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Rachel Dolezal’s Grotesque Idea of Identity

In a new Netflix documentary, ‘The Rachel Divide,’ the controversial “transracial” activist makes her case—and it still doesn’t make sense


It was a simple question. The local TV reporter, Jeff Humphrey, asked the Spokane NAACP chapter president, Rachel Dolezal, “Are you African American?”

“I don’t understand the question,” Dolezal responded.

That was June 2015.

To date, the notoriously “transracial” Dolezal—a white woman who reimagined herself as a black activist—has explained herself exhaustively, but to no avail. Necessarily, she’s written a memoir, In Full Color: Finding My Place in a Black and White World, to explain herself, and now there’s a documentary about Dolezal, The Rachel Divide, that has arrived on Netflix. Through all the controversy surrounding Dolezal and “transracial,” the bewildering term that she coined, Dolezal has struggled to articulate how, exactly, she came to see herself as black, and what she thinks blackness necessarily entails. Fortunately, The Rachel Divide interrogates Dolezal’s assumptions at great length; directed by Laura Brownson, the documentary is nearly two hours long. Unfortunately, Dolezal’s assumptions prove arrogant, crude, and incomplete.

The Rachel Divide follows Dolezal a year out from her downfall. Now, she lives in plaintive isolation, raising her two black sons, Izaiah (her adopted brother who she later adopted herself) and Franklin, as she prepares to give birth to another child. The documentary focuses mostly on the extended family dynamic, which is further complicated by joint custody, adoption, and three generations of resentment. Dolezal’s white parents, her adopted black siblings, and her black sons all factor into the account. Dolezal’s former colleagues and peers have mostly turned on her, discussing her scandalous racial reveal as a betrayal on multiple levels. The local TV reporter, Jeff Humphrey, broke the Dolezal story while reporting about racially-motivated death threats—which Humphrey believed Dolezal fabricated as a political ploy. Through Humphrey’s skepticism of black activist concerns, the documentary makes clear that Dolezal’s deception didn’t just confuse a nation of unsuspecting gawkers; it undermined the credibility of black activists, and the safety of black residents, in Washington state.

Before her downfall, Dolezal was a prominent civil rights activist in Spokane. It would have been interesting to see what broad impact her ordeal might have had on the community—in an interpersonal sense but also in the context of the area’s race relations—but The Rachel Divide teases only the briefest hints of unrest. Mostly, The Rachel Divide gloms tightly to Dolezal’s perspective, and so the viewing experience feels as cloistered as Dolezal does, personally, exiled from civil discourse and civic life. Together, we’re mostly holed up in Dolezal’s dim house, watching her daily routines, humoring her frustrations, observing her kids, and locating the family pathologies that might have provoked Dolezal’s identity crisis, which the documentary dates to her 30s. Thus, the documentary feels less like an account of the Dolezal saga, and a reckoning with her logic and its implications, than a last-ditch effort toward asserting Dolezal on her own terms.

Long after the Dolezal saga has faded from the national headlines, Dolezal tends obsessively to her image. Plaintively, she resolves to rehabilitate herself in the press, at least among black audiences. She goes on The Real. It doesn’t go well. Why, you might ask, doesn’t this beleaguered civilian strive in the exact opposite direction, toward obscurity? Well, it seems her problem with obscurity is that it would allow some trace of ambiguity in her narrative, and her narrative is all she has; she had dedicated her full faculties to the insistence that she is, in fact, a black woman. So she reasserts herself constantly into spaces that have conscientiously rejected her. In the process, she sabotages her livelihood and alienates her two teen sons. Unemployed, Dolezal struggles to pay bills. Based on the footage, it seems she’s applying for jobs only related to black studies and black activism, and she’s convinced that employers avoid her only for the obvious reasons. It doesn’t seem to occur to Dolezal that her infamy may not be the only factor at play. It is entirely possible that a black woman—any number of black women—may be more qualified than her for the jobs she describes.

Dolezal’s family frustrations are the most sensible. She’s worried that high school classmates will bully her youngest son to spite her. A man urges Dolezal to move her car from his storefront as she idles curbside, waiting to pick up her son, and Dolezal presents this as proof that the neighbors all mean to drive her out of town. The harassment escalates—beyond belief, frankly. One day, Dolezal steps outside with the camera crew and finds mail and other documents scattered across her front lawn. Dolezal is startled, suspecting harassment. Indeed, among the documents she finds a copy of a stranger’s gun permit, which she flashes to the camera. Strangely, she does not warn her children or call the police to report the intimidation. The viewer is left to consider Dolezal and her reputation for past fabrications, and who may indeed be so bold as to have corrupted the scenes of this very documentary. Dolezal stands alone in her home and holds up the gun permit for the camera with no explanation, only insinuation through an awkward silence that recalls the viral interview that launched her infamy in June 2015. The scene is awkward and uncanny. It is the first and only moment when the documentary takes on a hazardous, but subtle, edge that suggests a less flattering mission than so much of the other footage lets on. Is she lying? The documentary doesn’t explicitly ask. Indeed, we move on from this moment rather flatly, and so the implications are left unclear.

The viewer is skeptical if only because Dolezal has told bizarre and awkward stories to bring her to this point. She’s a white Howard University grad who faked her race for more than half a decade while working for the NAACP. It is difficult to imagine a fabrication that Dolezal couldn’t, or wouldn’t, perpetuate to confirm and reassert her blackness. As Dolezal writes her memoir, she micromanages her public profile through ill-advised interviews and social media consumption. Her mission, it turns out, is to ensure that every last black American comes to accept a conception of blackness that includes her. Dolezal’s few remaining black friends counsel her as well as they can. To be sure, they’re as bewildered as anyone else by Dolezal’s backstory, but they’ve come to accept their troubled friend for who she is (whoever that might be). They all speak in low and hopeless tones with her, as if they’re public defenders counseling a hopeless client. One friend, Siobhan—a light-skinned black woman—listens sympathetically as Dolezal describes her unceremonious eviction from blackness, per consensus, as a sort of family feud. “How do you think I can fix that?” Dolezal asks. “I don’t know,” Siobhan shrugs. “Move to Mars.”

Dolezal is the star of a truly bizarre scandal that exaggerates so many modern concerns about identity and race. It’s easy enough to understand why this documentary must exist. It is more challenging to grasp—and infuriating to realize—what Dolezal must have thought her participation in this documentary might achieve and reveal about her. In nearly two hours of footage, Dolezal does not finally bother to offer the most cautious, studious, definitive explanation of her convoluted racial logic. Her loose theories (“race is a social construct,” etc.) are all painfully familiar to anyone who suffered the initial Dolezal news cycle.

But, crucially, Dolezal does explain what she thinks blackness entails, and what she thinks it means to be black. She talks about civil rights activism and black authors. She talks about hair. She does hair. She brags that none of her black clients dropped her in light of the scandal. Dolezal proudly mismanages her own haggard braids, which she clearly regards as a crucial set piece in her grotesque production of blackness. Dolezal talks about blackness as if it were reducible to two qualities, and only two qualities: scholarship and aesthetics. It cannot occur to her that blackness—a social construction, indeed—is a comprehensive and involuntary realm of experience. White power invented it, and white power enforces it, but, paradoxically, black people own blackness. Throughout the documentary, several black women tell Dolezal as much. Dolezal disputes their authority in the vaguest terms, but nonetheless assuredly. She has decided that she is black, so she’s black. Dolezal offers no truly sophisticated reasoning. There’s no personal enlightenment that she’s come prepared to explain. Dolezal’s entitlement to black identity is a given.

This, in general, is the great racial peril of American culture. Ideally, a white person should be able to empathize with a black person, and enjoy black culture, without mistaking themselves for a black person. Ideally, Dolezal would see herself for who she truly is: a white woman with peculiar but nonetheless righteous interest in black culture and black liberation. Instead, Dolezal is a tourist with a fetish who must swear she’s a native. And she isn’t mistaking anything, really. She asserts. She takes what she wants, and she offers little consideration in return. This is the most startling proof of her whiteness: her ability to consume blackness so freely.

In June 2015, Humphrey fatefully asked Dolezal, “Are you African American?”

“I don’t understand the question,” Dolezal responded.

Nearly three years ago, she was caught off guard on a sidewalk, suddenly confronted by her own history. There’s palpable shame in her face and her voice as she stammers her evasive answers. But the greater shame is nearly three years having passed without Dolezal having given the question substantial, conclusive thought.