The pain thief of Spokane

 

Spokane, Washington, the little city that has a knack for weirdness, is back in the limelight again. Not so long ago it was all about the outing of our anti-gay mayor, who’d been discovered trolling for young men.

This time it’s all about Rachel Dolezal. Everyone knew her as the dynamic black president of the local chapter for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. And then the world learned that she isn’t black, even though she still says, “I identify as black.”

Instead of talking to her constituents, she skipped out to tour the TV morning talk shows. She’s resigned her post amid further allegations of deceit: She appears to have lied about receiving racist threats; at least one of her exhibited paintings appears to be a direct copy of J.M.W. Turner’s “The Slave Ship,” and while suing historically black Howard University for discrimination back in 2002, she told attorneys, “I consider myself Caucasian.”

Color us embarrassed. If Spokane had an official gesture, it would be the dope slap.

The scandal came to light after Dolezal’s parents in rural Montana let it be known that their daughter was white, sending along birth certificates and snapshots of their formerly blonde-haired, pale-skinned child.

The story, of course, was made for media and its multiple forms of comment. It gained a hashtag, #RachelDolezal, and became the top trender on Twitter as people expressed anger, confusion and wicked humor over how Rachel had become so much darker while also gaining a giant Afro. That Dolezal had become a prominent personality in racial justice and civil rights circles in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho and Spokane only added to many people’s sense of outrage at her deceit.

Even though she says she is “living my truth,” Rachel Dolezal has lied and lied and lied. And they were the worst kind of lies. She stole a story that was not hers. She stole a history of oppression and wore it like someone playing dress-up.

So what? some people ask. Didn’t she do good work? Aren’t we all the same under the skin?

Well, it’s all about the skin. The hashtag #transracial was trending right alongside #RachelDolezal as many people compared Dolezal slipping into a new identity to Caitlyn Jenner slipping into a bustier. Except, and here’s the catch, it doesn’t go the other way. Black people can’t pretend to be white when police raid the pool party, as black Twitter users said in sharply pointed posts.

Spokane is in a pretty white corner of this country. Past presidents of the NAACP have been white, and many local civil rights leaders are white. And that’s laudable, because we are all in this together. The difference is that those folks didn’t lie about their racial identity. Those folks didn’t steal.

Many years ago, when I was a young sportswriter, I encountered a small-town high school basketball player named Sherman Alexie. I admired the poetry of his sweet jump shot, but I admired his actual poetry even more. I may have been the first journalist to predict that this kid from an obscure rez town would knock the socks off the literary world.

And he did. He was called “a major literary voice,” and much more. So when an angry, brilliant new Native writer burst onto the scene, a publishing house sent his book to Alexie to get a blurb. But after Alexie opened the book and began reading, he quickly wrote back that he didn’t think the writer was Indian.

He was later proven correct and wrote about what that meant in Time magazine, in an essay headlined, “When the story stolen is your own.” 

“His lies matter,” Alexie wrote, “because he has cynically co-opted as a literary style the very real injustices caused by very real American aggression that destroyed very real tribes.”

Rachel Dolezal’s lies also matter. Thanks to them, she gained prominence -- leading the local NAACP, becoming an adjunct professor in Africana studies at Eastern Washington University, shaking hands with Marilyn Mosby in Baltimore, getting appointed by Spokane’s mayor to chair a police oversight committee.

Her lies matter because she is co-opting roles that belong to someone else. Someone else who did suffer very real injustices. Someone else who does not lie about who she is.

Kevin Taylor is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the column service of High Country News. He is an independent journalist in Spokane.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at betsym@hcn.org.