Rachel Dolezal, Matt Lauer, and the African American Experience

Rachel Dolezal, Matt Lauer, and the African American Experience June 16, 2015
Matt Lauer and Rachel Dolezal (via Today Show YouTube Channel)
Matt Lauer and Rachel Dolezal (via Today Show YouTube Channel)

The Rachel Dolezal story getting more bizarre by the minute. Yesterday we discovered that while she identifies as black, she sued Howard University for racial discrimination against her because she’s white.

I’m confused and, like many others, I’m offended.

Rachel’s interview this morning with Matt Lauer confirms my reason for being offended. The interview begins with this question and answer:

Matt Lauer: Are you an African American woman?

Rachel Dolezal: I identify as black.

Then Rachel continues to defend herself for 10 minutes, claiming that she identifies with the black experience.

But Rachel is doing more than identifying with the black experience. She’s claiming to be part of the black experience. She said she “had to go there with the [African American] experience…and the point at which that really solidified was when I got full custody of Isaiah [her adopted brother], and he said, ‘You’re my real mom’ and for that to be plausible, I certainly can’t be seen as white.” She also told Lauer that she has identified as black since she was five years old. “I was drawing self-portraits with the brown crayon instead of the peach crayon, and the black curly hair.”

Really?!? On national television, that’s the story she tells about her “black experience”? She has gone all the way with the black experience by gaining custody of her African American adopted brother? I adopted my daughter from China. I’m her real dad, so am I now Chinese? And brown crayons? I don’t get it.

Now, I don’t know what Rachel has been through in her life, but Jamelle Bouie makes an important distinction in understanding Rachel’s situation over at Slate. He writes that “To belong to the black community is to inherit a rich culture; to be racially black is to face discrimination and violence.” Here’s a bit of information about the modern African American experience of racism, discrimination, and violence in the US. FYI – being black in American is more dangerous than gaining custody of an adopted brother and drawing with crayons:

Of course, racism has infected the United States since its founding. It’s been called America’s Original Sin. Events in Ferguson, Baltimore, and McKinney are just a few of the latest examples of modern day racism. As mimetic theory helps us understand, group identity formation is usually constructed in a negative way that pits us over-and-against another group. For example, racism is an identity construct in America that gives white people a sense of superiority over-and-against black people. From slavery to Jim Crow to lynching to segregation to the modern day prison system, racism continues to infect the US.

Unfortunately, this way of constructing identity is bigger than American racism. It is an aspect of the Christian notion of Original Sin. Throughout American history in particular, and world history in general, we find that the easiest way to find group solidarity is to channel our inner hostility against a common enemy.

Mimetic theory calls this the scapegoat mechanism. The demonic aspect of scapegoating is that it feels right because it gives us a sense of “goodness.” But scapegoating, like racism, is based on a lie. That lie claims that another’s life, no matter how guilty or innocent, is less valuable than ours. As such, another’s life can be demonized and sacrificed for our benefit.

It’s hard for me to condemn Rachel too much because our culture has bigger problems. Rachel is likely very deluded, but her story shows how addicted we are to the scapegoat mechanism. Just seven days ago, nobody knew the name Rachel Dolezal, but now she has become the lightning rod for our cultural hostility. White, black, brown, whatever color we are, we can now unite against Rachel.

And that’s the problem because next week Rachel Dolezal will be old news. But the cycle of scapegoating will continue as we find someone new to unite against.

Our cultural hostility against Rachel isn’t going to solve the problem. Next week when we’ve forgotten all about her and move on to our next scapegoat, we will still have the problems of racism and white privilege. As a white man, I know that the statistics I provided above doesn’t come close to telling the black experience of racism in the US. I also know that the flip side of those statistics show the clear privilege of being born white. Because I am white, police and security guards do not hover over me, I have never been “stopped and frisked,” flesh colored Band-Aids are always my flesh, I can turn on the television and be 95% sure that I will see a white person, and I know that my middle class white neighborhood will stay a middle class and white neighborhood.

White privilege is summed up by an important study of two economists. They discovered that the vast majority of entrepreneurs are “white, male, and highly educated.” But even more interesting is that in their high school and college years, they were more likely than average Americans to have committed “aggressive, illicit, risk taking activities.” Among those activities are smoking pot, skipping class, shoplifting, and gambling.

But that’s okay because they were privileged by being born white.

In claiming to be black, Dolezal denies the truth about the privileges of being white and she diminishes the plight of the African American experience in America. Neither are helpful. The best way for white people to deal with racism in America is to recognize the privileges of being white and begin the process of critiquing and giving up those privileges.

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  • Craig J. Bolton

    What utter bullshit. No one has ever claimed that Ruth’s identification with the Jewish People was some sort of slander on Jews. Tomorrow Mr Ericksen will tell us that race is a cultural construct. But today someone has committed the ultimate sin of trying to “pass as Black.” And why is that a sin, wellllll…

    I think the problem here is clear. If this were a Black woman trying to pass as White there would likely be no controversy at all. Some might even opine that she was a “go getter” with ambition to make something of herself. But a White woman trying to pass as Black: “Well, that is just crazy.” And we all actually know why it is crazy, don’t we? You don’t take on a burden voluntarily unless you’re crazy. You sure don’t be loud and clear about being Black being a burden in America, unless you can do so from a condescending position. To become Black in America and then fight for Black People, well, that is “just crazy.” Rachel Dolezal did just that. What a mensch!

    • Hahaha! Craig, thanks for your comment. “utter bullshit,” I love it!

      I appreciate your points. I’m still trying to figure out Rachel’s motivation in many things, including suing a historically black college claiming racism because she is white and then saying she’s black. Is she gaming the system? I don’t know. But to your point, Ruth never sued the Jewish people. Now that would have been utter bullshit!

      I don’t know what I’ll tell you tomorrow, I’m still trying to figure it out. But as I said in the article – did you keep reading? – is that this story tells us much more about our cultural tendency to scapegoat than it does about Rachel. I think you might be able to get behind that message.

      Grace and peace to you,

    • hyattd27
  • Agni Ashwin

    The problem really isn’t that Rachel claimed to be ‘black’ (which she distinguishes from ‘African-American’, an interesting move, philosophically, and one of the more interesting moves in this whole story) but that she (apparently) was not open about her (exclusively?) European background to her African-American colleagues.

    Whereas the Path to White Citizenship (i.e., “passing”) has historically demanded that one’s heritage be hidden, the Path to Black Citizenship requires the opposite.

  • I would not ask white people to give up their privilege, but use that privilege to continue this great experiment by creating a society of privilege for all humans. By now we all should hold in common certain truths to be self-evident and have a willingness to make them applicable for every human on this planet. That is the only true privilege we have as humans during our life span. When this life span is over we will all look back and see what we did with what we were given. Did we leave this world better for others or did we spend it hoarding only for our perceived descendants? Jesus simply asks, who is you brother or sister?

  • Mark

    Good post. I would, however take some issue with your comment “my middle class white neighborhood will stay a middle class and white neighborhood.” I don’t know where you live, or how old you are, but in my sixty-plus years I’ve seen every neighborhood I’ve lived in go through phases of new and middle class, to old and lower class. The racial makeup changes during that time also, as the houses lose value and become more affordable to those with less income. Not saying this is good or bad, but I would never expect my neighborhood to remain middle class forever.