The story only broke late last week, and already I’m tired of talking about it.

Yes, that story. The story of Rachel Dolezal, the woman who had been living her life as an African-American until recently when she was “outed” by her estranged Caucasian parents. It’s a story that had Black folks scratching our heads and creating memes, jokes, and hashtags. It’s a story that drew comparisons to Caitlyn Jenner and had us exploring social constructs and whether or not there was really such a thing as “transracial” (there is, but this is not it — this is what’s known as “passing”). It’s a story that thrust us anew into conversations about race.

And it’s a story that still has my head spinning — and hurting.

After sitting (and often wrestling) with this bizarre and confusing tale, I finally decided that I’m offended by what she did. Not that she would want to be black; I get the appeal because, speaking from experience, being black is awesome! Not that she was a professor of Africana Studies at Eastern Washington University; many brilliant scholars in this field have been non-black. Not that she was the president of the Spokane chapter of the NAACP; a cursory look into the organization’s history will show that white people have been among its ranks since its inception. People of all races wear dreadlocs, so that’s not it. Spray tans have been abused before, but I stop short of calling that sinful.

It’s the deception that bothers me.

It’s the concoction of a falsified back story to add credibility to her “blackness.” It’s the people who were used as props in her fictional drama — her brother, her black spouse, and her alleged “father.” It’s the claims of racial bias against her that never happened. It’s the viewing of non-blacks who sought to do the work of racial reconciliation with suspicion. It’s the instruction to her family members to not “blow [her] cover.” It’s the creation of an entire career and CV from a lived experience that was never lived nor experienced. In this case, the performance of blackness really was just that: a performance. Where the hell do you get off, lady?

We’re still getting bits and pieces of this story, but as it stands, as a black woman I find it offensive that someone would essentially cos-play what truly is the lived (and inescapable) experience of many of us. Identify with it, yes. Be appreciative of it, fine. Study it and educate others about it, wonderful. But fabricate a whole personal narrative in order to claim it as your own? That’s downright disturbing. And while I honor her justice work, I can’t help but question whether her ends justify her incredibly outlandish means.

As this story continues to unravel, it has come to light that she and her estranged parents are enmeshed in a custody battle involving her adopted brother, who is black — and who she calls her son. Whatever else might have been behind her actions, it’s clear there is some deep hurt that has motivated all of this. And let’s not turn a blind eye to the way her parents exposed her, which seems to be motivated by malice more than anything else. That does not excuse her actions, and I can’t overstate that. But good grief, if anyone needed a pastor/caregiver/spiritual director/therapist/all of the above, it’s this soul right here.

And so, how do you pastor this person? More specifically, I wonder how I would pastor this person.

To be honest, I don’t feel the need to extend the proverbial olive branch/hand of fellowship and reconciliation to someone who participates in violence against people like me (creating and putting on a caricature of what I am for one’s own personal gain is violent — and sick). But as a pastor, I can’t ignore the hurt. I could, but I don’t want to. I guess we pastors are wired that way. Or maybe part of me begs to understand why. Why would someone go to these lengths when in no universe would it have ever been necessary? What would push a person to do this? Rachel probably doesn’t owe me those answers, but maybe she owes them to herself. I can’t help but think that by changing her proximity to her family of origin, she’d hoped to change her proximity to her problems. It’d be nice if it actually worked that way.

There are a million and two other considerations concerning this story, and everyone and their grandmother has a take on it. Me, my head is still spinning. And hurting. And did I mention I was tired of talking about it?

33 thoughts on “The Pastoral is Political: Transracial WTF

  1. Unfortunately, that family baggage does tend to travel with us unless we take the time and make the effort to unpack it thoroughly, and with some help. (And even if we do.)

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  2. Great blog post. I am tired of hearing this story too but oddly fascinated by it too. It came to my mind that a couple of people in the Bible tried to “pass” (stolen birthright) or were “passed off” (Abraham pretending that his wife was his sister) for different kinds of advantages (but nevertheless, dishonest).

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  3. Thank you for this, especially for articulating how this is different from trans* people transitioning. It is “the unnecessary deception” that makes a difference. I knew there was a difference but could not put it into words. Thank you! And I hope she receives the help/support she needs.

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    1. I’m saddened that many (not all) comparisons to Transgender individuals seek to do nothing more than further demonize them, rather than understanding the constructs of race and gender and how differently they’re constructed. Nevertheless, I’m encouraged by much of the conversations that have been sparked by this story. Some necessary wrestling is raking place, and I hope we’re changed by it… for the better.

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      1. There is definitely an element of “I don’t understand transgender people, and I don’t want to, so I am going to find every possible way to make fun of them, including piling on to this unrelated story.”

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  4. I first saw this story while attending a conference on racism. I was fascinated and disturbed by the reactions of folks. My first thought was that this woman (Rachel) is quite ill and needs truck loads of therapy. Then I felt both confusion and anger that a person would do such a thing for no “rational” reason. When the comparisons to Caitlyn Jenner started, I was angrier still. Thank you for articulating the deception part of this whole story. Now I am torn between walking away from the whole mess and finding a way to make sense and make educational use of it.

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  5. I am still wrestling with the ‘why’??? Surely there are some deeper hurts – but I wonder if she really herself knows why. I doubt the reasons *are* rational, except perhaps to her. The comparison with Caitlyn Jenner was offensive.

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    1. There’s a lot that we may never know. I, too, wish the Caitlyn Jenner comparisons would stop, but there are some who are genuinely using the two stories to try to understand social constructs. But there are too many other factors at play, so it’s a poor parallel.

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  6. Yes, integrity is one of the most important factors in human relationships. Thanks for naming it. And as in so many difficult stories considering the fact of back story is critical to finding compassion. Not the we need to know the details, but that we understand the enormity of work that needs to be done to tease out, take responsibility and find self compassion for one’s life story.

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    1. I suppose the most Christian course of action is not to withhold compassion for the sake of understanding. Whatever her race, she’s a child of God. But I think the story is so unusual that we can’t help but ask the “why” questions.

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  7. I’m a pastor here in Spokane, WA, and I’ve met Rachel Dolezal and marched with her in multiple rallies. I’m white, so I come to this situation from a much closer but very different perspective. I have reached out to Rachel and offered to be a non-judgmental ear. She is being attacked from all sides, and it hurts my pastoral heart. I have had to live through the pain of my own sins, and so I pray for her with tears of compassion. I would hope that all Christians would try to find compassion for her and not just lash out, using only the limited facts and loads of rumors that the media broadcasts.
    I also wrote about Rachel, but from a much different perspective: http://spokanefavs.com/dolezal-accusations-prompt-question-what-does-good-parenting-look-like/

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  8. I am just wondering why the use of “WTF” in the title? Does this acronym implies what it normally does?

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    1. Yes, it implies what it normally does. And I used it in the title because that was my initial and abiding reaction to her story. I’m simply incredulous, and my head still spins thinking about it.

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  9. My immediate reaction was twofold: 1. Whiskey Tango Foxtrot?! And 2. What trauma was perpetrated on Dolezal in the past. Is she the “victim”, the “perpatrator” or the “instigator”

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    1. Rachel has said that her parents abused her and her siblings, using a whip to hit them with, among other things. Even though she has obviously lied about many things, I cannot ignore the possibility that the abuse was real.

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  10. Thank you for writing this, and bringing it to conversation , and the conversation that is unfolding here. I don’t have anything brilliant to add, but my head spins with this, too. But mostly, I want to thank you for this.

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  11. I’ve read a lot about this this past few days and this makes the most sense to me of anything I’ve seen. Outrage, compassion, confusion – it’s all in here. Thank you so very much.

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  12. I think that the best way to move past “racism” – A mostly misused and misunderstood term, for what is in reality bias and / or bigotry, is to place it into the same category as uncontrolled coughing. Ever had a stubborn scratchy, itchy throat that constantly made you cough and cough till you deadened it with sucking on a a cough drop? What did each cough accomplish ? It further irritated the back of the throat and brought on another cough. Each time either blacks or whites play the race game with each other, all it does is irritate the situation further, increase the hatreds, enforce the preconceived notions about each other, and never, ever accomplished anything positive.

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    1. Funny you mention coughs. My daughter recently came down with a nasty one, and my first instinct was to give her a cough suppressant. After taking her to urgent care and speaking to the RN (because it wasn’t getting better), I was told that giving her a cough suppressant was the worst thing I could do. The cough is there for a reason and it won’t stop until the disease is eradicated. She needed to cough to get better, and even though it was irritating and uncomfortable, it was necessary.

      I don’t know what a “race game” is because I’ve never played it (sounds fun, though). But facing/examining/talking about/wrestling with the issues of race and racism is the only way we’ll ever achieve any semblance of parity in this society. The alternative is to stay sick — and possibly worsen our condition.

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  13. well written, thanks for your honest thoughts and spin servings. Very helpful and reassuring as I to have a spinning head from it all.

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  14. I think that one of the most salient points is hurt – a deep well of pain that prompted her, to adopt a personality that didn’t fit. Also, it seems as if she found solace in the black community and thus the self-adoption. Begin with the pain, and it will all unravel.

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