Opinion

Renee Graham

Rachel Dolezal’s deception inflicts pain on black women

Rachel Dolezal appeared Tuesday morning on the “Today” show.
Today via Reuters
Rachel Dolezal appeared Tuesday morning on the “Today” show.

By the end of Rachel Dolezal’s eight-minute “Today” show interview with an overmatched Matt Lauer, one thing was amply clear — she would offer no apologies for her fake, situational blackness. In her first interview since being exposed last week as a white woman pretending to be black, Dolezal doubled down and rejected the notion that she had deceived anyone. She even accused her parents, who first revealed her race charade, of trying to “whitewash some of the work I have done and who I am.”

“I identify as black,” Dolezal said, when Lauer asked if she was an African-American woman. She insisted that people didn’t understand the “complexity” of her identity. Dolezal, who resigned Monday as president of the Spokane, Wash., NAACP chapter, offered little more than dodgy nonsense meant to shield her grotesque lies, much as her changed complexion and questionable hair choices were intended to mask her true race.

Somehow, Lauer never asked Dolezal why she always makes a distinction between calling herself black and African-American, or why identifying with African-Americans and their causes required her to perform a racial sleight of hand. In the meantime, the general public remains both fascinated and vexed by Dolezal’s self-serving sham. Yet what resonates for me is the tangible ache this pointless ruse has likely inflicted among the black women who befriended her.

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“If I find out that you have not been completely honest with me, and you lied just to get close to me? Yes, I feel betrayed,” said Kitara Johnson, a Spokane NAACP member. For women like Johnson, Dolezal’s long con is akin to an act of infidelity.

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Throughout my professional life, it was always the black women in the office who first greeted me when I started a new job. They would seek me out, and I came to think of it as the kind of sistahs’ orientation I needed. With them, I could find answers black women would know — where to get my hair done, where to buy certain products, or the clubs and restaurants where I would feel comfortable and welcome. This was especially crucial in Boston which, when I moved here, did not have the best reputation among people of color. Paying it forward, I would later do the same whenever another black woman joined the staff.

Regardless of where we were raised or our differences in age, we shared an innate commonality. We learned similar lessons from our mothers and grandmothers about how to conduct ourselves, no matter whether those lessons were delivered with accents from South Carolina, Jamaica, or Kenya. Early conversations blossomed and birthed confidence and trust; soon, a knowing look shared wordlessly could speak volumes.

It is friendship, but also something richer born from the ways that black women live every day as a negotiation — sometimes silent, sometimes out loud — to claim space in a society unbalanced by racism and sexism. It is there in all the gutting ways we can be overlooked by white women or unheard by black men, even when we’re fighting the same injustices. Always and, at times, only the sistah-friends would understand.

More than anything, that’s why Dolezal’s deception slices me to the bone. Black women extended their hands to Dolezal as one of their own; now, they reckon with the remnant damage of a race scavenger who insinuated herself into their community and culture. They saw a sistah who, like them, had forged strength and purpose from struggle. Yet Dolezal, still unapologetic, saw only fodder for her ludicrous masquerade, mining their lives for cultural clues to better burnish her imitation of black female life.

Renee Graham writes regularly for the Globe.

Watch: Rachel Dolezal on “Today”

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