Who is Rachel Dolezal? New Netflix documentary, The Rachel Divide, relives the race scandal that rocked America in 2015
In 2015, Rachel Dolezal was a leader in the NAACP, had a cushy job as a teacher at a university, and wrote for various publications in her free time. But soon, her whole world would come crashing down on her
Netflix's 'The Rachel Divide,' a documentary on divisive and controversial figure Rachel Dolezal, is set to premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City in the coming weeks and will explore the once-popular civil rights activist's transracial identity and the impact her so-called "coming out" had on her two sons and her family.
While the former NAACP ( National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) leader now mostly keeps to herself, there was a time when she was a bastion of righteousness and the leading voice in the call for equality for all races, that is, before it all went south in June 2015.
If asked when exactly it all went wrong, Dolezal will very likely point to the date of June 15, 2015, which marked the day she resigned as the acting president of the NAACP chapter in Spokane, Washington. This was after it was revealed that she had lied about being black, lied about the numerous hate crimes she claimed she was a victim of and lied about many other aspects of her biography.
But how did her elaborate house of cards come tumbling down so spectacularly? Unbelievably, it was thanks to her own parents, who came out to publicly state that Dolezal was a white woman passing herself off as black. They even provided a copy of her Montana birth certificate which said that she was of German and Czech heritage, with "faint traces" of Native American ancestry.
This was after Dolezal's reports to police and local news media that she had been the victim of nine hate crimes; investigations into which revealed that the allegations were false.
The critique and the dialog that followed what appeared to be an obvious ploy for attention was obviously harsh. English journalist Dominic Lawson ranked Dolezal as "the most spectacular example of the growing phenomenon of people posing as victims," which he claims is a "consequence of a culture which portrays victimhood as a form of moral superiority."
Dolezal had also claimed that she was born and lived in a teepee and that the family hunted for their food with a bow and arrow. Her mother came out to state that while her father had indeed lived in a teepee, it was three years before the birth of their daughter and that Dolezal's claims were "totally false." She had also claimed she had lived in South Africa as a child, another lie.
While she was dubbed by The Spokesman-Review as the "undisputed heavyweight champion of racial appropriation," her supporters claimed that her racial identity was genuine and not based on either biology or ancestry.
This, in turn, sparked the popularization of the term "transracial" the poster girl for which has been Dolezal herself, who has since used the term to defend her previous actions.
The aftermath of the controversy saw Dolezal also dismissed from her position as the instructor in Africana studies at Eastern Washington University and removed by the city council as chair of the police ombudsman commission over "a pattern of misconduct."
The Inlander, an alternative weekly newspaper in Spokane for which Dolezal had frequently contributed to, also announced that it had cut ties with her, citing that it had been "manipulated and deceived" by her.
One can possibly trace the roots of her appropriation to her childhood. Born in Lincoln County, Montana, to white parents primarily of Czech, German, and Swedish origin, her parents adopted three African-American children and one black Haitian child when she was a teen. In 1998, she entered her artworks at Spokane's annual Juneteenth celebration, an event commemorating the abolition of slavery that she only found out about because of an internet search looking for any venue to display her works.
In her artwork, she had expressed African-American themes through collages and mixed-media works, and the same would see her gain a full scholarship at Howard University, a historically black college located in Washington DC.
Her parents and brother were said to have been confounded by her acceptance and scholarship, believing that the admissions office assumed she was black because of her work in African American art and because "she sounded black on the phone."
But her relationship with the university would soon turn sour. In 2002, she unsuccessfully attempted to sue her alma mater for discrimination based on "race, pregnancy, family responsibilities and gender, as well as retaliation."
She stated in her lawsuit that she was denied scholarship funds, a teaching assistant position, and other opportunities because she is a white woman and that the removal of her artwork from a student exhibition at Howard in 2001 "was motivated by a discriminatory purpose to favor African-American students" over her.
She claimed that the university was "permeated with discriminatory intimidation, ridicule, and insult," but inevitably lost when it came to light that she had misled the university by posing as black in her admissions essay.
The case was picked apart by Touré Neblett, a commentator for MSNBC, who pointed out the hypocrisy of the case: "When I did my book about blackness, I talked to a hundred folks, academics, all sorts of people and the one thing that binds black people is the experience of racism. There's not a cultural thing that binds all of us but the experience of racism. From systemic, stereotypical, microaggressions, whatever it is, and, no, she has not experienced anti-black racism and with the Howard suit, she sues Howard because she doesn't get a job because she's a white woman, you see that she wants to have it both ways."
As the controversy began to gather pace in 2015, and with few taking her side, Dolezal told The Real in an interview in November of that year that she had been biologically born white but now identified herself as a black woman. In an interview, with The Guardian in February 2017, she said she saw race as a social construct, pointing to a theory that said racial identity had been devised in colonial times as a method of control.
She then started to sunbathe to darken her skin and applying bronzers to maintain the look. She also began wearing dreadlocks and weaves and checked the box for "black" or "African American" on employment and medical history forms.
However, her adoptive brother Ezra claims that Dolezal kickstarted the process of changing her appearance as early as 2009 when she started using the same hair products she'd seen Ezra's biological sister use.
It seems to be that Dolezal was aware of her conscious transformation into a black woman as well. Ezra said that when she moved in with his sister in 2012, she told him that Spokane-area residents knew her as black and warned him to not "blow her cover." This led Ezra to believe that she was essentially putting on "blackface" by changing her appearance and that his sister was "basically creating more racism."
That sentiment was shared by gender studies scholar Samantha Allen, who said: "Rachel Dolezal seems determined to appropriate not just blackness but the rhetoric of transgender identity as well" and Washington Post journalist Jonathan Capehart, who suggested, "blackface remains highly racist, no matter how down with the cause a white person is."
Since those events, Dolezal has published her memoir, 'In Full Color,' where she compared her experiences to slavery, attracting more fierce criticism, and has legally changed her name to Nkechi Amare Diallo. She said she still intended to use Rachel Dolezal "as her public persona" but that she had to change her name to have a better chance of finding employers who would not be interesting in hiring the controversial Rachel Dolezal.
But it did not work out. By February 2017, she was on food stamps, estranged from most of her friends, and on the brink of homelessness after having no success in finding another job. Netflix's latest documentary had filmmaker Laura Brownson follow Dolezal and one of her sons for two years, with her son voicing his displeasure in the trailer quite audibly.
He can be heard saying: "I resent some of her choices, and I resent some of the words she's spoken in interviews. She can identify whatever she wants to be because it's her business. But when it's put in the limelight, I don't think you should be pissing people off more than they already are..." Words to be remembered.
Watch the trailer for 'The Rachel Divide':
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