Two years ago, I took Rachel Dolezal for a race hustler. When the woman who was born white was outed by her parents as nonblack and lost her job at the NAACP in Spokane, Wash., as a result, I figured she had fraudulently checked a box as an adult just to land a cushy job and had received her comeuppance. Now I don't think it's so straightforward. Not after reading her new memoir, In Full Color, and interviewing her twice.
And while Dolezal does not fully embrace comparisons to Caitlyn Jenner, the transgendered former Olympian entered my mind more than once as I turned the pages. I learned that Dolezal didn't have an epiphany about her embrace of blackness as an adult - rather, she's viewed herself that way since childhood. When asked to do a self-sketch in school at age 4, she drew a black child. She fantasized about being from Africa. When her Aunt Becky made her a doll, she knew to make it a black version of Raggedy Ann.
Dolezal was raised by her white, fundamentalist Christian parents alongside four adopted black siblings (whose hair she used to braid), she studied at the historically black Howard University, married a black man - and worked in an unpaid capacity at the NAACP while teaching African studies at Eastern Washington University. So this was no overnight conversion for fortune and fame.
And, she's slow to accept the comparison to Jenner.
"A lot of people have drawn that parallel, and I want to be careful because certainly every category of our identity [has] its own unique circumstances and challenges, but for sure there is some similarity in terms of harmonizing the outer appearance with the inner feeling in terms of stigmatized identity," she told me on CNN. "Some people will forever see me as my birth category and nothing further, and the same with Caitlyn."
Her 15 minutes of fame began when she was confronted by a local television reporter in Spokane. Dolezal was asked in that interview if she was African American and said she did not understand the question before walking away. In her memoir, she said she regrets her answer. So, I gave her a Mulligan and asked how she should have responded:
"Well, if I would have had time to really discuss my identity, I probably would have described a more complex label: pan-African, pro-black, bisexual mother, artist, activist," she told me. "But I think that the question 'Are you African American?' - I haven't identified as African American. I identify as black, and black is a culture or philosophy, a political and social view. I believe that race is a social construct and so I felt like in that interview I didn't have time to unpack all of that, but it became clear very quickly that people did want to unpack those more complex definitions, terms, and even my personal identity."
Her reference to race being a "social construct" went viral - picked up by outlets such as People magazine, the New York Post, Breitbart, the New York Daily News, and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. The blogosphere went ballistic.
I've interviewed plenty of controversial people, but I don't recall a guest who drew such hostility. Among the naysayers were actors James Woods (who called my interview "#LooneyNews") and John O'Hurley, who was Mr. Peterman on Seinfeld ("And I'm going 'Trans-Native American' because I've always wanted a casino"). Alt-right provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos posted my interview with her on his Facebook page with a commentary that questioned her sanity. And those were some of the nicer comments.
None of which would come as a surprise to Dolezal. In her book, she writes: "Out of the thousands of emails and hundreds of text messages I received after my story went viral, half of them were from extremely p-ed off white people who were outraged by the thought that someone born white would ever choose to be black. . . . The other half of the messages were from extremely p-ed off black people who accused me of appropriating black culture in the same way that white rappers like Eminem and Iggy Azalea have done so."
A far more sympathetic view was offered two years ago in Time by NBA Hall of Famer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who noted that whether she is white or black, her volunteer work on behalf of the NAACP, among other endeavors, has provided benefit to the black community
"Despite all this, you can't deny that Dolezal has proven herself a fierce and unrelenting champion for African Americans politically and culturally," he wrote. "Perhaps some of this sensitivity comes from her adoptive black siblings. Whatever the reason, she has been fighting the fight for several years and seemingly doing a first-rate job. Not only has she led her local chapter of the NAACP, she teaches classes related to African American culture at Eastern Washington University and is chairwoman of a police oversight committee monitoring fairness in police activities. Bottom line: The black community is better off because of her efforts."
However unusual her case might be, she's not playing dress-up for personal gain. That she should be subjected to such vitriol in an age of acceptance of Jenner is a puzzle. And if the transgender analogy doesn't quite fit, maybe there's a closer comparison to someone that either switches religions or is raised in a different ethnic household that chooses to maintain the tenets of a new religion or culture. Either way, I'm for giving her space.