre statement is a subtle jab at other black female activists. Rachel was going to become black and behave in the manner of Angela Davis, down to her hairstyle, unlike the rest of those black leaders who didn’t wear an Afro (or braids, or dreadlocks, or any of the other hairstyles Rachel Doležal deems black enough).
Rachel as the White Savior
As you read Rachel’s book, after a while, even with a positive spin, it’s clear she sees herself as a sort of savior to black people. She may not see herself as a white savior but she is white and she has a savior complex, one so profound that at times she comes across so grandiose that you almost can’t believe what you are reading. She has all the markings of a white savior – she’s more knowledgeable than those she seeks to help and she is invariably condescending. And like most white saviors, she is blissfully unaware of how holier-than-thou she is. This is her life mission and if those she seeks to help don’t want her help, well, she’ll keep helping anyway.
Her white savior complex began early. Here she is reacting to Beyond Charity: The Call to Christian Community Development, which she read as a teen:
It took the wraps off the sort of cheap Christian charity I was all too familiar with, and showing how flawed and outdated the model of the “white savior” rescuing the “noble Black savage” was. It also encouraged its readers to go beyond giving sympathy (and yes, charity), asking them to do the kind of meaningful, hands-on work that might lead to some actual change.
So she has a model for what real work is and how to avoid being a condescending do-gooder yet even in retrospect she cannot see how she fell short. She made her advocacy about her, hid her real identity and ended up doing far more harm than good.
Rachel had the paternalistic sense that black people could not be held accountable for their actions. She, as the woman who knows in her heart she is white, felt the need to protect black men even as she claims she fell prey to them. After being raped by a wealthy black man:
I didn’t want to cast a spotlight on myself knowing that many people would think of me as white and fixate on the idea that a Black man had raped a white woman, when the rape had clearly been about power, money, and gender, not race. I dropped the charges.
So let’s look at this: she was drugged and raped by a rich black man, but because she didn’t want to risk people convicting him on the basis of his race because she is indeed a white woman, she did nothing. Is that genuine activism or do-gooder white guilt? Maybe it’s something else entirely but it sort of reeked of “black men shouldn’t be held accountable for crimes if the victim is white,” which is ultimately a very patronizing mindset.
Before this, as an undergraduate she refused to report a student at Belhaven for sexually harassing her.
As aggressive as his advances were, I didn’t report them. The deck was already stacked against the Black students on our predominately white campus, and I didn’t want to make life harder for Clarence.
Hopefully his real name isn’t Clarence but again do black men need this white woman pretending to be a black woman protecting them from themselves? The fact is that if I were a black parent I would never involve the police in anything to do with my children or any sort of basic non-violent dispute. I can also see why a black woman might be reluctant to press charges for harassment (less so on rape). But there’s this cloying sense that the nice white lady is just looking out for those poor black men, a sort of demeaning colonial attitude that one’s lessers should be protected from the consequences of their actions.
She is so lacking in self-awareness:
Tired of seeing white people taking center stage all the time, I wanted to use my art skills to offer a more equitable and compassionate treatment of Black culture.
Honestly, there is no need to discuss this one, is there?
What Rachel can never seem to ask herself is whether or not her voice was or is needed in the black community, or even wanted, for that matter. Her destiny is not the destiny of black people in the United States and it is troubling how she refuses to see that she has no place on the black side of the civil rights movement. She has no notion that she needs to be an “ally,” whatever that means at the moment, that she needs to stay in her lane and affect change from her position as a white woman. Her refusal to see that the civil rights movement does not need her and is moving along well without her is… interesting.
…I just wanted to live my life the way that felt most comfortable to me without having to answer a million questions about it. I wanted to focus my energy on more important issues like the work that needed to be done to create a more just society.
She didn’t need to focus her energy on making a living wage, keeping her sons safe, keeping herself safe – nope, she needed to work to create societal justice. As a white woman pretending to be a black woman.
No one ever worked harder for the black cause.
One minute I was working 24/7 in support of racial justice, and the next I only had one job left: explaining and justifying my very existence on the planet.
Such a short passage and just seething with white entitlement. Don’t you see how hard she’s worked for you all? All day and all night she toiled for all the black people and now she’s expected to be held accountable for all her lies? And all the black people have to be wondering who the hell asked her to take up the mantle of racial justice in the first place.
Here was her reaction when asked to resign from the NAACP:
It didn’t hurt because I lost a title or a line on my resume. It hurt because it meant that I wouldn’t be able to finish the work I’d started and that I’d be cut off from all the people I’d been trying to help.
Whatever will all those poor black folk do without Rachel there to lead them?
Rachel was going to appear as Keynote Speaker at the Africana Education graduation ceremony in 2015 but the school disinvited her after the shit hit the fan. This was her reaction to the news she was not welcome:
I’d done much more than simply teach these students. I’d mentored them, helped them file discrimination complaints, braided their hair, and stood alongside them protesting police brutality and racial injustice. The speech I was scheduled to give that evening was my opportunity to give them the sendoff they deserved.
She braided their hair. I am gobsmacked to read this. We already know about Rachel’s interest bordering on fixation with black hair. But what the hell is a college professor doing braiding a student’s hair? How weird and… inappropriate is it for a professor in college to involve herself in her students’ grooming? And let’s worry about how these poor students can go out in the world without a sendoff from their professor, rather than, you know, worry about the value of their degree once employers find out a serial fraud was their professor. Not even Hugo Schwyzer was this self-absorbed. He didn’t care but at least he had the self-awareness to fake it. Not Rachel.
Rachel was so secure in her knowledge that she, white girl in black face, was doing endless good that she genuinely felt like the media was supposed to be sympathetic to her and felt that their negative attitude or refusal to believe her tales was racism and not a genuine journalistic reaction when her claims didn’t match the facts of the story.
Whether it was coming from white supremacists or city officials, I felt bullied, and the local media were hardly sympathetic to my plight. That nearly all of them were white and catered to a predominately white audience was certainly a factor. I’d noticed the same bias when it came to reporting the deaths of Black men at the hands of police.
Rachel believes her mindset as a black woman in a white body is the most important perspective and therefore any refusal to accept everything she says is racist and bullying. Interesting how she compares the media not treating her with necessary deference to refusing to report on black men murdered by the police. As if the two have anything approaching the same weight in terms of gravitas and importance, but to a white savior the actual suffering they see is often less important than their recognition of being the white angel that notices the suffering.
And with this ends Part 4. Tune in tomorrow for Part 5, where I will discuss text in the book that shows that Rachel doesn’t see that some of the enmity she has earned is based on her very negative personality and not racism and how Rachel’s own perception of herself is often comically informed by her whiteness.