In “The Rachel Divide,” Rachel Dolezal Once Again Shows Her True Colours
WARNING: Spoilers ahead!
We have to talk about Rachel.
The infamous former NAACP chapter lead who, in 2015, made international headlines when it was discovered that she was a white woman pretending to be black, is once again in the spotlight – this time in a new documentary on Netflix.
The Rachel Divide is a complicated retelling of Rachel Dolezal’s journey of self-discovery and reinvention. In her own words, Dolezal walks us through her transformation from a sheltered and lost white child in Montana to an unapologetically black and proud civil rights leader in Spokane, Washington.
There are no words to express how difficult it is for one to approach this documentary objectively. Like most discussions pertaining to race, the scandal that has become Rachel Dolezal is uncomfortable, emotional and explosive. There is seemingly no grey area when it comes to how one feels about her – instead, there is only black and white.
As with her poorly received memoir In Full Colour, released last year, it was likely Dolezal’s hope that The Rachel Divide might humanize her and win over those who have blasted her as nothing more than a liar and a fraud. But the documentary lends her little support in this way. In contrast, The Rachel Divide paints a picture of a troubled young white woman who, as a child in desperate need of escape from allegedly abusive parents, invented an entirely new and fictitious life and identity for herself – one in which she was a black slave captured from Africa and forced into a hard life of manual labour and servitude.
As her adoptive sister Esther Dolezal – who is black – pointedly puts it, “Rachel choosing her identity, it was a way of disassociation” from her biological parents.
But like any lie in life, if you tell it often enough, in time it begins to look and sound just like the truth. For years, Rachel Dolezal has told herself – and the world – that she is a black woman. Whether she believed it initially, we’ll never know, but if there’s one thing made clear in The Rachel Divide, it’s that she truly believes it now. “Race is nothing more than a social construct” is Dolezal’s anthem, and she mechanically repeats it like a well-rehearsed key message.
But few are buying it.
Like many African American women, I’ve felt personally aggrieved by Dolezal’s insistency that she is one of us. Her public admonition that she “feels” black and therefore is, is an assertion so misplaced and convoluted that like many people, both within the black community and not, early on I dismissed Rachel Dolezal as nothing more than a privileged and clearly misguided woman.
There are those however, who make the futile attempt to reason with Dolezal and explain the problematic nature of her “trans-racial” identity. In one of the documentary’s scenes, Dolezal is speaking at an event at Cincinnati State when a black woman in the audience openly questions her identity, saying that she doesn’t believe Dolezal has “earned the right” to call herself a black woman. Visibly piqued, Dolezal offers a feeble apology and tells the woman that she can’t “just go away” or cease to exist.
It’s precisely this air of flippancy and arrogance, littered throughout the almost two-hour documentary, which makes it virtually impossible to feel any sort of sympathy for the wreckage the has become Rachel Dolezal’s life. Three years after a very public scandal that upended her career and thrust her life—and that of her young family—into the spotlight, Rachel Dolezal remains as defiant as ever. She refuses to be humbled. She continuously sidesteps any accountability for the damage she’s caused to the integrity of Spokane’s NAACP chapter. More problematically, she fails to acknowledge the larger blow that her lies dealt to local discussions of race relations and racism.
The very community that Dolezal once dedicated her life to advancing has made it blatantly clear that she is no longer welcome. But she cannot— or perhaps simply, will not— accept this. “I’m hoping it’s just kind of life a family feud,” she says of her present relationship with the black community. “Like, there’s this misunderstanding between some black people and me and that we’ll like, come to terms and get over it.” What Dolezal misses though, is that there’s nothing to get over: She was never truly a part of the community but merely an ally under false identity.
Towards the end of The Rachel Divide, one of the interviewers asks Dolezal if she would agree that the black community owns the right to govern blackness. For a brief moment, Dolezal pauses and the identity struggle raging within her is written all over her face, impossible to ignore. But skilled in the art of masquerading, she quickly recovers.
“I don’t know,” she offers simply. “I feel like there’s a place at the table for everybody.”
It’s too late, though. Rachel Dolezal has once again shown us her true colours.
But that’s just According to Adrienne.