This week's Sunday Long Read is Ijeoma Oluo's profile of Rachel Dolezal in The Stranger and if you didn't read it last week, you should set aside a bit and digest it. Oluo paints Delezal as neither a sympathetic nor villainous person, but one who simply sees her goal of appropriating black culture and who can get away with it like nobody has.
I did not want to think about, talk about, or write about Rachel Dolezal ever again. While many people have been highly entertained by the story of a woman who passed herself off for almost a decade as a black woman, even rising to the head of the Spokane chapter of the NAACP, before being "outed" during a TV interview by KXLY reporter Jeff Humphrey as white, as later confirmed by her white parents, I found little amusement in her continued spotlight. When the story first broke in June 2015, I was approached by more editors in a week than I had heard from in two months. They were all looking for "fresh takes" on the Dolezal scandal from the very people whose identity had now been put up for debate—black women. I wrote two pieces on Dolezal for two different websites, mostly focused not on her, but on the lack of understanding of black women's identity that was causing the conversation about Dolezal to become more and more painful for so many black women.
After a few weeks of media obsession, I—and most of the other black women I knew—was completely done with Rachel Dolezal.
Or, at least I hoped to be.
Right after turning in a draft of my book on race at the end of February, I went to a theater to do an onstage interview on race and intersectionality (a mode of thinking that intersects identities and systems of social oppression and domination). But before going onstage, my phone buzzed with a "news" alert. Rachel Dolezal had changed her name. I quickly glanced at the article and saw that Dolezal had changed her name to Nkechi Amare Diallo. My jaw dropped in disbelief. Nkechi is my sister's name—my visibly black sister born and raised in Nigeria. Dolezal claimed that the name change was to make it easier for her to get a job, because the scandal had made it so that nobody in the Eastern Washington town of Spokane (pop. 210,000) would look at an application with the name Rachel Dolezal on it.
I'm going to pause here so we can recognize the absurdity of this claim: You change your name from Rachel Dolezal to Nkechi Amare Diallo because everyone in your lily-white town (Spokane is more than 80 percent white) now knows you as the Rachel Dolezal who was pretending to be black, so you change your name to NKECHI AMARE DIALLO because somehow they won't know who you are then. Maybe they'll just confuse you with all the other Nkechi Amare Diallos in Spokane and not think when a white woman shows up for the interview: "Oh yeah, it's that white woman who pretended to be black and then changed her name to NKECHI AMARE DIALLO." Also, even if there were 50 Nkechi Amare Diallos in Spokane—trust me, as someone named Ijeoma Oluo who grew up in the white Seattle suburb of Lynnwood—you'd have a much better chance of getting a job interview if you changed your name to Sarah.
By the time I finished my interview on that rainy February day, my cell phone indicated that I had a voice mail. It was The Stranger, asking if I would spend the day with Rachel Dolezal.
For two years, I, like many other black women who talk or write about racial justice, have tried to avoid Rachel Dolezal—but she follows us wherever we go. So if I couldn't get away from her, I was going to at least try to figure out why. I surprised myself by agreeing to the interview.
I began to get nervous as the interview day approached. By the time I boarded a plane to Spokane, which is a one-hour flight from Seattle and is near the border with Idaho, a state that's almost 90 percent white, I was half sure that this interview was my worst career decision to date. Initially, I had hoped that my research on Dolezal would reassure me that there was a way to find real value in this conversation, that there would be a way to actually turn this circus into a productive discussion on race in America.
But then I read her book.
Shortly after I announced the deal for my first book (a primer on how to have more productive conversations on race), a friend posted a link on my Facebook page. With a joking comment along the lines of "Oh no! Looks like Rachel beat you to it!" she linked to an article announcing that Rachel Dolezal would also be publishing her first book on race, In Full Color: Finding My Place in a Black and White World. Throughout the week, at least five other friends sent me similar links with similar comments. A look through my social-media feeds showed that I was not alone. Black women writers around the country were all being sent links to articles on Dolezal's book deal—the memoir of a black woman whose claim to fame is... not being actually black.
Oluo is a fantastic writer, but more importantly she points out the core issue of the conceit here: Dolezal, now Diallo, is better and more successful at being black as a white woman than black women across the country, and while I can't say I'm surprised at this, I do have to say that the near absurdity of it all is at least thought-provoking if not rage-inducing.
We have a long way to go.