Rachel Dolezal and the Quest for Identity

There is a poetic coincidence that Rachel Dolezal and Caitlyn Jenner emerged into the public imagination around the same time. Both, you could say, are grotesque examples of the postmodern—and deeply American—ideal of self-creation and reinvention . . . of “bein’ who you wanna be” . . . even to point, in the cases of Madonna and Lady Gaga, of existing as a series of images and masks.

Many conservatives have asked, ironically, “If Caitlyn, then why not Rachel?” That is, if our culture has sunk so low as to embrace transsexuals, then how can we condemn “transracials,” this latest human category in need of civil-rights protection?

But all of this really misses the point.

What’s important—that is, what’s revealing about contemporary consciousness—is the asymmetry between the mass media’s embrace of Bruce/Caitlyn and their mocking condemnation of White/Black Rachel (or, at the very least, their assumption that something is very wrong with this woman and her choice of careers).

The media punished anyone who voiced what was, no doubt, all of our gut reactions when we saw Annie Leibovitz’s Vanity Fair cover: “That’s gross/ridiculous/sad.” But behind this enforcement of dogma lay a tacit sense that little was really at stake, that Caitlyn’s act was ultimately personal and harmless to others. In the words of Kris Jenner, Caitlyn’s supportive ex-wife, “[I]t’s about you, and I just want you to be happy.”

Rachel’s transformation is something altogether different. Putting aside legal questions of fraud, Rachel engaged, not in self-actualization, but in identity theft. She stole and demeaned African-Americans’ being and history. The media’s punishment of Rachel—greater than that inflicted on those who ridiculed Caitlyn—reveals the degree to which race really matters, especially to those who identify as liberal and leftist.

In understanding this, it is important not to take leftist dogma at face value. According to “social justice” logic, Rachel was, in fact, Black. For some eight years, she forewent “White skin privilege” and lived her life as a Black woman, recognized as such by White and Black alike. But ultimately, she can’t be Black. And in a month or so, at the end of her running the media’s freak-show gauntlet, she will be remember as a disturbed . . . hilariously bizarre . . . maybe tragic White woman. That’s a fate Rachel will never escape.

The American Left is, we are told, committed to the proposition that “race doesn’t exist” and functions as a “social construct.” In repeating such mantras, we overlook how much liberals and leftists are passionately and genuinely committed to the existence of race. Race is denied on the level of biology, to the extent that it is correlated with intelligence, behavior, and social outcomes, and thus becomes an unchosen “fate” for individuals. On the other hand, race is embraced as the formation of collective identity, meaning, history, and culture.

It is the Left that has been most active in racial consciousness formation: on campus, they have created not only African-American Students Association but “Asian” Students Associations, that is, racial consciousness where little cultural commonality existed.

Conservatives like to demean such things as “identity politics,” as just another car on the gravy train. But the reality is that Leftists are engaging in the kind of ideological project that traditionalists should be hard at work on—the formation of “meta-politics,” consciousness that transcends and precedes any political issue. Put simply, thinking racially—and by that I mean thinking spiritually, historically, and mythologically.

It is self-styled “conservatives,” not liberals, who “don’t get race”—and most furiously want to resist its power and meaning. “Conservatives” have erased identity in themselves, in favor of suburban bourgeois nothingness; they demand that other peoples follow their lead.

It might be tempting to see Rachel’s parents—missionary Christians from rural Montana—as “heroes” in this saga, for they were the first to tell the truth. In fact, there is little that is admirable about them, and they seem to suffer from the same psychosis as their daughter.

A striking aspect of Dolezal’s deceit is that she didn’t just pursue a secret identity as a Black woman but re-imagined her life and genealogy. She created what could be called a “useable past.” Whiteness is a big zero—an identity that lacks authenticity and carries only the taint of oppression. Rachel thus imagined that she grew up in a teepee, hunted for food with a bow and arrow, and even spent time in post-Apartheid South Africa. This reached its limit when she claimed that her biological father was a Black man and, further, that her “step father” (her real biological father) subjected her to abuse. And it was abuse that Dolezal envisioned in the most sadomasochistic and absurdly “racist” fashion, involving torture instruments used for baboons and slaves. In reality, Rachel’s father is as dedicated to the Black race as she is; a decade ago, he left his family to work in South Africa, spreading the gospel (as well as Young Earth Creationism) to the downtrodden.

Of course, we should ask, What kind of woman would invent such lies? But we must also ask, What kind of parents have a daughter like Rachel Dolezal? For something doesn’t come from nothing, and no child is an island, all to herself. Even—or especially—when children rebel or reject their parents, they are being influenced by them.

Rachel first began identifying with Black culture after her parents adopted African infants in the mid-‘90s. (Rachel would later claim that these adopted siblings were her “children.”) Rachel’s parents observed that their daughter began “sounding African-American on the phone” in 2007. And as she moved up the ranks of the Black political infrastructure—becoming the leader of the Spokane, Washington, NAACP chapter as well as a part-time African-American Studies professor—she became increasingly estranged from her parents. This ended in the ultimate insult—her rejection of them, to the point of denying their existence.

But then, psychoanalytically, Rachel’s transformation could be seen as a desperate, ambivalent attempt to please mom and dad. In this line, Rachel viewed her parents’ adoption of African children as symbolizing that she wasn’t good enough or special enough. Her entire adult life—from being fascinated by Black culture to marrying a Black man to becoming Black herself—was, unconsciously, an attempt to make herself into the child her parents really wanted.

No doubt, this reading carries a kernel of truth . . . though, as an explanation, it also seems a little too easy, much as it would be too easy to conclude that Rachel is simply a “sociopath” or “master manipulator.”

The answer to “Who are the Dolezals?” might be found in biology and history, more specifically, in a certain historical American type.

Knut Hamsun described the migration of men to America as such:

Day after day, day after day, a world’s mass of people flooded the prairie, people of every race and language, countless good men, bankrupts and criminals, adventurers and the insane, priests and Negroes—all limbs of the pariah breed from the whole of the earth. And no noble souls.

America’s self-styled “conservatives” like to boast of their right-wing, uncouth ways vis-à-vis the over-civilized, over-liberal, over-indulgent, de-natured Europeans (“cheese-eating surrender monkeys,” as they were called during the run-up to the Iraq war). But in reality, there are aspects to the American personality and mentality that remain shockingly anti-traditionalist to any European. (Here, I’m not referring to “naive optimism” or the “can-do spirit,” which can be laudable traits.)

While decadent Europeans might vacation in the Third World, dutiful American Christians go there to save, convert, or kidnap and bring home non-White races. What kind of people do this? What kind of people adopt Africans as their “children”? What kind of people willfully erase their history and identity? (One should remember that even if Dolezal was untruthful, she was genuinely dedicated to uplifting the Black race.)

Some “limbs of the pariah breed,” as Hamsun called them, who left their homelands for America, were those Europeans most prone to hyper-religiosity, hyper-altruism, and hyper-conformism. They defined portions of the American nation, culturally, spiritually, and genetically—much as they defined the nations of Europe through their absence. Rachel Dolezal might have been the latest expression of this selfless, missionary breed.