I Refuse to Rubberneck Rachel Dolezal’s Train Wreck
Why I’m Not Watching Netflix’s “The Rachel Divide”
I don’t like Rachel Dolezal. I don’t believe she’s misunderstood or mentally unbalanced or confused. I think she’s a shameless attention-seeker, a vile narcissist, and a grifter. She’s a thief. And the thing she covets the most and is desperately trying to misappropriate is Blackness, specifically the Blackness unique to the descendants of American slaves.
To be the descendant of an American slave is to live in a particular kind of purgatory. It is to be the abused and neglected child who always eats last. It is to stand outside in the wet cold and be denied entry to the vast mansion your ancestors built. It is to be harassed and brutalized by police forces born out of slave patrols. There are daily humiliations, constant reminders that you are of the lower caste. It is to know that your existence is seen as a threat, a threat that may be met with deadly violence at any moment.
The freedom struggle of the descendants of American slaves has a proud tradition that has produced true American heroes. That platform of resistance is an honored space, one that Rachel Dolezal infiltrated with her appalling blackface routine. She was the president of the Spokane chapter of the NAACP when she was outed by a local reporter who asked the simple question: “Are you African American?” Stunned that she had been found out, the only reply she could muster was, “I don’t understand the question.”
Soon after that embarrassing interview, it was revealed that Dolezal was White and had been pretending to be a light-complexioned Black woman for years. As evidence, she had shared a photo of her with an African American man she barely knew as one of her and her father. What sort of pathology drives a person to do a thing like that? The same thing that drove her to make claims of racial harassment and report hate crimes, none of which could be substantiated. There’s also the disgusting way she’s taken on the label of “transracial” — co-opting the struggle of perhaps the most marginalized group and turning it into a punchline. Write it down: the next outrage will be her faking a serious illness for sympathy. This is when everyone else will finally turn on her and begin to call out her lies. When she was disrespecting Black people to get attention, it was all good.
There have been plenty of White Americans who have worked towards the cause of racial equality. There was no need for them to fake being Black, and there was no need for Dolezal to do so either. But none of Dolezal’s deception was rooted in her trying to be a genuine ally to Black Americans. This whole production is all about Rachel Dolezal getting to play alternately the victim and the hero. She wants attention, and withholding it is the only thing that might finally get her to stop. And she needs to be stopped.
There is a kind of morbid curiosity that might have made me tune into The Rachel Divide (I mean, the whole thing is such a colossal train wreck). Ironically, it was the teaser Netflix released that cemented my decision to stay away. In the short excerpt, Dolezal’s half-Black son is trying and failing to get his mother to see that her actions have consequences for other people, him in particular. You can hear the exhaustion in his voice, the wearying frustration of trying to teach empathy to a narcissist — an impossibility. All of Dolezal’s replies are about her and her needs. She doesn’t see her son at all. He is merely a prop in her psychodrama.
What Dolezal is doing to her son is a form of child abuse.
And that’s why I’m not watching. I’m not enabling that and adding to his suffering. Each view humiliates that child, and he deserves so much better. (I was going to link out to the teaser, but watching it made me feel so gross. I think giving even that short snippet views isn’t a moral choice.)
While Dolezal needs to disappear, we can’t forget her. The descendants of American slaves need to understand that she is the first of many to come. As cries for slavery and Jim Crow reparations grow stronger, you’ll see more White Americans start doing genetic tests and looking into their genealogy to find a link, so they can shove themselves to the front of the line if the payout comes.
Erasure is one of the most powerful tools of racism. And it’s what White America is going to double down on next.
Rachel Dolezal is the canary in the coal mine. Trying to steal the lineage and very identity of the descendants of slaves will be the next mutation of American racism. We all must be prepared to confront it and beat it back.