eRACEing Race: A conversation with Rachel Dolezal
This is the season one finale (!) two-part episode of Homegoings, a podcast that features fearless conversations about race, and YOU are welcome here. Follow the series here.
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When it comes to the media, Rachel Dolezal has a lot of barriers. In fact, calling them “barriers” is generous. It’s more like a barbed-wire fence.
Just getting this interview took a LOT of work. A few months of work, to be exact, with fair warning from her manager about what Rachel would and wouldn’t respond to. Like direct questions about her identity and her scandal, and the caveat that if we did do an interview, her manager would need to be present, and able to shut the whole thing down if it went left.
And this makes sense. After all, it was a media experience that altered Rachel's entire life. In June of 2015, while she was deep in her work as an activist for Black and civil rights, a local TV news crew interviewed her and asked: “Are you African American?”
That footage of that interview went viral. And not the good kind of viral. And at the same time all this was going on, Rachel's parents, Larry and Ruth Dolezal, released photos of their daughter as a blonde-haired white child. While Rachel acknowledged that she was "born white to white parents," she maintained that she self-identified as Black. Which pissed a lot of people off.
In this final two-part episode of season one of Homegoings, we catch up with Rachel, to hear how the conversation around racial identity and choice has changed — or hasn’t. And we explore race as a social construct — can it be deconstructed?
“[W]e’re all a human race. We’re all technically members of the Black human race because we all go back to a Black mother. So 'Black' is the one label that everybody has, they just don’t know it, and if you want to look to your ancestors for inspiration, that’s OK.”Nkechi Amare Diallo, also known as Rachel Anne Dolezal
Note: Our show is made for the ear. We highly recommend listening to the audio. We’ve also provided a transcript. Transcripts are generated using a combination of robots and human transcribers, and they may contain errors.
Rachel Dolezal: I have always identified racially as human and culturally as Black.
Myra Flynn: This is Nkechi Amare Diallo, better known to most as Rachel Anne Dolezal up until her name change in 2016 to this Nigerian phrase meaning "gift of God”. We’ll call her Rachel for this episode. She says for press, she doesn’t mind.
And this is what happened.
Rachel culturally identifies as Black, but during at least the infamous year of 2014-2015, there was plenty of ambiguity around how she racially identified as well. A loud and proud activist for Black and civil rights, whose good work in the community even got her elected as the branch president of the NAACP in Spokane, Washington, Rachel presented – aesthetically – as a Black woman. If you look at her then, and now, with a headful of braids, a golden tan and brown freckles, I mean — sure, it makes sense.
And for a while, this all went under the radar, because Rachel WAS the radar. But public interest was piqued after allegations that she had been the victim of race-relatedhate crimes came under scrutiny. And then, in 2015, Rachel’s parents outed her as being born biologically white.
While Rachel acknowledged that she was born white to white parents, she maintained that she self-identified as Black.
Rachel Dolezal: I affiliate more with Black culture than white culture and values. And yeah, so I mean, it's pretty simple. Culture isn't biological either, by the way,
Myra Flynn: This episode is gonna be a two-parter. There’s too much to unpack in one, so be sure to listen on after Part One. This is also our final episode in season one of Homegoings — and it’s the final one for a reason. Because though I interviewed Rachel in July, it’s taken me this long to figure out a way to share it. Or if I even wanted to. I mean besides her scandal, most of us haven’t really thought about Rachel’s controversy for a while. And for some, not thinking about her has been intentional, an act of resistance even, because her story felt hurtful and offensive and deceptive.
But for others, her story is relatable. For people like Martina Big, who was featured on Maury in September 2017. She’s a woman of white ancestry who identifies as Black and has had tanninginjections administered by a physician to darken her skin and hair.. Or even Korla Pandit, born John Roland Redd, a Black American musician who posed as an Indian from New Delhi in both his public and private life.
So like it or not, there are more people like Rachel Dolezal out there, which means that racial identity, and everything we know about it and all that comes with it often inherently, like culture and heritage, is very recently, seemingly, up for discussion in terms of choice and flexibility. It’s up for grabs. And this not only challenges me, as a Black woman — it makes me immensely curious.
Curious about Rachel the human, the mother, and what she’s been up to since all this went down …
Rachel Dolezal: People like, “Oh, just don't care what people think.” I'm like, well, but when what people think means you can't get a job. You know, when what people think means that you're gonna have people taking pictures of you when you're at the grocery store, and you're just really trying to get your, you know, kid with autism through grocery shopping, you know. Or whatever, like, that's when it matters, in a sense…
Myra Flynn: Curious how the conversation about what’s been dubbed “transracialism”, a word describing a person who identifies as a different race than the one associated with their biological ancestry — has changed. Or hasn’t.
Rachel Dolezal: You know, gender identity and expression is being honored. And on the U.S. Census that says that, you know, these are – this is self-identifying form, you’re self-identifying, you know, where you belong on this form. And it's not, if race is not a biological essentialism, a fate that we're born into, then I think, you know, we're all the human race. And we then are free to find the culture that we really resonate with, and it feels like home.
Myra Flynn: And then of course, there's this nagging question that scares me the most. And that is… what if she’s right?
Rachel Dolezal: The book by Audrey Smedley really opened my eyes to race being a social construct, and that it's something that we do, it's a behavior, it's something that we not only have we being just human beings, particularly European colonists have created over history, right? And have put this script, the stereotypes on people. And if you're white, you're, you know, you're born with a silver spoon, and then if you're Black, you, you know, are gonna struggle, and, you know, all these other things. And some of that still is true just because of that creation, right? But there's also that sense of like, what are we going to do with the individual?
Myra Flynn: From Vermont Public, this is Homegoings. I’m Myra Flynn. Today on Part One of this final episode of season one, a conversation with the perplexing, nuanced and controversial Rachel Dolezal about the choice – or lack thereof – in racial identity.
Rachel Dolezal: We stop seeing people as human beings that are on the opposite side because they’re a threat.
Myra Flynn: We’ll dig further into what Rachel’s story brings up in us as individuals.
Jane Lindholm: I don’t know about you, but this whole thing, Rachel’s story, brings up more questions than it does answers …
Myra Flynn: And unpack the cultural fallout that can and has happened, when the social construct of race is threatened to be deconstructed.
Mia Schultz: So she has witnessed it. She can read the books. But there’s not the internal 4094 ancestors that we bring with us.
Myra Flynn: This is Homegoings. We’re a proud member of the NPR network. And this is Part One of a two-part episode we’re calling “eRACEing Race: A conversation with Rachel Dolezal.” Welcome.
Myra Flynn: There were a lot of barriers to – to get to you, and I had to really prove that I was not out to like, harm or take things out of context. And I was just wondering if you could talk a little – a bit about like, why that is?
Rachel Dolezal: I've experienced that mostly what the media is they want to take, and then they want to exploit. And so they want to frame a question in a way, that's a gotcha-question. And then take that snippet, and go exploit it and make it go viral. Maybe we're going to do an hour interview, only three minutes of that is going to be seen ever by anyone. And it's going to be those three minutes, where they got me to say one little part of a thing you know, chopped it off, and the other 20 minutes of what I said, or the other, you know, 60 minutes, or however long the interview was, never see the light of day. So I've had that happen over and over and over. And then just the disappointment, of the investment of time and energy to express myself, even – even my children expressing themselves and feeling like their words were twisted against me and against our family. And it just – it's just been a very brutal process.
Myra Flynn: Given Rachel’s experience with the media, this interview was a tough get. In fact, when I said there were barriers to getting near her, to call them “barriers” is generous. It’s more like a barbed-wire fence. I had hours of conversations with her manager before they’d even agree to let me near Rachel. And there were a lot of concerns about what I would or wouldn’t ask her, and fair warning about what she would and wouldn’t respond to. Like: direct questions about her identity, or re-upping her scandal and past. And if I DID get the interview — her manager would need to be present, able to shut the whole thing down should it go left.
And this makes sense to me. After all, it was the media that altered Rachel's entire life. In June of 2015, while she was deep in her work as an activist for Black and civil rights, a local TV news crew interviewed her and asked: “Are you African American?”
That footage of that interview went viral. And not the good kind of viral. All this to say – the barbed wire. I get it.
Rachel Dolezal: I think it's just – it's tough when you become infamous without consent, you know, without your control.
Myra Flynn: I’ll admit, I have been doing some mental somersaults with this episode. And here’s why: I don’t want to participate in Rachel’s scandal. Her story blew up a long time ago, and frankly, it just isn’t news. And I am interested in her humanity, genuinely — so I don’t desire to dehumanize her.
But I don’t want to write Rachel a love letter, either. Part of being human is people pushing back on you. Disagreeing with you. And disagreeing is not dehumanizing. And I think part of a good interview is holding space, and being willing to listen with an open mind, and even question my own beliefs — which I’ve done plenty of in this episode. In fact, NOT questioning some of these things feels dehumanizing to ME. So Rachel, if you’re listening: I do indeed relish the nuance of your story. And I hope you can relish the nuance of mine.
Rachel Dolezal: There are a lot of race essentialists. And race essentialists are people who actually believe that race is a fate that you’re born into and it’s unchangeable. But science is proof that race is an archaic idea, when it comes to the human race being divided into separate races, because the human race doesn't meet the zoological requirements for those racial divisions. So yeah, racially, I'm human, you know, surprise, surprise.
Myra Flynn: Here’s the thing about Rachel. I think you’ll hear today that a lot of her thoughts on race, in particular race as a social construct — they aren’t technically, biologically or even anthropologically wrong. But her process for getting us to understand her points, i.e. identifying as Black culturally, and aesthetically — are so unusual, they aren’t really based in a reality all of us are living in. Or even could if we wanted to. For many of us, there’s no choice. We can’t pass or change our appearance enough to have choice in our racial identity. And I got questions about this stuff. About the impact and the fallout of her actions and her choices.
Questions Rachel mostly didn’t want to talk about. But I wanted to talk about with someone.
Mia Schultz: And I got in the car and drove here. About three hours. Three hours …to three hours.
Kwame Dankwa: Oh my gosh.
Myra Flynn: These are my someones. I wasn’t gonna pull this thing apart alone, so I put together an in-studio panel of some of the mouthiest folks I know. You’ll be hearing from us as a kind of Greek chorus throughout this episode.
There’s Mia Schultz. She uses she/her pronouns and is president of the NAACP chapter in Rutland, Vermont.
Mia Schultz: However, today, I'm just here to comment for myself, not in – not with the NAACP in mind, not with them, not speaking their messages. I should say that, a little disclaimer there. And I identify as a mixed-race Black woman.
Myra Flynn: Yes. All right. You mean you can't speak for all of the NAACP and all the Black people all over the world for us today?
Mia Schultz: I cannot do that today. Nope.
There’s Kwame Dankwa, his pronouns are he /him, and he’s a program director and afternoon host on 95 Triple X, another radio station in Burlington, Vermont.
Kwame Dankwa: And I identify as African American and Ghanaian, because I'm exactly 50/50. Literally, African American as you can get. And I am here courtesy of myself and for the engagement of conversation.
Myra Flynn: And then there’s me. My father is white, and predominantly Irish (hence the last name Flynn) and my mother is Black American. I use she/her pronouns and I identify solely as Black. Though as a biracial person I acknowledge the privilege that comes with being lighter-skinned and my proximity to whiteness is pretty close – I am not having a bi-anything experience. Not in my home, not at the grocery store, and not when I get pulled over. So, when it comes to how I identify, I consider my ethnic makeup more of a technicality than anything. Which if I’m honest with myself, is the kinda flexible thinking around race that brings us here today.
Myra Flynn: So I'm going to start with a question for the group. When was the last time you all thought about Rachel Dolezal? And what was that thought?
Kwame Dankwa: I would say I follow her on Instagram. Actually, I follow her on Instagram, because I just after the ..
Myra Flynn: This is the tea.
Kwame Dankwa: I follow her on Instagram, because after the story first broke in 2015 – and I was actually in Rutland at the time, and I was getting ready to move to Washington where she was for a job. And I wanted to see, OK, who is this person? And how is their life going to shake up?
Myra Flynn: OK. And now we know.
Mia Schultz: You know, I don't think about her. But I did actually think about her recently. I would say within the last year or so I want to say there's like a docuseries or something on Netflix, and I checked out like, half an episode.
Myra Flynn: Yeah, the “Rachel Divide.”
Mia Schultz: Yeah, there you go. Yeah, I checked out half of an episode and was like, no. You know, like, I'm like, I have bigger things to worry about than what this white lady's doing. I said what I said.
Myra Flynn: Oh yeah, um, well, I have this thing. I might be a little overly curious to the point that it's a problem, right? Because I don't want to do any harm, right. But at the same time, this show is about nuanced conversations about race and then I was like, who's the most nuanced person I could think of when it comes to a conversation about race? Let's start with Rachel Dolezal.
Rachel Dolezal: I am 45 years old, and I'm a mother of three sons and I live in Tucson, Arizona. I love to garden. I'm an artist, I love to educate all age levels. My current hairstyle right now is butterfly locs. I was a braider for 26 years, developed quite a bit of carpal tunnel, and some nerve damage after braiding, locking and twisting and weaving countless heads of hair. So I still do my own hair.
Myra Flynn: In preparation for this interview, my whole house was nothing but Rachel research for nearly four months. I read most articles written about her, watched most interviews and did revisit the Netflix documentary. I also read her book, In Full Color, since she said anything in there was fair game.
I wasn’t really sure what I was digging for in the mountain of research. Maybe a reason? A reason for this racial, cultural transition beyond the scandal we already knew about Rachel? I think I was digging for Rachel’s humanity
And when you’re doing that, childhood is always a good place to start.
Meet Rachel Dolezal
Rachel Dolezal: Well, we were poor, we were always poor.
Myra Flynn: Rachel was born in rural Montana, in 1977, to her parents Ruth and Larry Dolezal. They were living off of the land, and Rachel says even the kids were responsible for maintaining it. Up to 13 hours a day was spent on chores. There was no TV, no electronic devices. And, according to Rachel, if she and her brothers didn't do things just right, they got beat.
And much of this went down in the name of God. Rachel says her parents were fundamentalist Christians, and much of the way they lived was framed around a strict interpretation of the Bible, including a strong belief in creationism and a Puritan-like commitment to simple living. In fact, in Rachel’s memoir is a copy of her birth certificate. In the bottom right-hand corner, where a witness or other attendant to her birth would typically be named, it reads “Jesus Christ” himself.
According to Rachel, her parents did a lot of things in the name of God. Like adopting four Black kids between 1993 and 1995, into this rural, white, subsistence lifestyle.
Rachel Dolezal: They were super pro-life and anti-abortion. And they wanted to not support abortion by paying taxes, because they believed that part of the government funds, taxpayer dollars, were going to fund abortions within the military. And so it was just kind of this whole thing of, if they could not pay taxes, then they would not be funding abortions. And so if they adopted enough kids you know, to have their tax return be greater than what they were paying, it would all be part of God's work.
Myra Flynn: When I reached out to Larry Dolezal to fact-check this, he told me the financial implications were not part of the family's consideration when adopting, but yeah, the more dependents, the lower the taxes.
And yes, abortion had a lot to do with it. One time, while the family was attending a peaceful pro-life rally in Libby, Montana, Larry says they were accosted by pro-life people who said: "Why do you want to save these babies anyway? Nobody wants them." Larry says they were referring specifically to Black kids. Which prompted a discussion in the family: Do we care about Black kids? And decided: we want to be involved. At the time, both Black children and children with disabilities were considered harder to place for adoption. But the Dolezals believed all children were made by God. So they went for it.
Rachel has a different story about why they adopted Black kids, specifically:
Rachel Dolezal: So ultimately, though, what's really heartbreaking about that adoption process is that a white child was $50,000. At that time, for adoption fees, and Black children were zero to $4,000. And so for their budget, they could only afford Black kids.
Myra Flynn: I checked on this, because this number for a white child seemed absurdly high. Using the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ CPI inflation calculator, $50,000 is equivalent to $114,060 today.
Though I couldn’t find this exact number, I learned that race-based adoption fees are well-attested. Specifically for Montana during this time, I can say that there was a large fee-gap between the two races. The gap also considered things like private adoption versus public or foster adoption. Bottom line, Black kids were cheaper. And Larry did confirm with me that although he did not adopt these children because they were cheaper, adoption costs for all four kids was about $25,000. So up the mountain they went.
Rachel Dolezal: And of course, they had a daughter who was in high school, who was able to take care of babies, so she could homeschool – that being me – and take care of all these babies, right? So it was like a win-win, they didn't even have enough money to buy diapers. And so I sewed cloth diapers for babies, literally, out of flannel and other fabrics that we had, because we made our own clothes on the mountain. It’s like early-1900s-living.
As long as they were babies, and they could put little, they could put little pictures of them in their little Christian newsletter, they were useful. As soon as they started to get a little bigger, and started to question and assert themselves in life and wanted to be empowered more, then they became a threat. And it's, it's something that you know, nobody wants to live through, knowing that corporal punishment and abuse was occurring, and also just loving these children so much. And not being able – not having the rights to save or protect each one of them in those moments, because I was a sibling and not their legal parent.
Myra Flynn: Larry did confirm some more things to be true about Rachel’s story. Well, more than I expected, like yes, corporal punishment was a thing, though he wouldn’t characterize it as abuse; it’s what they believed was best for all the children’s discipline, and he doesn’t believe that anyone was emotionally scarred by it. Also, yes though they are what they would consider middle-class now, they did grow up in a shack before they bought their land. But Larry says that was for a brief time, and he wouldn’t describe them as “poor.”
Eventually, Rachel did become the parent to one of her siblings. In 2010, she obtained legal guardianship of her brother, Izaiah. Her Instagram is peppered with photos of him living his best life with boasting posts of how proud she is of him. He even recently got engaged.
Rachel Dolezal: But yeah, I bonded with my younger siblings, and I did my darndest to protect them from as much as I could, and always will love them and care for them and be there for them.
The Greek chorus
Kwame Dankwa: So, I know that we were talking about this interview, and I went, and I was, you know, reading through her book, and she was talking about how …
Myra Flynn: Back to my Greek Chorus: Mia Schultz and Kwame Dankwa.
Kwame Dankwa: … as she moved out of where she was from, she grew up in Montana, and her parents had adopted four Black children, and how she had moreso connected with them than even her own family. And she had moved down South, and people began to suspect that she may have been biracial or really light-skinned African American. And as a result, when she would correct them, they would feel like, “Oh, well, we don't want to talk to her, we can't, you know.” So as a result, she stopped correcting people so that they would feel more, they would feel more comfortable around her. And as a result, she felt more comfortable in her own skin, because she didn't identify with the hardcore devout Christian right-wing roots that she grew up with.
One of the things that I have noticed, especially from reading her book, is the part of me that is Black. Now, the part of me that is all of you is Black. But there's – but you know, the part of me that is like a very liberal understanding person is – I want to meet people where they are. And I want to identify people as they tell me to, as they tell me they want to be identified, no matter how much I don't understand. The part of me that is a Black man with both roots in Ghana and here is like, “How dare you?” And I'm at this cognitive dissonance state, because I can – I'm looking through the narrative that she's telling, and I'm looking through her eyes, and I can see where she's saying, “This is how I feel and never connected with this.” But as a Black person, I feel like it is my moral obligation to be outraged at the story she's telling, even if she feels that she never did anything wrong.
Myra Flynn: You were talking about appropriation. Is – does what Kwame is saying speak to you? Are you just like, had no – you're like, I had no compassion from the start?
Mia Schultz: I do have compassion, right? Like, there could be real trauma linked to this. We all have traumas, and it influences how we interact in the world. So I want to be empathetic to that. And then I think also, I am angry, right, there's the part that like Kwame was mentioning about our Blackness, right? We are like, amazing people. Black people are amazing. We do amazing things. And louder, say louder: We do amazing things. And we know that we do those amazing things where like, in entertainment and science and academia, like we have a whole term called “Black girl magic,” right? Because we know that our amazingness comes from our ancestry. It comes from these generations of resilience and weathering through things, and you know, all of that context that makes us great, that historical context. And then the way that we fight for our children is like, wrapped up in that. And so I'm offended that she is, like, kind of appropriating our history. It's an insult to our ancestors.
Myra Flynn: I think that's what we're contending with, is that, you know, the hurt kind of comes from borrowing or stealing somebody else's, you know, inherent culture that comes along with race…
Mia Schultz: Appropriation. That’s the word.
Myra Flynn: But Rachel does not believe that she is white. It's complex, it's complex as hell.
Myra Flynn: After learning more about Rachel’s complex upbringing, I’ll admit, I developed some armchair theories about her. For one, I could begin to see an empathetic and actually pretty compassionate throughline forming here as to why maybe she began to eventually align with Blackness as a form of resistance. Given the alleged history of abuse that went on in her house, I can understand her wanting to get as far away from her parents as possible. Even if that meant denial of their shared ethnicity. And secondly, she was pretty much raising her Black siblings. It made sense to me that in order to protect them best, she would do her best to see the world through their eyes. I put my theory to Rachel.
Rachel Dolezal: Yeah, I think that that's the kind of throughline that makes the most sense to people as kind of, you know, the moral of the story or whatever. And that's fine.
Myra Flynn: But even with my hand stretched out with this compassionate guess of mine as to why Rachel believes herself to be culturally Black despite how much pain her choices have caused in Black communities, and in her own life — Rachel doesn’t take me up on it.
In fact, since 2015? She’s only doubled down on her truth that her Black identity has always been there, waiting to be awakened.
Rachel Dolezal: I think it was more than that. It’s not like it was a savior complex, and I felt sorry for some kids. We had a shared experience together. Some of the things that awakened in me while I was caring for them, and some of the things that awakened in me, well, reading Black history – you know, I am still me. Aside from my siblings, you know, I'm not just me because of my siblings, if that makes sense.
Myra Flynn: So, my theory was a bust. And it’s occurring to me along this journey that it might be time to just quiet the curiosity in my brain a little bit as to why Rachel identifies as Black, and focus more on how she’s been doing it. Because here’s the thing: If you were to put together a checklist of the things that make one Black, she's got a lot on that list. In fact, if ethnicity is off the table, and that checklist is the barometer — Rachel presents as the Blackest person I know.
There's her education at THE HBCU of all HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges and Universities):
Rachel Dolezal: I went to Mississippi to college. I went to Howard University. Both, without my siblings.
Myra Flynn: Besides her stint at the NAACP, there are the years she's spent doing "the work" both within communities, the history classes she says she petitioned for and helped to launch, and the work she’s done to deeply educate herself. I mean, just these credentials alone would exhaust THIS Black woman.
Rachel Dolezal: Literature, not just history but fiction works as well as nonfiction works – or fiction works as well as nonfiction throughout their childhood – and then, you know, instituting the first African American history course at Belhaven College that ever existed – that still exists today – when I was an undergrad.
Myra Flynn: Quick note to say that I reached out to Belhaven to confirm this and by the time this came together, still didn’t get a response.
According to her Eastern Washington University faculty bio, Rachel has taught at class called “The Black woman’s struggle." Though a public statement from the university distances itself from her work, saying she’s been hired since 2010 on a “quarter by quarter basis as an instructor in the Africana education program. This is a part-time position to address program needs. Rachel is not a professor. The university does not feel it is appropriate to comment on issues involving her personal life. The university does not publicly discuss personnel issues."
So what I take from that, is a lot of people abandoned Rachel after this scandal. People distancing themselves from Rachel is not unfamiliar. Rachel says she even got lessons in what it feels like to be marginalized from early in her childhood.
Rachel Dolezal: Being second-class as kids, we were kids, so we were under the authority, and we were girls, so were under another layer, and the Black kids were also almost at like, the level of the girls in that sense. So it was just – it was, it were some of those dynamics of sexism and racism, and patriarchy, and white supremacy, and just rural whiteness, and poverty, and all those factors kind of coming together, where I did feel a kinship, not just randomly, it was like we were being treated in this in a similar way.
Myra Flynn: So, this list, if you check every box and then some, as Rachel does, might justify cultural Blackness. Sure. But it turns out it's not even this list, or other things that could be added to the Black experience like innovation, resourcefulness, our glory, our joy, our music, our deep and soulful ways of cooking, dancing or even loving that resonate with Rachel the most. If I'm hearing her correctly – it's our pain.
Rachel Dolezal: Every story needs to be heard. And in that way, I just, you know, I do feel like my story is — it should be heard more as maybe one of survival, maybe one of you know, determination and persistence. And I also resonated with the literature and the history that I was reading, and, like, gained a lot of inspiration to be resilient, and to carry on. A lot of people comment, like, “You're so resilient.” You know, I mean, who are the ancestors that were resilient, when we get back to it, you know, you might have to go back a couple thousand years in your lineage, but we're all going to be able to find some ancestors, eventually, when we go back to the initial mother and father of everyone in the African continent.
Myra Flynn: That was part one of eRACEing Race: A conversation with Rachel Dolezal. Part Two is out now, and you can find it wherever you found this episode.
In part two, we’re going to get into some of the cultural reverberation Rachel’s story brought up for America, writ large. And in order to do that, we have to ask ourselves why WE really cared so much about a biologically white woman from Montana who decided to identify as Black? Can we even name the nerve she struck?
That’s up next.
Myra Flynn: Welcome back to Homegoings, and our final episode of season one. This is a two-part episode and this is Part Two, so if you haven’t listened to Part One, I highly recommend you go back and do that. Trust me, with this topic? Context is everything.
And if you’re continuing your listen, you know that today I’m speaking with Rachel Dolezal, who we’ve learned is a mother, a gardener, and a viral celebrity of sorts — who identifies racially as human, culturally as Black, but was born biologically white. So far this episode has been about getting to know Rachel the person, while challenging pretty much everything we know about the idea of race as a deconstructed social construct. In short: are we erasing race? Could we, even if we tried?
And here’s a hard truth as to why Rachel’s story went so viral or made a mark at all. It’s because we cared. And I think we cared because SHE cared. When it comes to activism, Rachel does not come to play. She’s qualified with a capital Q. I mean before and after 2015, in the Pacific Northwest? Rachel was by all intents and purposes doing THE work.
Rachel Dolezal: So I've been doing a lot of human rights work in North Idaho as director of the Human Rights Education Institute. There were a lot of hate crimes targeting my work because of our five hate groups in North Idaho, white supremacy groups that have their headquarters there. So it was – it was like there were some things that were happening before I became president of the Spokane NAACP.
Myra Flynn: As mentioned earlier, Rachel was also the Spokane branch president of the NAACP, in 2015. A highly-regarded position in the world of civil rights. And a position traditionally held by majority Black leaders.
Rachel Dolezal: So the process for the NAACP, as you have to be nominated, you don't just decide you want to go be the president. And I was nominated based on that work that I'd been doing for a number of years in there – in the Pacific Northwest. So the secretary and treasurer both nominated me to be on the ballot. So there was the incoming president who was running, and then there was me, there was nobody else running or, you know, nobody else nominated to run against the incumbent. So my only choice would have been removing my name from the ballot.
A lot of people like, “Oh, you just pretended to be Black,” you know, saying, theoretically, that somebody would do that, that doesn't even work, because there's no kind of like application form where you check “Black” or “white,” literally, you only get nominated if you have powerful advocacy work.
Myra Flynn: The NAACP, the NAACP doesn't care if people who are white apply.
Rachel Dolezal: There's no application.
Myra Flynn: OK, so, so when they nominate – they nominate a white person?
Rachel Dolezal: Don't I – you know, like, this is literally the officers who have been elected, have to nominate, and they tend to nominate people who are effective advocates, period.
Myra Flynn: In June of 2015, following her viral explosion that sparked a nationwide conversation about race, Rachel stepped down as the president of the Spokane branch. In a message to the organization's executive committee, she said her resignation was in the best interest of the NAACP.
And though I clearly have more to learn about how the NAACP nominates its presidents, I think this is a big reason we cared so much about Rachel. She left us wondering — did she need to be Black, look Black, and claim Blackness to do this work? Could she have gotten this far in her work, or maybe even further, if she chose to present the way she was biologically born, as a white woman? And really, can you do good work, in a bad way? How do we square that?
I turned to my panel of experts to discuss: Mia Schultz, president of the Rutland, Vermont NAACP, Kwame Dankwa of 95 Triple X. You’ll be hearing more from them, as well as my colleague Jane Lindholm throughout this part of the episode. This is some pretty heady stuff to grapple with alone.
Mia Schultz: The thing is, there are white branch presidents.
Myra Flynn: There ARE white branch presidents.
Mia Schultz: It’s like, that is not like a requirement to be Black, and be a president. So for me, it baffles me still, you could have still been the president of the NAACP branch in Spokane, if you were just honest.
Myra Flynn: Honesty matters. Yeah, right. And this felt dishonest, even though it's Rachel's truth, like she doesn't feel like she's being dishonest. If you had one question to ask Rachel, should – should I or anybody or you have been allowed to ask anything we wanted to, really get into it, what would you have asked?
Kwame Dankwa: I would ask her, knowing how these things tarnish the good acts and good deeds you did as an activist, and how this affected your children and your extended family of people that you've met in your travels, what would you do differently? Like, all those years of activism, she did all the years of artwork that she did, that was, you know, not even – not even debatable. Good. Work.
Myra Flynn: Her artwork is beautiful.
Kwame Dankwa: And it was erased. All of that erased. What would she do differently?
Mia Schultz: My question would be a combination of both. So why not differently? Why not differently? Like, why couldn't you just be a good ally? What was wrong with being a good ally? And using your privilege? Lord knows we need all of the allies that we can get. And we need those people who can bring – who can bring other white people to the understanding of what Black people go through, and have gone through. So my question be: why not differently?
Myra Flynn: Yeah.
When did you decide?
Myra Flynn: You've had so much experience in changemaking, in child-rearing, from age 14, essentially sewing diapers together for your Black siblings, that thread, that throughline we spoke about – about wanting to connect, but also protect, but also have your own connections and your own interests and your own fascinations and then adopting your brother Izaiah as your own son. When, and – and how did things start to kind of find its shape for you with your own identity in, in your relationship to Blackness?
Myra Flynn: If you can hear me struggling here, it’s because I am. I had to figure out a way to ask Rachel straight up — Homie. When did you decide to be Black? And yes, as much as I, like Kwame, also love to meet people where they’re at when it comes to their identity — I’m going to use the word decide here. Enough already.
Rachel Dolezal: So, um, I think that that, I don't know that there's like a shifting point in terms of, you know, like a moment, right? Race is a social construct, we’re all a human race, we’re all technically members of the Black human race, because we all go back to a Black mother. So Black is the one label that everybody has, they just don’t know it, and if you want to look to your ancestors for inspiration, that’s OK.
I think that there are some key elements, some key moments, like a scattering of them. And when I think, you know, I think anybody thinks back, right, when somebody has an “aha” moment, then you think of like, when I was a child, was I exhibiting this, was this showing up, you know, is this real? Because you kind of check in with yourself, like, is this something that's been consistent over my whole – like, it keeps showing up? That I was like, OK, we need to pay attention to that, or is this just like a phase? And so that's kind of, you know, I think that when it was like, how do I know like, I'm really interested in this? And it's like, well, if it's a phase, it will end. You know, just – just ride it out. And you'll know, right, and if it's not a phase, you're gonna see every decade of your life, this thing coming back to you, how you show up in the world, I think authentically, is driven by how much you pay attention to those signs, signs and signals.
So when I was little, and, you know, I was instinctively drawing pictures of myself with the brown crayon and was, you know, being corrected for that. Like, “That's not – that doesn't look like, why, why are you doing this? This doesn't look like you.” So paying attention to when I was doing something instinctively, I was dancing, and I was not allowed. I was, you know, whatever, whatever I was doing as a child and it was censored. Then as an adult, what do I – what am I drawn to in college, that's a time when you get to explore.
Myra Flynn: I’ll admit, hearing Rachel use the word “explore” when it comes to my race feels so I don’t know — itchy — to me. Like: the audacity, right? To explore my skin, my traditions, my hair, my culture. To try me on like a suit, and then get to change your mind and take the suit off only to try on countless others until the right one fits. There is something about the Black body in all of this that feels like a sacred thing. Lynchings. Whippings, Beatings. Rape. One dropped. Jim Crowed. Back of the bussed. Shot, and kneeled on by police. This is how our bodies have been treated. How do you explore that? Why should you get to?
But then again. Rachel says she’s always felt this identity inside since she was little. And race hasn’t been the only social construct at the table up for debate.
Here’s my colleague Jane Lindholm again. Jane is a lot of things. Being white is one of them. A veteran journalist who’s known for leaning into challenging questions and pushing back in interviews is another. In the world of news, Jane’s a beast.
Jane Lindholm: You know, you don't want to talk about gender, but why? You know, why is someone transitioning more valid? Or not something you would question? Is it because it's not something that you question in yourself?
Myra Flynn: I 100% fully believe that people they have every right to, you know, be who they were really meant to be and to make changes to their body, to – to be free of the shackles of feeling like they're in the wrong body or, you know, whatever the journey may be. But Rachel is confusing to me. It's different and it's confusing to me, because it feels like a mockery. It feels like a mockery. It feels like passing too far. It's like too far in the passing line and direction and, and it can be changed back. It can be taken off, and she can just go – go about her life. That's really, really hard for me to understand.
Jane Lindholm: I – yeah, I mean, I don't think they're the same. But I do believe that people – I do believe in the autonomy of people to tell you who they are, and to be, to live authentically in who they are. You know, again, I don't feel like I get to determine someone's gender, I also don't determine their racial, racial identity or race. That's a lot of policing. You are determining what you see as her experience, and appearance, and upbringing and background. Is that your job?
Myra Flynn: This discussion is just one example of the many that exploded after Rachel’s story came to light. It broke something open nationwide around racial fluidity, and the example of trans identity was kind of the hook to hang your hat on. It was the ultimate comparison. All you have to do is google transgender and transracial to see headlines asking the same questions. “Why shouldn't we compare transracial to transgender?” “If Americans can be transracial, can they be trangender?” It even became politicized with one article headline reading: “If progressives believe gender is fluid, then why not race?”
And to this day, the parameters around gender and race continue to seemingly change shape, expand and then shrink again. And all the ways we have usually, biologically, self-defined — isn’t as usual anymore.
At this point, I wonder if the idea of racial classification is archaic.
I don’t know. But I think the question lies not in whether people like Rachel are in fact Black, given the list of Blackness we ticked through earlier, but whether they should be.
After all, there are things that come with being Black American that simply can’t be shared.
Myra Flynn: I’m sure I’m not the first to ask this, but have you – have you had a moment where you've had to be like, “OK, but slavery?” How do you find kin, kinship in the communities or even your activism when you don't have that same shared experience? You know what I mean? Historically, if you don't have that to share, does that remove you from some of the conversation or some of that kinship?
Rachel Dolezal: Yeah, so I mean, it would remove me from things like reparations, it would remove me – it’s why I’ve never identified as African American, which is very different than identifying as part of the Black diaspora. I think that there needs to be some nuance in terms of how racism affects everyday lived experiences for people who may not be African American. I mean, I think it comes down to, yes, there are Black people in America who are not descendants of chattel slavery. And there are Black people all over the world that aren't as well. And there are people all over the world that are, so that's one piece that is either part of your lineage or it isn't.There are people who do have those ancestors, and there are people who don't.
Like, where you go back and who you come from, I think we need to have a broader view of that, you know, beyond, obviously, you know, that your history on the Black side doesn't start with slavery, you know, you still know that there's that history before. So that wasn't the starting point. And I think some, you know, sometimes that's empowering to people, you know, they go back and you know, the same people.
I did my DNA tests, it was like, 10% North African, and I'm like, I don't know – one of my friends was like, “Oh my gosh, like all the people and Egypt” or whatever, like, she's found some little region to like, they all look like your cousins, blah, blah, blah. You know, people start seeing things. I don't know that that necessarily has as much meaning to me as what's in my heart and in my spirit in my soul. And I think that's OK. Like sometimes we draw meaning from our physicality and from the stairsteps that go back in that physicality. But I also think that there's, we have a mind and we have a spirit, and sometimes the mind and the spirit – we are going to be more powerful in terms of our allegiances. And where we find our home.
Jane Lindholm: I wonder too, like, you know, one of the things that I wonder about with you Myra, is like, why do you think you find her so offensive, in a way that it's like, I can't quite get beyond this, why can't you just discount or what do you think it is that you're like, you still feel – you feel angry and offended but, but also not able to just be like, whatever, this person, they don't have anything to do with me and they don't matter?
Myra Flynn: I think if I dig deep, Rachel is a threat to everything many of us Black people in the United States have been taught about survival. And I'm also not able to discount something that feels like it's being presented as this overarching opportunity that everyone can have.
Jane Lindholm: Right, yes. Yeah. The audacity to say, Yeah, I think – I think I'll just, yeah, I'm gonna claim this too. I can claim anything. I think that's part of it. My – this white belief whether, you know, I believe it in myself or not, that I can lay claim to anything. I can even lay claim to your Blackness, because I am white, I can claim. You don't get to claim your Blackness and you don't get to tell me I can't claim your Blackness. I am white, I can claim what I want. I think that's certainly the history we have in this country and in many countries. And I think, you know, when we drill down, that's part of it. Right? It's like, you white people think you can claim anything, even our Blackness. Fuck you.
Myra Flynn: Right. And isn't this all a fight towards normal? Like, aren't we all in this, you know, in this work of equity and belonging, to get a middle ground somewhere on equal footing to like, repair the wounds of our past? And, like, is this how you do it? I mean I’ll say something: Rachel, you’re not wrong …
Jane Lindholm: Yeah I think – I think you're right that she's not wrong, but that doesn't erase history, and it certainly doesn't change the present experience for melanated people in this country, just because she's not wrong. So what it is, is, is her correctness doing more harm than – more harm than good?
Myra Flynn: To your point in your question, do I have the right to police anybody's identity? No. But I do have the right to be offended. I do have that right. Yeah, I do have the right to be hurt.
Does Rachel's process offend you?
Jane Linholm: Yeah. Because we don't live in a world where we have deconstructed race, it is a social construct, but we have not deconstructed it. So we are living in a world and a society that is built on this painful history and that is not at a place of equality. And as I said earlier, I don’t think that people who’ve had the privilege of whiteness biologically and culturally — it does offend me to then lay claim on Blackness
Myra Flynn: Identity is inflexibly defined as, quote: “The fact of being who or what a person or thing is.” What it IS. Who you ARE. There doesn’t seem to be much choice in that definition, and so I get the societal need to buck its restrictiveness. Historically, most things this rigid have had a moment in time where they've been challenged or taken down. Nobody likes a box.
I think what’s hard for me is that my identity has never felt like a box. My Blackness has never just felt like census data. It’s a big part of my purpose. Some part of my past, and a thing to say, “That nose, that hand gesture, that ritual, the way I walk in this world? That came from you, Grandmama.” My Blackness is something bigger than just me, to pass along to my daughter. A stance. A position. A lens. My identity is part of my legacy. I want to look in the literal and metaphorical mirror and be proud. My identity is not up for grabs.
Since Rachel’s scandal in 2015, most of us have still remained in our socially-constructed racial constructions. And I feel like I can say with confidence, that we are not erasing race anytime soon.
But, if this episode proves nothing else, it’s that when it comes to your identity, apparently – you do get to choose some parts of it. This doesn’t mean the world we’re living in is going to erase history, systems and time to adapt to your choices. And it certainly doesn’t mean everyone is gonna like it. But unless there’s some kind of policy around it, you might not be stopped, either.
For today’s deep listen, Rachel is reading the prologue from her book: In Full Color. Read in her own words about her identity choices, without any of that pesky media editing. And I’ve decided not to add music either — so no emotional manipulation. Untouched.
And you get to choose how you feel about this, too.
Rachel Dolezal: This is Nkechi Amare Diallo, but many of you know me as Rachel Dolezal. I'll be reading the prologue to my book, In Full Color: Finding My Place in a Black and White World.
People always ask me what it was like living as a Black woman, as if I no longer live that way, as if my Blackness were just a costume I put on to amuse myself or acquire some sort of benefits. As if what happened on June 10, 2015 altered my identity in any way. I'll admit to being thrown for a loop when the reporter from a local news channel in Spokane, Washington, who was interviewing me about the hate crimes that had been directed at me and my family, abruptly switched topics and asked, “Are you African American?”
On the surface, it was a simple question, but in reality, it was incredibly complex. Yes, my biological parents were both white. But after a lifetime spent developing my true identity, I knew that nothing about whiteness described who I was. At the same time, I felt it would have been an oversimplification to have simply said: “Yes.” After all, I did not identify as African American, I identified as Black. I also hadn't been raised by Black parents in a Black community and understood how that might affect the perception of my Blackness. In fact, I grew up in a painfully white world, one I was happy to escape from when I left home for college, where my identity as a Black woman began to emerge. Forced into an awkward position by the reporter, I equivocated. When he pressed me, I ended the interview and walked away. After footage of the small segment of the interview found its way onto the internet, and the article appeared in a local paper quote, “outing me as white,” I became one of the hottest trending topics of the day, every day for weeks.
A handful of people expressed their support of me, but they were drowned out by all the shouting as nearly everyone else on the planet was calling for my head on a platter. I understood why some people reacted negatively to the fragments of my story they'd seen in the news. As a longtime racial and social justice advocate, I knew there were certain lines you simply didn't cross if you wanted to be accepted by your community, whether it be white or Black, and crossing the color line was one of them. Because I had been seen and treated as both white and Black. I was intimately familiar with the misgivings both communities had about people who stepped over this ever-shifting line. I also knew the historic consequences for doing so: shaming, isolation, even death.
White people created the color line and the taboo for crossing it as a way to maintain the stranglehold and privilege they've always enjoyed. But due to the painful history surrounding it, many Black people had also grown adamant about enforcing it. If they weren't allowed to cross the color line, at least they could take ownership of their side. As such if you dared to cross the boundary, as I have done and were exposed, you were put in a no-win situation. White folks would see you as a traitor and a liar and never trust you again. And Black folks might see you as an infiltrator and an imposter and never trust you again.
As severe as these repercussions were, they didn't dissuade me from making this journey, for not doing so would have meant turning my back on what I see as my true identity and leaving those I loved most in a vulnerable position. If I've hurt anyone in the process, I do sincerely apologize. That was never my intention.
To most people, the answer to the reporter's question was binary: Yes or no. But race has never been so easily defined. In a letter to Thomas Gray in 1815, Thomas Jefferson struggled to determine, quote, “what constituted a mulatto,” calling it, “a mathematical problem in the same class with those of mixtures of different liquors and different metals.”
In 1896, the case Plessy versus Ferguson, the U.S. Supreme Court attempted to clarify the existing racial classifications when it established the one-drop rule: those with a single Black relative, no matter how distant, were considered Black, even if they appeared white. But this decision only muddled an already complicated issue. If someone who looked white could be considered Black, because one of his 16 great-great-grandparents was Black, but a Black person with a white great-great-grandparent was still regarded as Black, what sort of clarity did this provide?
If scrutinizing people's appearances can't provide definitive proof of their racial identity — what does? How do you decide whether certain people are white or Black? What's the determining factor? Is that their DNA? Is that their skin color? Is it how other people perceive them? Or is it how they perceive themselves? Is it their heritage? Is it how they were raised? Or is it how they currently live? Does how they feel about themselves play a role? And if so, how much does one of these questions provide the answer, or do all or none of them apply. And finally, does the idea of separate human races have any sort of biological justification? Or is it merely a creation of racism itself?
Adding further confusion, the definition of Blackness has not only shifted from decade to decade, but also differs from person to person. For most, Blackness comprises much more than one's physical appearance. It's the culture you inhabit and the experiences you've lived. It's philosophical, emotional, even spiritual. Was Michael Jackson Black? By the end of his life, his skin was nearly white, and many of his features had been altered in a way that made him look far less Black than he did as a boy, but nearly everyone would still respond to that question by saying, “Oh, of course.” How about O.J. Simpson? With his brown skin and curly hair, he appeared Black, but the way he viewed himself suggested otherwise. When pressured to pull the race card, he reportedly once said: “I'm not Black, I'm O.J..” An opinion seconded by a helicopter pilot for a film crew that filmed Simpson fleeing the police in his white Ford Bronco on June 17, 1994. “If O.J. Simpson were Black, that shit wouldn't have happened,” she later told the documentary director Ezra Edelman when describing the LAPD’s atypical restraint that day. “He'd be on the ground, getting clubbed.”
Yes, my parents weren't Black. But that's hardly the only way to define Blackness. The culture you gravitate toward and the worldview you adopt play equally large roles. As soon as I was able to make my exodus from the white world in which I was raised, I made a headlong dash toward the Black one. And in the process, I gained enough personal agency to feel confident in defining myself that way. That I identify as one race while the world insists I'm another underscores a psychological harm the concept of race inflicts. Being denied the right to one's self-determination is a struggle I share with millions of other people. As our culture grows less homogenous, more and more people are finding themselves stuck in a racially ambiguous zone, unable or not allowed to identify with the limited available options. One of the few silver linings of the media firestorm that followed my quote “exposure” is that it sparked an international debate about race and racial identity. I didn't set out to be the spokesperson for people stuck somewhere in the gray zone between Black and white.
But after my own life was thrown into disarray because of this issue, I'm happy to share my whole story in the hope that it will bring about some much-needed change. I became aware long ago that the way I identify as unique, and I knew that I would need to talk about it eventually, but I hoped I could choose the time, the place and most importantly, the method. Unfortunately, when the footage of the reporter in Spokane asking me if I was African American went viral, whatever chance I might have had to introduce myself to the world on my own terms, while explaining the nuances of my identity, was taken from me.
Do I regret the way the interview ended and as a consequence, the way my story was presented to the world? Of course. But as you'll see, the evolution of my identity was far too nuanced, and frankly, private, to describe to a stranger. How can you explain in a brief conversation on the street a transformation that occurred over the course of a lifetime? You can't. To truly understand someone, you need to hear their whole story. And so I wrote this book, so you can hear mine.
This episode was mixed, scored and reported by Myra Flynn. Myra also composed the theme music. All other music is by Jay Green and Blue Dot Sessions. Saidu Tejan-Thomas Jr. edited this episode, and Jane Lindholm did some of that, too. James Stewart contributes to so many things on the backend of making this thing come to life. Digital support from Elodie Reed, who also creates all our Homegoings artist portraits.
Special thanks to Corey Dockser, Shannon Ayers and Brittany Patterson.
This two-part episode marks the finale of season one of Homegoings. Whew! We did it. As always, you are welcome here.
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