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Editorial: Dolezal's betrayal of her "community"

BY DI EDITORIAL BOARD | JUNE 16, 2015 5:00 AM

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The story of Rachel Dolezal, the former president of the NAACP chapter in Spokane, Washington, who resigned Monday, has, by and large, shocked the masses while raising many questions about race, ethnicity, and self-identity. Dolezal was recently revealed to have been masquerading as an African-American woman despite being of “Czech, Swedish, German, and a trace of Native American ancestry” for years. Furthermore, Dolezal has held positions of authority such as instructing Africana studies at Eastern Washington University and sitting on Spokane’s Committee of Police Ombudsman Commission that may have been at least partially influenced by a presumption that she was of African-American descent. 

As the story developed and more information became available about Dolezal’s past, the ability to make a black-and-white judgment about the situation became exponentially more difficult. The shock and confusion prompted by the revelation of her true ethnicity has served to distract people from the true issue present in her behavior. The issue has become misconstrued to some extent with an emphasis placed on the racial connotations of Dolezal’s action in the historical and present context of race relations in the United States. 

Granted, that we are looking at a white woman who essentially donned blackface while holding positions in public office, it comes as no surprise that a nerve has been struck. Given the current atmosphere of seemingly perpetual institutional discrimination and racial precariousness plaguing the country, this revelation was, if anything, poorly timed. However, we should not allow our speculations about Dolezal’s motivations to distract from the deceitfulness of her actions.

We may never understand why she decided what she did, nor do we need to. A people’s actions do not necessitate an understanding of their motivations, although it is certainly appreciated. We do not need to ask same-sex couples why they wish to be married or transgendered individuals why they wish to change their gender. We do not need to ask because human beings should have the right to live the way they want to within the boundaries of the law and the rest of society. However, the pursuit of personal freedom does not justify fraudulent behavior, and this is where Dolezal made a mistake.

A case could be made in Dolezal’s defense if the illusion that she was an African-American woman was necessary for her to live the life she wanted to live, but that is simply not true. In the past, African-Americans attempted to pass as whites. It was for very different reasons, such as an escape from institutional discrimination and the opportunity to live an arguably better life. It was not necessary for Dolezal to pretend to be African-American; if she wished to identify as an African-American, she should have attempted to do so without deceiving people. 

There has never been a better time for individuals to be forthcoming about how they choose to live and identify themselves. Dolezal discredited herself, and as a result, she resigned from a position in which she could have helped the African-American community. It’s disappointing that she did not realize she could have offered the same help without betraying the very community she set out to help. If anything can be taken away from her story, it is that good intentions do not justify poor behavior. In the end, people’s behavior trumps their motivation in the public’s eyes.


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