The world recently enjoyed a good laugh at the expense of fake African-American Rachel Dolezal, a very odd white woman who wanted to be a black one. But why would she go to so much trouble? Making money can’t have been the motivation. University “instructors” — she was not, as sometimes presented, a professor — don’t make that much. Fame? This is likely to be part of the answer, but it’s hardly the main game. Now she is much more famous, at least for what remains of her her fifteen minutes, than she could ever have imagined, but in exactly the wrong way.
To the outsider, the psychological, even more than the physical effort involved in perpetuating such a brazen identity fraud over so many years is quite extraordinary. That’s because most of us can only imagine the fear and anxiety of moment-by-moment impostature robbing our lives of happiness and meaning. However, once you’ve mastered this particular form of self-delusion, all this stress melts away like a blackface minstrel’s burnt cork under an application of cold cream.
The sheer terror of being found out would stop most of us going down this road. Yet, short of murdering and disposing of the bodies of her parents, childhood friends, and anyone else who ever taken a photograph of her white incarnation, there seems to have been a reasonably high chance that Dolezal would eventually be exposed. Paradoxically, the more well known she became and the more effective her racial advocacy, the greater the likelihood of being revealed as a fraud.
To characterize her as a chancer who regarded the mandatory gender- and racial-identity check-boxes on every application form as a leg-up for taxpayer- funded grants and jobs in academia and government seems too glib. Was she a victim of the ‘behavioural reinforcers’, the perverse incentives of the victimhood’s culture? The fact that in all those years Dolezal could have come up with a better explanation than the following says a lot about the shallowness of her intellectual defenses:
“I was drawing self-portraits with the brown crayon instead of the peach crayon and black curly hair,” she said. “That was how I was portraying myself.”
Has this woman ever sat down and drawn with children? Anyone with even a passing familiarity with children’s conception of art will tell you that the full palette of colours needed to faithfully record the melanin levels in different racial skin tones just never seems to be at hand, the most vital hues most likely having been either eaten or squashed into the carpet. And the peach colour appropriate to the white person she once was and is again? Well that is almost always the first one (after chartreuse) to get lost behind the cushions on the lounge. Besides, most of the children I know draw themselves with yellow skin and blue hair.
We all know, or at least are told, that children’s drawings are windows to their very souls. Dad off to one side means marital strife. Mum twice as big as dad? We know who wears the pants. Penises all over the page? That opens all sorts of avenues for speculation and, possibly, official investigation. Perhaps, if Dolezal had drawn herself alone on a raft beset by conservative sharks — a cartoonist would drawn with blue ties and Tony Abbot ears — she would top the list to succeed Professor Triggs at the Human Right’s Commission.
Here’s another of Dolezal’s attempts to explain herself, the extracts below taken from her interview with NBC’s Matt Lauer:
This is not some freak ‘Birth of a Nation’ mockery blackface performance. This is on a very real, connected level.”
Except that it’s not. It’s not mockery or ‘blackfacing’, because people who don blackface, even if to mock, do so knowing they are presenting a facade which will be removed after the show. Their antics may upset some, but they’re not tricking others or themselves. The only ‘connections’, of which Dolezal spoke, are actually fantasy associations: “I wish it were true” becomes “It feels true to me, therefore it is true.”
If Dolezal had pretended to be Spock from Star Trek it would have been just as honest as presenting herself as an oppressed black woman. As long as she didn’t try to pass herself off as Leonard Nimoy, who would have cared? By the by, the power of the Spock ‘mind meld’ would have given her so much more street cred as an empathizer with others, which of course was the real motivation for Dolezal’s nonsense. And so, too, that pinch-on-the-neck thing that Spock did to knock out troublesome aliens and the like. Very handy, I’ll bet, if you don’t have a trusty phaser handy.
Isn’t it passing strange that we see very few cases of pseudo-identification with fictional characters. You don’t have to be a genius to work out that there’s no self-esteem advantage in being labeled a loon. And no-one, repeat no-one, pretends to be an ‘old white man’, the so-called masters of the universe. Quell surprise – no kudos and self-aggrandizement there either.
Pseudo-identity narcissists (PINs) identify ‘down’ because that’s the direction of the ‘new’ narcissistic cravings – to elevate your sense of importance by feeling the pain of others beneath you. It’s a corruption of genuine empathy, because when empathy is authentic, you don’t need to take on the identity of the other.
Here’s Dolezal again, this time from Facebook (and step aside Martin Luther King!) The narcissism is palpable:
“Please know I will never stop fighting for human rights and will do everything in my power to help and assist, whether it means stepping up or stepping down, because this is not about me … It’s about justice.”
Let’s return to Dolezal’s text, as po-mo literary scholars would call it:
1) “Please know (you dear, dear people, MY people) I will never stop fighting for human rights…”
PINs are always fighting the oppressors while simultaneously assuring themselves that they bring comfort to their acolytes. It’s like shouting at one kid while breast-feeding another: exhausting. And in order to have a fight you must pick a side. Luckily for Dolezal’s self-esteem, she placed herself on the exact opposite side to those she and others imagine wish passionately to destroy the human rights of lesser mortals. What were the chances she would cast herself as the underdogs’ champion?
2) “…will do everything in my power to help and assist”
Because helping and assisting is what PINs do. They have time for nothing else. In days gone by, many narcissists found success and made lots of money, often by being really good at sport or singing or somesuch other attention-getting activities. Now they are the help of the helpless (Oh Lord, abide with Me).
3) “…whether it means stepping up or stepping down”
A bit weak, I think. People with real skin in the game (boom boom) would be stepping both up and down.
4) “…because this is not about me,” Dolezal says. “It’s about justice.”
Sure, but only in Bizarro World, where white is black. The real meaning of that proclamation is: “This all about MEEEEEE!”
But wait, there’s more:
5) “The discussion is really about what it is to be human,” she said. “I hope that that can drive at the core of definitions of race, ethnicity, culture, self determination, personal agency and, ultimately, empowerment.”
How splendid! Boring old George Punchclock and Martha Dishrag have to make do with discussing the school canteen roster and those other dull, mundane details of everyday life. So boring! Dolezal gets to contemplate instead “what it is to be human”. Her ambit is the entire history and nature of humanity itself.
Then again, perhaps she was just having a laugh. Well, if her Africana studies unit, from which she has since been dismissed, had communicated more often with the Media Studies unit (perhaps a shared common room would help) she might have learned that her take on this gag came 35 years too late. Remember the scene from Monty Python’s Life of Brian:
Here’s the rub. You can fantasize about being anything you want. You can put pointy tips on your ears and pretend to be Spock. You can appear on the cover of Vanity Fair in a fetching dress and chic ‘do even if you were, until recently, instantly recognisable as a man. But, sadly, you’re not actually Spock, nor are you actually a woman. And if you’re whiter than white and you want to be black, you can claim to be the latter, but mere presentation doesn’t make it so.
This is an Australian phenomenon, too. Many white people seem to want to be known as Aborigines. Now we have to be careful here. Remember that for most PINs, the only thing that distinguishes them from non-Aboriginals at the start of their trans-racial journeys (everything these days is part of “a journey”) is fantasy and imagination. For some, add a tincture of genetic heritage. But it still makes no more sense than thinking you are Irish just because mum recalls great-uncle Paddy crying in his cups while singing “I’ll Take You Home Again, Kathleen”.
So why start on the trans journey – be it crossing the line of colour or race and many other things besides? (NB I think gender issues are infinitely more biologically and psychologically complex and for most people perhaps with the exception of Caitlin Jenner, resolving issues about one’s gender can be very confusing and painful and is almost always done with dignity and in private)
So why start on that trans journey, be it crossing the line of colour or gender or anything else for that matter? It’s such an odd thing to do. Surely such a drastic step implies a basic self-knowledge and a grasp of your own motivations. If it’s an aspect of another culture you admire, why not just admire it? Why not incorporate parts into your own life? And why pick and limit yourself to one particular culture or racial identity? This global village of ours offers a smorgasbord of options for picking and choosing.
The answer to these questions is the same uncomfortable reasons that we give more money to kiddies-with-cancer charities than to medical crusades against rectal tumours. It’s all about how it makes us feel. Some causes we find palatable, worthy of our commitment and support; others not so much. Ultimately, such decisions are selfish ones.
I suspect that, for many, the decision to ‘transition’ is all about fantasy and enhancing self-esteem. Because, in the Australian context, no trans-racial Aboriginal wants a normal workaday identity. Rather, the attraction is the opportunity to go immediately from outsider to activist, advocate and commentator. Suddenly, the adopted identity makes you important, deserving of respect no matter how much fabricated nonsense and borrowed grievance you choose to sport. The converse is also true, this racial-identity dysphoria (the racial cousin of gender dysphoria) seems uncannily absent from ordinary people who have no aspirations to the prominence accruing to advocacy. It’s not about the culture or race, it’s the narcissistic fantasy of being a representative and spokesperson.
How ordinary it must have been for Rachel Dolezal to be a plain white girl of no special ancestry. How special to be an educated, oppressed black woman who understood the pain of black people and could make a living as a prominent spokeswoman and activist.
Her deception can’t have been about the money. It had to be the pursuit of having her hoped-for specialness acclaimed, accepted and rewarded.
Murray Walters is a Brisbane psychiatrist.