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Book review: NAACP director unmasked for pretending to be black writes memoir

March 29, 2017

Rachel Dolezal has written a memoir. For those who may have forgotten, Dolezal is the former head of the NAACP in Spokane, Washington, who, in June 2015, was “unmasked” as a white woman pretending to be black.

The book is likely to resurrect interest in Dolezal, who for a time became an international sensation (not in a good way) and a staple of late-night comedians.

This book is Dolezal’s attempt to tell her story in her own words, albeit it with the help of a co-writer. As she did throughout the firestorm surrounding her “outing,” Dolezal maintains that she identifies as black.

She asserts that her journey is about “a lifetime spent developing my true identity.”

Dolezal does not deny that her parents are white; however, she insists that she is black. If anyone hopes to find Dolezal apologetic about having lied to the public, he or she will be disappointed.

Dolezal and an older brother were born in Montana to Pentecostal parents, who ran a very strict household where television, junk food, and magazines were forbidden. The family frequently foraged for or hunted their food. Her parents also insisted on a modest dress code for her, from which the men of the house were exempt.

Living in relative isolation on a 23-acre farm, Dolezal was able to develop and pursue a number of business ventures from a young age. She made and sold greeting cards and wreaths, and also gathered and sold fruit and morels. As many children who grow up with strict parents in a world that is much more easygoing, Dolezal felt estranged from her parents at a young age.

She writes: “While I was picking, I would often imagine I was an indigenous person, gathering food for the winter. My previous fantasy about being a Bantu woman living in the Congo often returned. I imagined I was an only child, and my mother was ill or dead.”

The image Dolezal presents are of parents who were not simply strict, but often cruel, whose actions caused her to question whether they loved her.

Just before her biological brother left home after graduating from high school, the parents adopted a black child, the first of several adoptions.

According to Dolezal, once her parents “learned how much quicker and cheaper it was to adopt babies with darker skin, they expressed a willingness to take any baby.” Soon after the first adoption, the Dolezals adopted another baby boy. Eventually, the Dolezals would adopt a total of four children, all black.

Dolezal claims the adoptions were based on a financial calculus, that her parents not only welcomed the extra hands around the property (working for free), but also claimed better government benefits.

“In Full Color” takes readers from her unconventional upbringing in Montana — which has been the subject of a separate book by her estranged older brother — to college in Mississippi, a master’s degree at Howard University, and her work for a variety of nonprofits and schools in the West and Pacific Northwest.

At Belhaven University, a Christian school in Jackson, Mississippi, she joined the Black Students Union and made art featuring African American iconography.

She attended Howard on a scholarship, awarded in part on the basis of the portfolio of black portraits she submitted.

It was when she was living in Spokane that her story broke in the media. Having earned the ire of the local police chief, he hired a private investigator to dig into her life.

When it was revealed that her biological parents are white, many accused Dolezal of appropriating a history that was not hers, speaking for and thereby silencing real black women. She was accused of engaging in “blackface.”

Can we trust Dolezal as a narrator? I don’t know. Whatever the truthfulness of Dolezal’s account, her story forces us to think about race and its meanings in ways that may not be comfortable.

I agree with Dolezal that when it comes to race, “It’s complicated.” We live in a world that likes to deal in binaries, yet race cannot be reduced to simply black and white.

If you have four black siblings and are raised in an isolated setting with parents from whom you feel distant, what are the chances that you might see yourself reflected in your siblings? I think the chances may be pretty high.

Dolezal’s story reminds me of two other individuals who crossed racial lines: John Howard Griffin and Sandra Laing.

Griffin was a Texas man very much ahead of his times who chose to “pass” as black in the late ’50s in order to gain firsthand experience of the racism in the South; he recounted his harrowing experiences in the classic work “Black Like Me.”

Born to two whites in rural South African, Sandra Laing was forcibly removed from her boarding school by policemen at the age of 10 and reclassified by the government as “coloured.” DNA testing was later used to prove that she was indeed the biological child of her parents.

Dolezal’s book appears at an interesting moment. The U.S. Census Bureau is recommending a redefinition of the category “white.”

Today, you check white if you are “a person having origins in any of the original peoples of Europe, the Middle East, or North Africa.” The Census Bureau recommends a separate category on the census for those with origins in “the Middle East/North Africa.”

It’s just another reminder of the difficulties of fixing racial categories.

Anene Ejikeme is an associate professor of African history at Trinity University.