I Really Wanted to Give Rachel Dolezal the Benefit of the Doubt at First

This column also appeared in the Lafayette Journal & Courier.

By Clyde Hughes

To think, when this all started, I wanted to give Rachel Dolezal the benefit of the doubt.

Being African-American, it can be difficult at times explaining my life experience, which can be so different from what other races and cultures experience in this country. It can be exhausting trying to make real for others the truths you live day in and day out.

So when someone from another race wants to understand, wants to learn and share the black experience with others, I was ready to say, as Gayle King on “CBS This Morning” said last week, “Welcome to the tribe.”

But with each passing interview the former NAACP chapter president in Spokane, Washington, gave and every time she tried to defend herself by claiming she was a black woman, I cringe.

Then, I become angry to the point that I start to scream at the television or computer screen. That includes when she pulled a “birther” move and suggested that her birth parents in Idaho may not actually be her real parents.

All they have is a birth certificate and documents from her entire life in their possession, you know.

Let’s state the obvious so we all can start on the same page. Rachel Dolezal is a white woman. She managed to still be white as a graduate student at historically black Howard University (where my daughter just earned her law degree, for full disclosure) when she tried to sue the university for denying her a position because of race.

How she got from Idaho to Howard to the mess she created in Spokane is a jumbled mystery. I don’t know her family dynamic, but from what we know through media reports, it is volatile and sad all at the same time.

That’s another issue for another day. What I’m more concerned with is the deceit Dolezal portrayed to the Spokane NAACP, to that city’s civilian police oversight commission and to her colleagues at Eastern Washington University.

If she really cared about the causes she championed in the African-American community, the best way to have done that was to come clean about her background, apologize for the deception and express a determination to make things right.

Instead, what I have heard is a woman who has doubled down on her deceit, with every answer turning her cause and her name into a punch line for late-night comics.

That’s a tragedy, because many of the issues she was trying to address on behalf of African-Americans are worthy of a national discussion. Instead, it’s all about Rachel, and at this point she seems perfectly fine with that.

For example, one of her top cringe-worthy moments was when she told Melissa Harris-Perry, an MSNBC talk show host, “I have really gone there with the (black) experience, in terms of being a mother of two black sons and really owning what it means to experience and live blackness.”

Frankly, Miss Dolezal, you’re not even close.

In fact, I’m insulted that she even went there, and it exposed just how thin her connection with African-Americans really is. Blackness is not something that you can put on in the morning like a sweater and take it off when it gets too hot.

We, as African-Americans, are black 24-7. I could never have an experience of a white person regardless how I change my appearance or how loudly I screamed to everyone, “I am white!” Dolezal has that choice, and that is what makes her different — and makes it a false narrative that she has actually “gone there” with the black experience.

She could have supported every cause and championed every issue she wanted to as a white woman. There are incredible people, white and other races, who have done tremendous work along these lines. Why the charade?

Yes, I really wanted to give her the benefit of the doubt. But if Dolezal refuses to be honest with the people she claims to want to befriend and connect with the most, she simply destroys everything she says she stands for. And that’s a shame.