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Rachel Dolezal: Embellished Improvisational Storytelling

20150618th-rachel-dolezarIn June 2015, Rachel Dolezal became the focus of a media firestorm and ferocious public criticism as the truth about her biological-birth-race was disclosed.

The public response was similar to that when a person posing as a woman is discovered to be someone who was born a man. While public reactions to transgender identity has changed in recent years, the reaction to Dolezal’s claim to ‘transracial identity’ was visceral.

Dolezal wasn’t living out her identity in obscurity. She was the head of a local NAACP chapter and had received scholarship funds based on being black.

In interviews, Dolezal explains that growing she felt out of place in her white body and uncomfortable with the narrative that was forced upon her. She describes how she would use a brown crayon whenever drawing pictures of herself, and would make her hair black and curly. Dolezal has said she was born in, and lived in, a teepee; recounting hunting for food with bow and arrow. She had apparently spoken of a time when her family moved to South Africa, making a connection with her roots there. She shares what it was like later in life to be described as bi-racial or trans-racial. She says she felt her identity was really black and not white at all.

Because Rachel Dolezal seems to have spoken falsely on some topics (explained below), it’s hard for the public to be fully trusting with regard to her racial identity claims.

This article and the associated resources provided here aren’t intended to advance any position or conclusion regarding Rachel Dolezal. The information offered here is simply for reference purposes and further reading similar to Wikipedia.

Toward the bottom of this article, you’ll find a section titled “Embellished Improvisational Storytelling” that explores the extent to which Rachel has fabricated some of her stories.

Rachel Dolezal Declares She is Bisexual

On 17 June 2015, Rachel shared on the Today show that she is also bisexual as well as being biracial (see video below). In this regard, she says she feels a connection with Caitlyn Jenner. Click here for the article that accompanies the video.

Initial Public Reaction

There seem to be these two contrasting comparisons with the Caitlyn Jenner story:

  1. Accepting. Just as it’s acceptable and authentic for Caitlyn Jenner to make changes to her physiology and identity so her body reflects how she feels inside, it’s equally authentic for Rachel Dolezal to declare that she is black and make whatever changes she wants to make to her hair and skin.
  2. Rejecting. It’s offensive to compare Rachel Dolezal to Caitlyn Jenner. Caitlyn Jenner has been a woman in a man’s body for many years and is finally able to align her body with who she is. She’s really a woman. However, Rachel Dolezal is a liar. She isn’t black and no amount of makeup will make her so.

So, some are reacting to Rachel’s story supportively, declaring that it’s beautiful she can come out and express her inner biological-race-identity as a beautiful black bisexual woman with native American influences. Others are declaring that her new found identity is a fraud.

Some Claim Rachel is a Deceptive Con Artist

Some people who have known Rachel over the years have described her as a confused deceptive con artist. Her parents say that she never drew herself with brown or black crayons. Her mother said she and her husband briefly lived in a teepee in 1974, three years before their daughter was born, and called Rachel’s claims of being born in a teepee or living in a teepee ‘totally false.’ Also, Rachel apparently didn’t live in South Africa and has never been there.

So, the public is left wondering how much of Rachel Dolezal’s story is fabricated and how much is true. The rest of this article provides additional information to explore this dilemma. Because some of what Rachel has shared seems to be made up, it makes it more difficult for some people to accept the part of her story that’s true.

Rachel as a Child and Racial Identity

News media, bloggers, and people in social media are using photos of Rachel Dolezal as a young girl, showing her fair skin, blond hair, and blue eyes as evidence that she really isn’t black and that she is deceiving everyone. Rachel claims that as an adult she was more freely able to embrace black identity.

Couldn’t the same argument be used to criticize trans people who switched their gender identity? People could show photos of a trans person during their youth and ask the trans person to comment about why they now are deceiving the world into thinking they are a biological gender that they weren’t born into. To a trans person, they don’t feel like they are deceiving the world, but instead they are being more truthful about expressing who they really are on the inside.

Any change a person makes in transitioning to their adult life could be questioned and challenged based on the person’s identity as a child. “In your photos as a child, you had brown hair. Now it’s blond. Are you really blond, or are you pretending to be blond?”

The primary offense that people have seems to be the comparison between trans people who are authentic about who they are and Rachel who is perceived to be a liar.

Some people are upset about the comparison between gender and race because race can’t be changed, but gender can be changed. They say that, “Some people are born with feelings of another gender, yet there isn’t any ‘feeling’ of being a certain race.” Others argue that it’s possible for a person to feel an unexplainable connection to a certain race or culture and want to absorb into it.

Comparison With Judaism

Judaism offers an interesting comparison. Judaism as a biological and ethnic identity is determined by the mother’s side of the family. However, those who convert to Judaism are considered fully Jewish as are their children. Within Judaism, there aren’t supposed to be second-class Jewish people — those born Jewish versus those who convert. All should be considered equal. If someone can convert and become Jewish, then why can’t someone convert and become black?

Videos of Rachel

Here are some video interviews with Rachel, and further down the page are interviews with her parents and those who say they know or knew Rachel. As you’ll see in the media interviews with Rachel, the talk show hosts are very respectful of Rachel in their interviews.

* * *

Rachel Talks About the Imposed White Narrative and What it Means to be Black (MSNBC, Melissa Harris-Perry, 16 June 2015)

“I have really gone there with the experience… in terms of really owning what it means to experience and live black… blackness. … From a very young age … I felt an instinctive connection with ‘black is beautiful’ you know… just the black experience and wanting to celebrate that, and I didn’t know how to articulate that as a young child in kindergarten or whatever. You know, you don’t have words for what’s going on. But certainly that was shut down. I was socially conditioned to not own that and to be limited to whatever biological identity was thrust upon me and narrated to me and so I kind of felt pretty awkward at times with that.” Rachel Dolezal, 16 June 2015

* * *

Where Rachel Talks About Crayons (Today Show, 16 June 2015)

“I was drawing self portraits with the brown crayon instead of the peach crayon, and the black curly hair.”

“I was actually identified, when I was doing human rights work in North Idaho, as, first, trans-racial, and the next newspaper article described me as a bi-racial woman… then [later described as] a black woman.”

* * *

Ashleigh Banfield speaks with Kitara Johnson, a former colleague of Rachel Dolezal, on how the Spokane community has reacted to Dolezal’s identity claims. (CNN, 17 June 2015)

“At first I thought, maybe this is a psychological disorder, but now I’m convinced that she’s a con artist… To say that you have lived the experience as an African American is just ridiculous. To bring up something like transracial is unfair. If I put on makeup and said I’m going to be white today, I couldn’t pass that off.” Kitara Johnson, NAACP Member, CNN Interview, 17 June 2015

* * *

Ruthanne and Larry Dolezal, parents of Spokane NAACP President Rachel Dolezal, talk about why their daughter might be masquerading as African-American. (CNN, 12 June 2015)

* * *

Blogger Kat Blaque Commentary on Rachel Dolezal, 14 June 2015

“She is currently under investigation for allegedly faking a hate crime where she received a racist package.”

“She can go home and wash off her self tanner and wash out her perm, but I can’t wash off my gender and that’s something that isn’t defined by my makeup.”

“People draw this comparison between Rachel and Caitlyn [Jenner] because they believe trans people are at the end of the day deceptive. To be honest, the accusation doesn’t really surprise me because a lot of people think that trans people transition to fool the people around them.”

News Reports and Opinion Pieces

Here are some news reports about the Rachel Dolezal story.

  • Black Like Who? Rachel Dolezal’s Harmful Masquerade,” New York Times, 16 June 2015, by Tamara Winfrey Harris
    • “Ms. Dolezal’s subterfuge, made easier by the legacy of racism in America, undermines the very people she claims to support.”
  • Dolezal’s Damaging ‘Transracial’ Game,” The Daily Beast, 16 June 2015, by Samantha Allen.
    • “By expressing her racial identity in this now-familiar “I identify as…” format, Dolezal is drawing a direct parallel between her own fraudulent behavior and transgender identity in a post-Jenner moment when the public was beginning to accept the latter’s psychological legitimacy.”
    • “On Monday’s episode of The View, Whoopi Goldberg said, ‘If she wants to be black, she can be black. Look, just like people say, ‘I feel like a man, I feel like a woman, I feel like this.’ She wants to be a black woman, fine.'”
    • “At a moment like this—and as strange as this possibility seems—this lone woman from Idaho has the potential to do real damage to public perceptions and conceptions of transgender identity.”
    • “Caitlyn Jenner can identify as a woman because she is a woman psychologically, socially, and hormonally. Rachel Dolezal can “identify as black” all she wants but she isn’t black and she never will be. This is not a contradictory political position. It’s science.”

Embellished Improvisational Storytelling

Some are suggesting that Dolezal is performing a kind of improvisational performance art. Rachel herself states that she has engaged in ‘creative nonfiction’ in representing herself as African-American.

In apparently making up stories from her youth, such as drawing her self portrait with a brown crayon, or claiming to have a ‘black is beautiful’ awareness at age 5, or being born in a teepee, it may be that Rachel is engaging in more creative nonfiction.

Her style of delivery is similar to the scene in Meet the Parents where Ben Stiller’s character is making up a story about growing up on a farm, and then revising the story, making things up as he goes along. “I didn’t actually grow up on a farm per se.” With a completely straight face he fabricates a story that becomes a story made up of lies on top of lies. Watch below through 1:32. This delivery is similar to what appear to be fabrications told by Rachel in television interviews — all emotionally delivered with complete sincerity.

These sorts of deceptions are common in popular cinema. In the movie Wedding Crashers, Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn play the part of two men who deceive people into believing they are whatever ethnicity or cultural identity needed to get them accepted into various wedding ceremonies and receptions. When asked, “Would you say you’re completely full of… or just 50 percent?” Owen Wilson’s character replies, “I hope just 50 but who knows.” (@11:44)

A similar style of embellished improvisational storytelling is found throughout the movie House Sitter with Steve Martin and Goldie Hawn, where the character played by Goldie Hawn explores the issue of identity and truthfulness as she lies about her upbringing and who her parents are.

The Proposal is another film where the main characters begin to weave a false story about their relationship with each other and make up stories about how they got engaged.

Of course, the characters and storylines played out in comedy films are not role models for real life. Yet, as you watch the videos below, it’s not hard to imagine a movie in which the lead character would go before national news and talkshow hosts spinning all kinds of fabricated stories with everyone accepting it in at face value.

At some moments during interviews, Rachel’s words and responses don’t make sense and resemble a Sarah Palinesque babble-speak. (example below)

If one concludes that she is knowingly, or unwittingly, engaged in some kind of theatrical improvisational embellished storytelling and performance art, the character she’s created is masterfully conceived and presented.

Mean Spirited Responses

Rachel talks about the mean spirited responses that some people are engaged in with regard to her story. In the example below, someone has taken the Caitlyn Jenner cover story cover art, and placed Rachel Dolezal’s head on Caitlyn Jenner’s body depicted as posing on the cover of Ebony Magazine. Using the caption “Call me Black” seems to suggest that a white woman can no more be black than a man can claim to be a woman.


By Greg Johnson

Greg Johnson is a freelance writer and tech consultant in Iowa City. He is also the founder and Director of the ResourcesForLife.com website. Learn more at AboutGregJohnson.com