opinion

Playing Dress Up

Making sense of the Rachel Dolezal controversy

Spokane NAACP website

People have been pretending to be someone or something they're not for a really long time. When I was 8, I wanted the world to see me as a super chill skater chick. Did I skateboard? No. Did I pretend to? Yup. Kanye West wants to be seen as a fashion designer. Does he make clothes? I mean, I guess. Is he a badass fashion revolutionary? Nah.

It's in our nature as humans to want to appear better than we perhaps are. Stronger, happier, wealthier, more successful, all these things feel good to have, even if we don't technically have them just yet. It's easy to play dress up with more attractive versions of our selves. But when Rachel Dolezal pretends to be something she's not, she goes all out. And things get really, really strange.

Dolezal, 37, who is the president of the Spokane chapter of the NAACP and part-time professor of the Africana Studies Program at Eastern Washington University, has been representing herself as a black woman for many years. The only problem is that Dolezal is actually a freckled-face white girl who is in a world of shit right now, thanks to her weird dress up game and her parents who outed her.

Why her parents decided to reach out to the media about what seems to be a personal crisis is not clear to me, but it does raise some WTF flags about who Dolezal's parents are and some reports are accusing her family of abuse and racism, making this entire unfolding story of fuckery even more sad and confusing.

Naturally the media is all over this shit, because it's almost too absurd to be true and freaks like me are obsessed with every emerging detail. The internet is LOLing, WTFing and writing about Dolezal endlessly, shoving Dolezal into public scrutiny and making her life and decisions accessible as all holy hell. As feminist blogger Kara Brown put it, the entire shit show is “incredibly offensive, yet not at all offensive, as well as hilarious.”

And while it is topically and admittedly humorous to imagine the conversation this white girl has to have with the world about her pretend life as a black woman, we can't ignore the fact that Dolezal decided to reap whatever benefits she perceived in “looking black," and that by doing so, never had to face any of the danger, discrimination and adversities that actual women of color have no choice in experiencing. The result of treating ethnicity and race like a giant dress up game you can step in and out of as you please is a total demonstration of white privilege.

I could spend all day trying to psychoanalyze (and, believe me, I will!) why a human who seems to be genuinely invested in the community she's been posing as part of would do something so profoundly bizarre and wrong. The girl is not mentally well, obviously. And as a tender human being, I can empathize with witnessing the suffering of another human being watch their entire world fall apart. It's ugly and sad and dark. But where does empathy end and accountability begin?

What the hell are we supposed to think right now, as we wait for more information? Is Rachel Dolezal a severely mentally ill woman who should be spared public shaming and likely hospitalized? Or is she an opportunistic, privileged white woman who used her privilege and the assumed identity of black women to advance her position professionally and socially in the community she very clearly and desperately wanted to be a part of?

UPDATE JUNE 15: Dolezal has cancelled a chapter meeting previously scheduled for this evening. The reasoning for the cancellation is allegedly due to an ongoing "discussion with regional and national NAACP leaders." Dolezal has stepped down from her position as president of the Spokane chapter of the organization, but local members claim they will continue to host a demonstration this evening calling on Dolezal to take responsibility for her actions who they say left them feeling betrayed.