How Do You Solve a Problem Like Rachel Dolezal?

When the journalist Ijeama Oluo published a scathing profile of Rachel Dolezal in The Stranger last year, Jezebel wrote an appreciation, headlined: "The Stranger's Rachel Dolezal Profile Is So Good We Never Have to Think About Her Again."

That proved premature. Today The Rachel Divide, a new documentary by Laura Brownson, begins streaming on Netflix. If you've forgotten her (unlikely), Dolezal is the activist and former head of the Spokane NAACP, who flabbergasted the nation in 2015 when she was outed by a local news anchor as biologically Caucasian, despite concerted efforts to pass as biracial (among them: tanning—or self-tanning—to darken her skin; wearing her blonde hair in box braids; casting a black friend as her father). At a moment when Caitlyn Jenner's very public transition was mainstreaming conversations about gender fluidity, Dolezal's insistence that she had the right to call herself black because she felt in her heart that she was black—alternative facts before the term had even been coined— sparked a brief parallel conversation about transracialism. The New York Times magazine dubbed 2015 "The Year We Obsessed Over Identity" in no small part because of Dolezal's provocative insistence on the fungibility of racial identification. "After centuries of women living alongside men, and of the races living adjacent to one another, even if only notionally, our rigidly enforced gender and racial lines are finally breaking down," wrote critic Wesley Morris, imagining Dolezal as a sort of emissary from the future who showed up too soon (when you consider that only this week are we getting a memorial acknowledging the thousands of black Americans lynched during Jim Crow, it seems fair to say she was much too soon). "There's a sense of fluidity and permissiveness and a smashing of binaries. We're all becoming one another. Well, we are. And we're not."

Was Dolezal's position a radical rejection of racial binaries, or merely another way of reinforcing them? Was she some extra-evolved embodiment of the credo to live one's truth, or was she just a deluded loon? Was she a con artist? How do we draw the lines between affiliation, admiration, appropriation, and fetishization? For white America, Dolezal posed an intriguing thought experiment—wait, when you actually stop to think about it, what is race?—one that for much of non-white America seemed offensively elementary. Race, after all, is only a nebulous concept if you're white; for everyone else, it's some combination of inheritance, upbringing, tradition, and the lived experience of physical, cultural otherness in a country long governed by whiteness and defined by white prerogative.

Any conversation about the philosophical implications of the strange case of Rachel Dolezal were quickly eclipsed by outrage over her incredible hubris. She was raised by white parents—Larry and Ruthanne Dolezal, who immediately, almost gleefully, began conferencing in for interviews—in lily white rural Montana. In her twenties she sued historically black Howard University, where she was getting her Masters in Fine Arts, for discriminating against her as a white woman. In her professional life, she had, under the guise of blackness (presumably bolstered by her Howard degree?), ascended to a position of leadership within the black community. She had not only laid claim to a heritage that wasn't hers, but she had positioned herself at the very center of the black struggle. Even worse, once exposed, she showed little remorse, and would not back down from her professed right to choose, epidermally speaking. For many it was a bridge (way) too far: "Dolezal is simply a white woman who cannot help but center herself in all that she does—including her fight for racial justice," Oluo wrote in the aforementioned Stranger piece, commissioned in response to Dolezal's memoir, published in the spring of 2017. In Full Color: Finding My Place in a Black and White World came out just a few weeks after Dolezal kicked off another media kerfuffle when she officially changed her name to Nkechi Amare Diallo (if the book didn't register on your radar, don't feel too bad: sales were dismal).

So what more is there to say about Rachel Dolezal? The Rachel Divide took its first wobbly steps into the world a few months ago, when Netflix released a promo clip from the film. It showed Dolezal's teenage son, Franklin (all three of her children—two biological, one adopted—are African-American) lamenting his mother's decision to participate in the documentary. "I do not want to focus on this for the rest of my life," he bemoaned. Later, Brownson asked him: "What don't people know about this story?" His answer: "Nothing that I want people to know."

It was upsetting to watch, and seemed like a damning indictment of the project before it even aired. Which perhaps was strategic: when I saw The Rachel Divide in a press screening a few weeks ago, I was prepared to hate it. I emerged impressed with Brownson's balanced treatment of her deeply problematic subject. There are some who would prefer never to think about Rachel Dolezal again, who will feel any more attention on her is still much too much (Take, for example, the New York Timesreview of the film, so curt you can basically see the reviewer holding his nose). There are others who may let their curiosity get the better of them. Brownson, who followed Dolezal for the two years after she became a national laughingstock, attempts, without rationalizing them, to bring her subject's choices into greater focus. She lingers on the very real toll Dolezal's deception and its fall out has taken on her fellow activists. She sketches the murky undercurrents that specifically allowed such a thing to happen in Spokane. She corroborate some of her subject's more grisly stories about her own past. The Rachel Divide reveals what most of us probably already assumed: as Spokane journalist Shawn Vestal puts it, "I would not be surprised if more than two things were true here."

The Dolezal we meet on camera is shaken but undeterred, divested of her career and her status but determined in her point of view. We quickly learn that she's pregnant (her third son, Langston Attickus, whose father is not named in the film, was born in 2016). We learn that she makes her living doing hair, that she's writing the ill-fated memoir, that on the side she works on her art, which is predictably afro-centric but also reflects a not-insignificant talent.

Dolezal has the bizarre ability to seem utterly reasonable mere moments before she reveals a gigantic, inexplicable, irrational blind spot. If she can't get a job under her own name, why allow cameras into the room at the DMV as she goes through the bureaucratic process of registering for a new one? She refuses to go to the airport to pick up her eldest son, Izaiah, for fear of attracting attention, but accompanies (and Instagrams) him on a tour of her alma mater, Howard, where he hopes to go to law school, in the process likely damaging his chances of getting in. She feels persecuted, yet seems addicted to negative feedback: posting publicly on social media and wallowing in the comments; seeing hate crimes where someone else might see only coincidence. She's both a devoted mother—her kids are articulate and well-adjusted, given the circumstances—and a troublingly selfish one. But showing us this is clever: if we're going to judge Dolezal's parenting—and many will—it's only fair to consider the way she herself was raised: by a pair of, she alleges, gothically-cruel, physically and emotionally abusive, Bible-thumping survivalists who settled in middle-of-nowhere Montana and raised their children in Amish-style isolation according to the precepts of their fringe-y Christian sect (her parents refute the abuse allegations); with an allegedly sexually abusive biological older brother, Joshua, and four adopted younger black siblings to whom she was more mother than sister (Izaiah, of whom she would later take custody, was one of them). Another of those siblings, Esther, appears frequently in the film, and in one particularly disturbing interview, reveals raised scars on her thigh from being beaten as a child with a "baboon whip" by her adoptive parents. It was Esther's charge of sexual abuse against Joshua that indirectly led to Rachel's exposure: he hired a private investigator to discredit her before she could testify against him in Esther's case (later dropped).

When Esther tells the camera that she and her black siblings were brought up "as white people with skin conditions," you get some sense of where Dolezal's strange ideas about racial fluidity might come from. There's another moment near the end of the film that's just as revealing. Pressed by Brownson to justify how she can insist on her own blackness when so many people of color reject her right to do so, Dolezal snaps back: "I'm never going to be the 12-year-old-looking 18-year-old white girl in Montana again, wearing Amish dresses."

It's a moment that reveals not much about Dolezal's relationship to blackness but quite a bit about her relationship to whiteness, which seems for her inextricable from religious extremism, social isolation, and misogyny. "In some ways," Brownson says when I sat down with her earlier this week in a hotel room in lower Manhattan, "this is about her view of whiteness, as being something she cannot and will not be. And it's a very narrow view." But dissecting Rachel Dolezal wasn't really the point of her film, she goes on, nor was her subject's rehabilitation (or lack thereof). "I don't think that Rachel needs to change in order for us to have a meaningful conversation about some of the issues that she raises. Rachel is the entry point."

We chatted more about those issues, about the making of The Rachel Divide, and about what Brownson thinks a documentary can add to the very heated conversation around Rachel Dolezal.

The Rachel Divide director Laura Brownson
The Rachel Divide director Laura Brownson
Photo: Keith Kin

I think the first thing we have to acknowledge in this interview is that we are both white. And it isn't up to white people to decide if Rachel Dolezal has the right self-identify as black. But it feels important to me to think and talk about this, not because Rachel tells us anything about blackness, but because she tells us a lot about whiteness. What's your response to that?

That's such an interesting question. I do think Rachel makes us think about many things, including whiteness, specifically white privilege. What it means to live in that space? How does our white privilege inform our decisions, the things we feel we may or may not have the right to do? Certainly many people feel that what Rachel has done is the ultimate exercise of white privilege: for her to have the audacity to claim something that is experientially and historically not hers to claim is very angering to many people.

Rachel wrote a memoir which came out last year to really poor sales. That seems to me to reflect an important set of facts: black America doesn't need or want to hear anything more from Rachel Dolezal. And white America may have been intrigued by the initial spectacle, but ultimately isn't that interested in engaging on issues of race. From a commercial standpoint, why make a film about a person whose own account of her life story didn't capture people's attention? Especially someone a lot of people would like to forget, who has already gotten more attention than she perhaps ever warranted. What does a film add?

The sales of Rachel's book were certainly dismal, but Rachel has ignited and continues to fuel a national controversy. I really felt that where there are strong feelings, this firestorm of reactions, there must be something embedded in those reactions worth unpacking. For me, the challenge was to explore this fascinating, complicated, perplexing character whose life story is unique and interesting and all the things that filmmakers are drawn to. But also to really get at: she is part of our zeitgeist. She did happen. People reacted the way they reacted and continue to react to her that way. The challenge was: how do I get those reactions into the film? How do I unpack them? People don't object to Rachel Dolezal for one reason; they object to her for a multitude of reasons. Embedded in those reactions are really important conversations worth talking about even if it makes us uncomfortable: white privilege, appropriation, colorism, ally-ship, the underrepresentation of black women. This issue of identity. Can it be fluid? And if it can: can we add race to it? Why and why not?

Were you surprised when she said yes to the project?

I don't think I was surprised. I flew to Spokane. I met Rachel, her kids. I was really struck by this idea that there was this person who could ignite this massive reaction, who lives in this little white house in a bucolic neighborhood. But this story was unfolding so quickly. Daily, things were happening to her, cracks were starting to appear. There was a sense of urgency on my part. If somebody is going to tell this story you have to start filming now. Because the verité aspects of the narrative were really essential. I was there, so she let me.

I think one of the things people are going to be talking about after seeing the film is her parenting. On the one hand she's been this devoted mother both to her sons and to her younger siblings. On the other we can see that she's making choices that aren't good for them. After Netflix released a kind of disturbing promo clip I think people also started questioning the responsibility of the filmmaker in a scenario like this. How did you think about these things?

Well, you know, Franklin, Izaiah and Esther were one of the best things about making this movie, getting to know them, allowing them to speak their truths. Because the collateral damage on the family of having a mother who has been through such a scandal is enormous. And so for me, as a filmmaker, there was no way to tell the story without including them. And for them as people, they wanted to tell their story. I think they felt empowered to be able to say, this is how this is impacting me, how this is hurting my life. And testament to Rachel, she let them be involved and speak their truth, even when it was critical of her. They were all three willing participants. There were days when I could not get Franklin away from my camera. But I filmed for two years, and after two years, he wanted it all to go away, including my film. On that day [of shooting the promo clip], Franklin was frustrated with all of it. I felt it was really important to include that moment in the movie, because that is his truth. It's essential we see it. For his sake, and of course for the film's sake as well.

I think the film gives some insight into why Rachel thinks she has the right to identify as black. But it doesn't really explain why she continues to seek the spotlight, even to the detriment of her kids. I'm not sure I understand that part of her.

I'm not sure I understand the part of her either. She likes it, perhaps? And I think she remains hopeful that she may somehow change minds? But I'm not sure.

Do you think she sees her identity quest as part of her activism?

I don't, because I think Rachel would never have revealed her identity. I think she would have gone on happily living as she was living. I don't think it was a conscious sort of, I'm going to adopt a different identity and therefore be able to be a more effective activist. I don't think that was part of her reasoning.

Say she had become an artist who made art about blackness, under the unspoken assumption that she herself might be black. Would that have been as difficult for the world to accept? Or is it that, as an activist, she placed herself at the center of a struggle that wasn't hers to represent? That she put herself in a position of authority?

Certainly people's reactions were fueled by the fact that she was an activist, that she was part of a struggle that perhaps she was not fully living. I think people would have reacted differently had she been just an artist. However, you know, she was outed by her family for a whole different set of reasons. It's impossible for me to know. That sort of hypothetical Rachel Dolezal is something other than what she is. But certainly people's heightened response to her was that she was the head of the Spokane NAACP, leading Black Lives Matter rallies.

Did you feel as a documentary filmmaker that it was your responsibility to fact check her?

Oh god yes. My producers used to joke that they should go into detective work after this film. We did everything we could possibly do to get to the truth about Rachel Dolezal. There are just things that are unknowable. Which is frustrating. The film is very transparent in those places where we just can't know.

Particularly reading her book, it becomes clear that Rachel has these huge blind spots around race, bizarrely reductive ideas that seem like a relic of a very cloistered childhood.

Yes, Rachel is very much a product of a childhood that was isolated, that was very religious. She has not been able to alter her message to people's satisfaction, to take into account other people's feelings, and acknowledge them satisfactorily to the world. I think a lot of that being extraordinarily resolute in her perception of her identity, just unwavering, has a lot to do with this very unusual place that she's come from.

I know Rachel is not participating in the press for this movie. Do you feel like her relationship to her identity, or its outward presentation, changed in any way over the course of making this film? Do you feel like she grew any closer to integrating what she believes to be true with external expectations?

There are places where I do think Rachel needs to answer for herself, and that may be one of them. But at least over the course of my filming, Rachel's description of herself did not change. But I don't think that Rachel needs to change in order for us to have a meaningful conversation about some of the issues that she raises. Rachel is the entry point. These conversations were happening long before Rachel. She's a vehicle to keep the conversation going, and the conversation will move past her.

I think that's all I really hope may happen from this film. We can talk about Rachel as a character. We can discuss the nuance, and debate the uniqueness, be enraged by her, be supportive of her. Whatever people feel they can feel. There is no agenda in this movie. But they may also want to talk about those other things. And in my opinion she doesn't need to change as a character in order for us to have that conversation.

One thing Rachel has helped us see is that America, or maybe just white America, has an extremely limited vocabulary to discuss our country's most complicated issue. You followed this story for two years, which happened to coincide with two incredibly seismic years in American history. Has our dialog around this evolved at all?

Donald Trump has made things so much more difficult. It's so much more difficult to have conversations, especially over issues that make us uncomfortable. But I believe that the more we feel frightened by something, the more relevant it is to dig into. To run away is really a mistake. There has to be a way to unpack these things compassionately, fairly, to try to bring some understanding.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

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