Seems like everyone has an opinion on Rachel Dolezal.
For anyone who’s somehow missed the story: Dolezal is the now-former president of the Spokane, Washington NAACP who presented herself as an African American woman only to be exposed as white last week by her estranged parents. With a post on the chapter’s Facebook page, Dolezal revealed today that she was stepping down from the position she’d held for the past five months; the news followed several days of media scrutiny and punchlines surrounding her ruse.
But funnyman Dave Chappelle told The Washington Post that he was wary of Dolezal jokes and the attention the media is giving her. He mentioned Dolezal during his commencement address to the Duke Ellington School of the Arts in Washington, D.C.—Chappelle’s alma mater. But when he spoke to The Post, he elaborated on how he views her behavior.
“The thing that the media’s gotta be real careful about, that they’re kind of overlooking, is the emotional context of what she means,” Chappelle said. “There’s something that’s very nuanced where she’s highlighting the difference between personal feeling and what’s construct as far as racism is concerned. I don’t know what her agenda is, but there’s an emotional context for black people when they see her and white people when they see her. There’s a lot of feelings that are going to come out behind what’s happening with this lady.”
It’s a position that has been gaining traction for days on social media: the idea that somehow Rachel Dolezal’s masquerade is deconstructing social ideas regarding race. It’s hard to see how that is happening in any meaningful way when she didn’t pose as a black woman to infiltrate white power structures; she merely used false pretense to advance her career in black spaces. Her “highlighting the difference between personal feeling and what’s construct” is more illuminating of a white person’s capacity to adopt a different cultural identity and gain from it without much backlash or consequence, whereas non-white peoples’ attempts to break into white institutions have often been met with physical and cultural resistance.
But despite her elaborate fraud, so many like Chappelle are more concerned with her well-being. “And she’s just a person,” he said. “No matter how we feel about her.”
“I’m probably not going to do any jokes about her or any references to her for a while ’cause that’s going to be a lot of comedians doing a lot,” he continued. “And I’m sure her rebuttal will be illuminating. Like, once she’s had time to process it and kind of get her wind back and get her message together.”
Chappelle’s empathy for Dolezal echoes what many have been saying for several days—offering theories as to what her grand plan must’ve been, praising her for the insightful work she’s supposedly done, and giving her all the time she needs to explain herself. On his hit Comedy Central show, Chappelle infamously gave us his hilarious “Racial Draft” sketch during which ethnic groups acted as professional sports teams, trading and drafting celebrities based on who was more desirable at the moment. Chappelle referenced the Racial Draft in regards to Dolezal, answering that she’d be embraced where she’s worked all this time. (“I think black,” Chappelle reportedly said to The Post. “We would take her all day, right?”)
In announcing her resignation, Dolezal was quick to center herself as the victim of public ridicule while ignoring her own duplicitousness. “I have waited in deference while others expressed their feelings, beliefs, confusions and even conclusions—absent the full story,” reads the Facebook post. She opines that “the dialogue has unexpectedly shifted internationally to my personal identity in the context of defining race and ethnicity,” while willfully ignoring that personal identity is at the cornerstone of any dialogue on race and ethnicity—and most individuals can’t easily move from one identity to another and benefit from it professionally. Even as she issues this statement, she doesn’t include any regret or repentance for lying to the people she was supposed to be fighting for. And there have been a number of celebrities eager to feed into this manufactured martyrdom of Rachel Dolezal.
“Let's just all thank #RachelDolezal,” tweeted singer Keri Hilson. “Identity, pathological, & parental issues aside, she's doing more than most of us do for ourselves.”
“Look, just like people say ‘I feel like I’m a man, I feel like I’m a woman, I feel like I’m this.’ She wants to be a black woman, fine,” Whoopi Goldberg said during The View. “Everything that comes with that, she is prepared for. Okay.”
“Everybody has some type of African blood in them,” added co-host Raven Symone. “And what makes a black person—just your skin?” She also later likened Dolezal’s changing hair texture to black women getting their hair straightened. “Black women straighten their hair all the time,” Symone pointed out after co-host Rosie Perez mentioned that white women adopt black hairstyles. “And what do we say? ‘Oh, you look cute, girl—you got your hair did.’”
In a time of racial tension, it is important to recognize the dangers of a Rachel Dolezal. Any advocate for any marginalized group must understand that, if they are not directly a part of that group, their passion and compassion does not give them license to co-opt that group’s struggle. And you don’t get to “make-believe” your way into power circles within a movement. You can join the chorus without snatching the mic. And you can lend your voice without lying.
“Please know I will never stop fighting for human rights and will do everything in my power to help and assist, whether it means stepping up or stepping down, because this is not about me. It's about justice,” Dolezal wrote. “This is not me quitting; this is a continuum. It's about moving the cause of human rights and the Black Liberation Movement along the continuum from Resistance to Chattel Slavery to Abolition to Defiance of Jim Crow to the building of Black Wall Street to the Civil Rights and Black Power Movement to the #BlackLivesMatter movement and into a future of self-determination and empowerment.”
Rachel Dolezal’s career in black social work does not grant her any kind of personal immunity. It is not unreasonable for anyone to require that those who speak on the behalf of a community be honest about who they are. In her first interview after it was revealed that her black “sons” were really her adopted brothers and her real parents were the very Caucasian Larry and Ruthann Dolezal, Rachel declared that she “doesn’t give two shits” what her family and critics have to say about how she racially identifies. That’s fine for her own ego, but that’s unacceptable for a woman who proclaims herself to be an aware and educated activist who understands the destructiveness of white supremacy. One can’t really be an advocate for black people while lying to black people. And there is no doubt that there have been countless incidents over the last ten years in which Rachel Dolezal benefited from that lie. But black people should applaud her because she’s supposedly a friend to the community?
With friends like Rachel Dolezal…who needs friends?