Ac­tivist’s out­ing deep­ens na­tional de­bate over race

Los Angeles Times - - FRONT PAGE - By Maria L. La Ganga and Matt Pearce

SEAT­TLE — Rachel Dolezal has sparked a na­tional con­ver­sa­tion about some of the most sen­si­tive is­sues in Amer­i­can life — race, gen­der, iden­tity and cul­tural in­her­i­tance. Chances are, how­ever, it is not the teach­able mo­ment the self-made civil rights ac­tivist once dreamed about.

Dolezal, 37, re­signed Mon­day as pres­i­dent of the Spokane, Wash., NAACP chap­ter amid rev­e­la­tions that she is a white woman pos­ing as black. Her cha­rade was ex­posed last week by her white par­ents, who live in Mon­tana and have not seen their es­tranged daugh­ter in years.

Dolezal’s story raises ques­tions about the power of race in a na­tion that has been pub­licly de­bat­ing the is­sue since Eric Garner and Michael Brown died last sum­mer in al­ter­ca­tions with po­lice, giv­ing rise to protests, ar­rests and the ral­ly­ing cry “Black Lives Mat­ter.”

Dolezal’s case high­lights Amer­i­cans’ conf lict­ing sen­ti­ments about the coun­try’s in­creas­ingly mul­ti­cul­tural pop­u­la­tion and about who gets to de­cide what race peo­ple iden­tify with. The swift, loud re­sponse to her star­tling sit­u­a­tion swirls around the is­sue of white priv­i­lege and the co-opt­ing of a cul­tural iden­tity.

This much is known for sure: An am­bi­tious ac­tivist in a mid-sized city in a farflung cor­ner of the Lower 48 last Thurs­day un­leashed a storm of anger and sym­pa­thy that spread coast to coast and shows no sign of abat­ing. She was sched­uled

to speak pub­licly about the con­tro­versy Mon­day night, but can­celed her ap­pear­ance. In­stead, she sent a let­ter of res­ig­na­tion to the NAACP’s na­tional head­quar­ters and posted a lengthy ex­pla­na­tion on the Spokane chap­ter’s Face­book page.

She spoke about the fight that lies ahead to move “the cause of hu­man rights and the Black Lib­er­a­tion Move­ment along the con­tin­uum ... and into a fu­ture of self-de­ter­mi­na­tion and em­pow­er­ment.” She did not ad­dress the al­le­ga­tions that she lied about her race. She did not apol­o­gize for the con­tro­versy.

“De­spite the fact that many peo­ple have lib­eral and mal­leable ideas about race, they’re re­ally stuck in a very black-is-black and white-is-white ide­ol­ogy,” said Baz Dreisinger, au­thor of “Near Black: White-to-Black Pass­ing in Amer­i­can Cul­ture.” “When a sce­nario like this comes around to up­end those cat­e­gories, it’s a shocker ....

“This is very bold,” she said, “and it keeps get­ting cra­zier and cra­zier.”

Dolezal has been lauded for re­vi­tal­iz­ing Spokane’s chap­ter of the 106-year-old civil rights or­ga­ni­za­tion. But ac­cord­ing to court docu- ments ob­tained Mon­day by The Times, when she was a grad­u­ate stu­dent in art at Howard Univer­sity, she sued the his­tor­i­cally black school in Washington, D.C., charg­ing that she was a vic­tim of racial dis­crim­i­na­tion.

Dolezal — who was mar­ried to a man named Kevin Moore and known as Rachel Moore at the time — claimed that univer­sity of­fi­cials re­moved some of her art­work from a stu­dent ex­hibit in 2001 “for a dis­crim­i­na­tory pur­pose to fa­vor African Amer­i­can stu­dents” over her, ac­cord­ing to an ap­peals court’s sum­mary of her ar­gu­ments.

She also claimed univer­sity of­fi­cials took her schol­ar­ship away and de­nied her a teach­ing as­sist­ant­ship be­cause she was preg­nant. Her claims were dis­missed by up­per and lower courts alike.

A spokes­woman for Howard Univer­sity de­clined to com­ment Mon­day, call­ing the mat­ter re­solved.

The cou­ple di­vorced in March 2005, ac­cord­ing to court doc­u­ments. That year, she told the court that she taught science and art part time at a school called River City Chris­tian Academy and was an ad­junct pro­fes­sor at North Idaho Col­lege in Coeur d’Alene, which is across the Washington- Idaho bor­der from Spokane.

Dolezal re­cently walked away from a TV re­porter who con­fronted her about her race. The re­porter from KXLY in Spokane showed Dolezal a pho­to­graph of an el­derly black man whose pic­ture was on the Spokane NAACP’s Face­book page and asked whether it was her fa­ther. “Yes, that’s my dad,” she replied. Then, when asked whether she is African Amer­i­can, Dolezal replied, “I don’t un­der­stand the ques­tion,” and walked away.

Dolezal’s mother and fa­ther, who adopted three African Amer­i­can chil­dren and one Haitian child, say she has passed as black de­spite not hav­ing any African Amer­i­can her­itage.

“She may have felt that she had some ad­van­tage in her ac­tivism by be­ing por­trayed as a black woman,” her mother, Ruthanne Dolezal, said on NBC’s “To­day” show Mon­day. “We hope that Rachel will get the help she needs to deal with her iden­tity is­sues. Of course we love her, and we hope that she will come to a place where she knows and be­lieves and speaks the truth.”

Rachel Dolezal’s fa­ther said they had not spo­ken about their daugh­ter’s race be­fore be­cause they had never been asked.

“We had never been asked to be in­volved, we had never been ques­tioned be­fore, but just short of a week ago, we were con­tacted by the Coeur d’Alene Press,” Lawrence Dolezal said on the “To­day” show.

“I guess it was part of some in­ves­tiga­tive re­port­ing that was be­ing done and some­how they got wind of us as her par­ents as a pos­si­bil­ity, so they con­tacted us to see if we were, in fact, her par­ents,” Lawrence Dolezal said. “We taught our chil­dren, as we raised all six of them, to tell the truth, al­ways be hon­est. So we weren’t go­ing to lie; we told the truth: Rachel is our birth daugh­ter.”

Rachel Dolezal has not spo­ken pub­licly about the up­roar; on Tues­day she is ex­pected to ap­pear on the “To­day” show.

In an in­ter­view Mon­day with The Times af­ter Dolezal re­signed, the NAACP’s na­tional pres­i­dent, Cor­nell Wil­liam Brooks, said that the dis­graced for­mer chap­ter leader was widely liked and re­spected in Spokane, where there is “a great deal of dis­ap­point­ment and pain now.”

Brooks also in­sisted that “racial iden­tity is not a qual­i­fy­ing or dis­qual­i­fy­ing char­ac­ter­is­tic for lead­er­ship or mem­ber­ship within the NAACP. It’s just not some­thing that’s a cri­te­rion. … It would be sur­pris­ing to me that it even comes up.”

What is im­por­tant is the or­ga­ni­za­tion’s “in­sti­tu­tional in­tegrity,” Brooks told The Times. “Hav­ing cred­i­bil­ity in terms of truth-telling is crit­i­cally im­por­tant.”

When pressed about the fact that Dolezal had lied about her iden­tity, Brooks said: “No. Ly­ing is not con­sis­tent with our val­ues.”

Ed Prince, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Washington State Com­mis­sion on African Amer­i­can Af­fairs, said the out­rage over the Dolezal case “goes to the heart of white priv­i­lege. An African Amer­i­can can never wake up and say, ‘I’m gonna make my hair blond, put on white makeup and go through my day as a white per­son.’ Not that [Dolezal] con­sciously thought, ‘If I don’t like it I can go back and be a white lady,’ but she ap­pro­pri­ated.”

Jody Ar­mour, a pro­fes­sor of law at USC and au­thor of “Ne­gro­pho­bia and Rea­son­able Racism: The Hid­den Costs of Be­ing Black in Amer­ica,” said it was ironic that just a week or so ago there was public cel­e­bra­tion about Bruce Jen­ner’s tran­si­tion to be­come Cait­lyn, but Dolezal is be­ing cas­ti­gated for chang­ing her racial iden­tity.

Still, that ar­gu­ment can be taken only so far.

“I can’t get up in the morn­ing and tell a po­lice of­fi­cer, ‘I’m tran­sra­cial to­day. Treat me as a white man,’” Ar­mour said. “Michael Brown couldn’t be tran­sra­cial.... When you walk into pris­ons and jail cells, you see cell­blocks brim­ming with bod­ies that are con­spic­u­ously black. Those black bod­ies had no choice in how they were per­ceived.”

But Camille Gear Rich, a pro­fes­sor of law and so­ci­ol­ogy at USC, ar­gues that the up­roar over Dolezal’s sit­u­a­tion is dis­crim­i­na­tory in it­self and de­val­ues black women — par­tic­u­larly the back and forth on so­cial media about the ac­tivist’s men­tal health.

“Be­ing a black woman is such a stig­ma­tized iden­tity that some­one who would opt out of white­ness into black­ness is ‘show­ing a sign of men­tal ill­ness,’ ” Rich said. “There are lots of rea­sons why her de­ci­sion to be­come aes­thet­i­cally black is not a sign of men­tal ill­ness.”

Among them, Rich said, is that she was raised with adopted sib­lings who are black, there are re­ports that she has a son who is black, and she might have acted “to be part of her fam­ily.”

“I think her de­ci­sion is re­gret­table,” Rich said. “But she is sym­pa­thetic.”

Colin Mul­vany As­so­ci­ated Press

RACHEL DOLEZAL, seen in March, re­signed Mon­day as pres­i­dent of the Spokane NAACP chap­ter.

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