Rachel Dolezal has made headlines recently for being a racist liar in her makeover of herself from white kid of Christian missionaries to prominent civil rights activist of color. To support her identity as a black woman, she pulled such shit as claiming she lived in a teepee and hunted with bow and arrows in South Africa, identifying a man of color and family friend as her dad, and saying that her adopted brother [person of color] was her son. Her identification of herself as black certainly helped her get the position of president of the Idahoan Human Rights Education Institute and the presidency of Seattle, WA’s NAACP chapter.
Dolezal’s fabrications remind me of white people who pretend to be Indians. Back when yet another author was revealed to have perpetrated [yet another] lie about her nonexistent Native American youth in [yet another] false memoir, David Treuer, an Ojibwe from Leech Lake Reservation, MN, analyzed the phenomenon insightfully. Noting that popular culture associates Indians with “tragedy,” he writes that “[t]ragedy is a shortcut that sells.” Privileged white people glom onto Indian identity to partake of the sad history of oppression, invasion, and dispossession experienced by so many Native Americans because such stories garner immediate sympathy. [Treuer also cannily observes that the deployment of Indian melodrama distracts from the fake Indians’ thoroughly mediocre writing. HAH!]
Treuer’s comments on the seductive suffering of [fake] members of a racial group seems particularly applicable to Dolezal’s case. Just as white memoirists find the specter of Indian suffering somehow appealing, so Dolezal appears particularly drawn to the concept of woman of color as tragic victim. I say this particularly in light of her claims that she has been the target of anti-black hate crimes. Investigation into these alleged incidents reveals almost all as dubious at best and spurious at worst. Her reiteration of discrimination claims suggests that she feels herself to be victimized. Apparently the “romance” of the suffering of women of color gives her the vehicle she wants to win attention, sympathy, and righteous indignation on her behalf.
Even if Dolezal portrays herself as a victim here, she does not suffer the most grievous repercussions. I return to Treuer’s comments on fake Indians for perspective: “The real victims are Indian citizens and writers. People who have for so long been denied the opportunity to express themselves. … As for Indian citizens, the more than 2 million of us living in the U.S. who are not fakes — our lives [especially if they are happy lives] will go on unseen. This is the greater tragedy. …” Indeed. Dolezal co-opted an experience of race that was not hers, and she made it all about her. So now the public focuses on a white woman and her fake sob story of oppression, while overlooking women of color, whose experiences of racism, activism, frustration, and success are being overshadowed.