Everyone sometimes feels the urge to reinvent themselves — to start again afresh in a new place, free from the assumptions others have made about them.
Even so, after Rachel Dolezal moved from their family home in Montana to the city of Spokane in Washington State, her adopted brother was stunned to learn just how thoroughly she had transformed herself.
The blonde-haired, blue-eyed daughter of missionaries was passing herself off as black, and had even befriended an African-American man she was pretending was her father. She begged her brother Ezra not to rock the boat by revealing the truth about her past.
Rachel told Ezra that, as one of four African-American infants her parents had adopted, he was welcome to visit her, not least because he obviously fitted in with her new persona. Much to his dismay, she wanted him to go along with the lie that he was her brother by blood.
‘She told me not to blow her cover,’ Ezra said yesterday. ‘She told me not to tell anybody about Montana or her family over there. She said she was starting a new life.’
Ezra was both baffled and angered by her imposture, which he considered tantamount to ‘blackface’, the deeply controversial tradition of white entertainers blacking up their faces. And it was, to be brutally frank, little different: she started to darken her skin colour, frizz up her straight hair into dark curls, and affect an African-American accent.
Ezra’s anger turned to fury when he and his family discovered that, not content simply pretending to be black, 37-year-old Miss Dolezal had even invented a whole history of suffering at the hands of white oppression, to help her climb the ladder in the civil rights world.
She told those she encountered in her new incarnation how her white mother and white step-father (in truth, her real father) had punished their mixed-race children with a kind of whip that had once been used on slaves.
Miss Dolezal also complained to the police of being the victim of hate crimes by white racists, who she said had even left a noose in her garage.
All this posturing appeared to do the trick, helping to establish Miss Dolezal as a leading light of the black rights movement in America’s Pacific Northwest. She is the president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in Spokane, Washington state’s second- biggest city. She also runs the city’s police oversight committee and is an African Studies professor at the local university, where she gives impassioned classes on The Black Woman’s Struggle.
Now, however, after her horribly misrepresented parents decided it was time to reveal the truth about their daughter, her astonishing, decade-long deception has come spectacularly tumbling down. When a TV news crew finally confronted her, and asked if she was African-American, she eventually stammered that she ‘didn’t understand the question’ and ran off to hide in a dress shop.
Officials are now investigating whether she should be prosecuted for lying about her racial background in her application for the police ombudsman’s job. She might yet also face trouble from police, who have dropped investigations into all nine of the alleged race hate crimes she suffered amid allegations she invented them.
This outlandish case could have been dismissed as an example of someone merely seeking to get a leg up in their career by posing as someone they are not. But this is America, with its bitter legacy of slavery and segregation.
Black or mixed-race Americans have for centuries been passing themselves off as white in order to better their lives, but you can probably count on one hand the number of people who have tried to go in the opposite direction. So what are we to think of a talented young white woman who has spent the past decade pretending to be black?
Miss Dolezal is bound to fuel the growing furore when she addresses the media tonight at a meeting of her NAACP group. Deeply embarrassed to have been hoodwinked so easily, the national organisation has nevertheless supported her, praising her record and insisting that one’s racial identity is irrelevant in leading the group.
However, most people don’t believe for a second that she would have risen so far in the civil rights industry if she had been recognised as a white middle-class woman from a conservative family.
Unlike in many areas of life in America, being black is an obvious advantage in the civil rights industry where — to quote one commentator — it is seen as more ‘authentic’.
What’s peculiar about Rachel Dolezal, however, is that she is still insisting, even after her public exposure, that she really is black.
Whether this is a case of serious delusion or a brazen attempt to bluff it out is hard to tell. Although her parents, Larry and Ruthanne Dolezal, say they each have a grandparent who had some Native American blood, neither has any black lineage.
Miss Dolezal claims her parents timed their revelations to discredit her in an upcoming trial concerning sex abuse allegations relating to her brother, Joshua, 39, in which he will appear as a witness. They say they only spoke out after being approached by the media.
Their family background is a mix of German, Czech and Swedish. Nevertheless, Rachel was ‘always interested in ethnicity and diversity’ growing up, says her mother. That accelerated when her parents adopted four black infants in the Nineties.
Ironically, it appears that racism from black people may have spurred her to want to become one of them.
Members of her family believe that the turning point came when she won a scholarship to take a master’s degree in fine art at the largely black Howard University in Washington DC. They recall how she had submitted a portfolio of portraits of African-Americans, and people at the university — especially staff — were resentful when they discovered she wasn’t black as they had assumed.
Her brother Ezra says Miss Dolezal — still with a pale complexion and straight blonde hair — complained to her family of suffering racism.
She developed a ‘dislike for being white, and for white people’ that boiled down to ‘self-hatred’, he believes.
After university, she had a short-lived marriage to an African-American man which produced a son but ended, she claims, because her husband became violent to her and to the child.
In around 2006 or 2007, she started to ‘disguise’ herself as black, says her mother. It started with her hair — she had enjoyed arranging the hair of her adopted black sister, Esther — and Miss Dolezal was soon braiding her own in the same ethnic style, often covering it in an African headwrap.
By 2011, say family members, she was applying make-up to her face to appear ‘darker and darker’. A new look needed a new back story, and hers was elaborate — born in a tepee and brought up in South Africa, she said she had had to hunt with a bow and arrows for food.
None of it, say her family, is remotely true — she hasn’t even set foot in Africa.
It’s easy to scoff now at the many times this firebrand has eloquently spoken out about the difficulties of living as a black woman in a largely white part of the States. Even going to the cinema to watch 12 Years A Slave was an ordeal, she said, as she felt the eyes of her white neighbours turn to watch her reaction.
In 2010, she told the New York Times that she could ‘not imagine showing her face’ at an event held by the Tea Party, the ultra-conservative faction in the Republican Party, because of the preponderance of white faces. ‘It would make me nervous to be there unless I went with a big group,’ she said. Only last December, she wrote a column about the ‘asphyxiation we are experiencing as black people in America’.
Certainly, it would have been pretty much impossible to take some of her radical stances if she had been white.
A video clip, entitled Black Is Beautiful, shot in one of the classes she gives at Eastern Washington University, shows her railing against how black women’s hairstyles have been dictated by ‘white supremacy and racism’.
Talking about one particular style of African-American hair, she tugs at her own tight curls and says: ‘Like this.’
Thanks to her pretence, Miss Dolezal got away with a lot of arguably racist behaviour of her own. She once refused to allow a light-skinned Hispanic student to participate in a class exercise about white oppression because ‘she didn’t look Hispanic’.
Her tweets included one in which she lambasted the Oscar-winning film The Help, which examines the nature of social segregation between black and white, sniffing how it had ‘put $206mil in a white woman’s pocket’.
In another tweet, she praised a video entitled ‘S**t White Girls Say … to Black Girls’, claiming it was ‘true2life’.
It would be easy simply to goggle in astonishment — and many have. Critics of overweening political correctness are having a field day over the lengths one liberal white woman has gone to identify with black oppression. Dolezal may even remind British TV viewers of the ludicrous Ali G, the white rapper persona created by the comic Sacha Baron Cohen, who liked to complain at every perceived slight: ‘Is it because I is black?’
Conservatives have also highlighted what they see as the hypocrisy of liberals who have condemned Miss Dolezal’s claims to be black, yet applauded the recent announcement by former Olympic decathlon champion Bruce Jenner that he is now a woman calling herself Caitlyn.
Why can Jenner — who hasn’t even had gender-altering surgery — say he’s a woman if she can’t say she’s black?
But those on the Left, and many black commentators, say the comparison is unfair. Not only is ‘blacking up’ deeply racially offensive, they say, but there is the whole history of America’s unhappy race relations to take into account.
For years, under the so-called Jim Crow laws which preserved racial segregation in the South — even deep into the 20th century — a ‘one drop of blood’ rule meant that people with even the smallest trace of black ancestry were legally considered black.
For many, this was catastrophic. But according to academics, this has also established a tradition whereby pretty much any American can say they are black and not be challenged.
Indeed, those who have leapt to Rachel Dolezal’s defence say that if she wants to say she is black, why should anyone deny her that? The problem is that one click of the mouse in the internet age provides pictures of her as a young freckle-faced blonde girl, making a mockery of it all.
‘I wonder what race Rachel would become if she got stopped by the police?’ the — genuinely — black woman author Terry McMillan mused waspishly on Twitter. Unfortunately, one suspects, Miss Dolezal would seize on any mistreatment by the police as further proof of her noble struggle as an oppressed black woman. – DailyMail.co.uk (shortened)