Rachel Dolezal and the Racial Trickster: A Local Perspective on Crossing and Crafting Identities

Mask by Michoacan artist Juan Horta

I live in Spokane, WA, where I write and teach about race, identity, and social justice. I have never met Rachel Dolezal, who also resides in Spokane, though we have at least a few acquaintances and causes in common. My own visceral reaction to the Dolezal story is tied to but also goes beyond the fact that I am a resident of Spokane as a well as a student of race. In part it’s a reaction to the racial crossing and how she did it. But it’s also a disappointment because she had been effective as an activist on the local scene.  Dolezal was an effective and cogent organizer and talking head—bodies and boots matter, and she did bring them out. (Then again, I don’t want to discount organizations and institutions, which she also came into and participated in.) That’s the local piece, at least in part, that’s commonly missing in the readings and discussions of the Dolezal controversy from a distance.

Bodies, Boots, and Credibility

Nationally, this summer drama has already receded from public consciousness. It will be remembered, if at all, as a minor happening, notable and significant only for how it again exposed the ragged, unsettled, and disordered state of our public discussions around race in the United States. However, the drama and its baggage will continue to impact and burden local groups in Spokane and the inland Northwest engaged in issues of racial justice.

In what is a weird coincidence, my first book, Crafting Identity, which deals with racial performativity and self-racializing practices within a very different context—indigenous and mestizo communities in Michoacan, Mexico and across the U.S.-Mexico border—was published in the same week that the Dolezal story exploded. I am a gringo, a European immigrant to the United States, a white male educator. In short my book is also, among other things, a study of my own racial performativity. It describes what I learned about the power and significance of race through my own steps and missteps in Michoacan as I negotiated and crossed various boundaries and fields of race, class, religion, ethnicity, and language. Those experiences, as well as my own attempts to process emotions of sadness and regret in how Dolezal’s story has played out, propelled me to write this essay.

Rachel Dolezal, as you may already know, is a racial justice activist. In Spokane, she had been the president of the local chapter of the NAACP, and she had been credited with invigorating and growing the chapter. Many in the chapter and the activist community had seen her as an effective leader, an emerging public voice and figure who had done much to insert issues of racial (in)justice into the public conversation in the inland Northwest.

Dolezal had self-identified as black and claimed a mixed race background. However, in early June, Dolezal’s white parents stepped forth and challenged, in the media, their daughter’s claims that she was black. Right before this news surfaced, Dolezal had cut short a taped conversation with a local reporter, who had also pressed her about her heritage and racial background. Both interviews went viral through social media and were quickly picked up in the national press. The tabloid site Buzzfeed scooped the story that, some ten years earlier as a student at Howard, Dolezal had self-identified as white. She had also sued the historically black college for gender and reverse-racial discrimination.

Putting the "perform" in perfomativity
Putting the “perform” in perfomativity

Dolezal’s credibility and legitimacy as an activist and leader, as a black woman, tanked quickly with many individuals involved in local racial justice and community activism work. In her face-saving and seemingly high-minded public resignation letter as chapter president for the local branch of the NAACP, Dolezal mentioned that she would be resigning because she had become the story, which could only serve to distract from the cause by displacing the broader discussion of social issues and problems connected to race.

Following Dolezal’s resignation, Naima Quarles-Burnley, who stepped in as the president of the local Spokane chapter of the NAACP, told the local broadsheet, The Spokesman Review, “I feel that people of all races can be allies and advocates. But you can’t portray that you have lived the experience of a particular race that you aren’t part of.”

This loss of credibility has been glossed over all too neatly, in the mainstream press, mostly as a matter of personal character. I am by no means an expert and certainly not a spokesperson on issues related to black identity and experience in the Spokane or the United States. But even with my limited knowledge and partial view as a bystander, I think it is possible to see some bigger issues beyond the judgment of individual character—which have also been expressed by black (and other) activists for racial justice in Spokane and beyond.

Given the history of racial inequality and dispossession, the black community has exercised care, sensitivity, and vigilance in developing and supporting institutions and leaders who emerge from within the community. Dolezal presented herself as a black woman and continues to do so. Individuals in the black community in Spokane (which is very small, only 2% of the total population) involved in the struggle for racial justice have also sought to be good stewards, to make informed choices about who gets to speak and represent the black community and its organizations and on what terms. Dolezal’s credibility with activists in this community was tarnished in part because it was perceived that she had disregarded and run rough shod over those sensibilities and commitments, that her actions had undermined the community’s agency and its ability to make informed choices. Given the history and baggage of the present moment it would have been an act of deeper understanding and identification, for Dolezal to tell her story, to leave it to her community to determine if and how the journey of her personal identity matters, especially in accepting her (or not) as a dominant voice or leader in the community.

Tricksters and Representation

While I make these points tentatively, with awareness of my circumscribed view, my footing feels surer as I also think about some aspects of my own experience crossing racial borders, negotiating the terms of my own presence and access to do the fieldwork in rural Michoacan that became the basis for my book.

We can learn a lot about power, privilege, and institutional racism by acknowledging and problematizing boundaries and their crossing, by recognizing and acknowledging and responding in that context to the utterances of the Other.

About a dozen years ago I first began my field work in rural Michoacan with shopworn conventional and (now I also see) quite problematic and racially privileged assumptions about the impact of globalization on traditional local customs and culture. It had already been well documented that the traditional danzas in Michoacan incorporate figures from media and mass culture. With the question of globalization and its impacts on culture in mind, I arrived in Michoacan with the intention of observing and studying the local ceremonial danzas.

In sync with then current and fashionable theories of hybridity under globalization, in rural Michoacan I had observed that the figures from mass media, pop culture, and politics had been incorporated into the danzas as the traditional tricksters to communicate about religious matters, as well as politics and the joys and struggles of everyday life. The drama absorbed pop culture but maintained its generic structure and content through practice or performance.

That would have been study, but my local informants also invited and challenged, and pushed against my assumptions, cornering me into going deeper. They urged me to understand more by pointing me back to the boundaries, by rendering and highlighting and problematizing the process of crossing, by insisting that I recognize and acknowledge and respond in that context to the matter of my own racial identity and privilege and performativity as well as their racialized voices.

In particular, one moment in performance forced the issue.

I had been observing and recording another staging of the danzas in the community of Tocuaro. A trickster entered the space of performance and at first I did not understand who or what that trickster was supposed to be. The mask that this trickster wore was quite large, and the features of this mask suggested that this character—whoever he was—had a large head and a robust, somewhat overweight face. In his right hand the trickster held some sort of imaginary and imaginative device. Mimicking a camera, two brown, untreated wooden blocks had been fastened together. The longer piece was about 9 to 10 inches long, and the piece that had been bootstrapped onto it was about half as long.

The trickster was in fact a caricature of me.

When this figure appeared, I was already well‐known in the community as a scholar, as an ethnographer, as the man with the camera who was documenting and recording the local pastorela, the fiesta, and aspects of daily life. The gaze of the camera had been turned back on me. I became the object of the performer’s (and the community’s) gaze. In this figure the ethnographer’s privileged gaze had been questioned, challenged, and flipped on its head.

Tocuaro, its artists, its dancers, and its costumbres had already been mentioned and depicted and scrutinized, mostly by non-local, privileged, non-indigenous ethnographers, journalists, popular writers, and connoisseurs in various popular Mexican and non-Mexican magazines, tourist guidebooks, Indian art catalogs, nationalist monographs, and many other types of publications.

The caricature was all about me, of course, and yet (as I would come to understand with time) this was not all about me. As expressions of cultural citizenship, these performances exist as contexts in which marginal indigenous communities can express social and political views and judgments, outside or beyond the (mostly inaccessible) space of mainstream media and the formal public sphere. As my book documents, privileged interlocutors have routinely white-washed and dismissed iconoclastic, political, and critical elements of performance, preferring—as a matter of formatted cultural production—to refashion performances and dramas into a range of stock, generic depictions of indigenous authenticity and rural splendor, of comforting and domesticated difference. Here, it is sufficient to note that Pave-the-trickster also stood for all of those authors, cultural critics, and other judges who have written about and judged the town, its artists, and its customs. And now, through the presentation and antics of this trickster character, the “natives” were speaking back and some scores were being settled. Through this trickster character, all of these authors and critics and judges, and everything that they had written, and all the judgments that they had rendered in other contexts, too, were being lampooned, judged, and cut down as well.

This invitation through symbolic action to engage in a conversation about racial borders and their crossings, this provocation prodding me to think about my complicity and privileged innocence also led me to some richer understandings and deeper and more frank discussions and relationships with my informants and hosts in rural Michoacan.

Erasure, Denial, and Responsibility

Yes, people’s racial affiliation and identity and sense of belonging can change, or can vary with different circumstances. But that’s not the point.

Potentially, one can see the ironic, subversive elements in Dolezal’s embodiment and performance of race. But unlike my informant who had played me as a trickster, Dolezal did not share the subversive intent of the performance (if it was there) with any of the supporting actors (the other activists and chapter members) who cooperated dutifully and in good will in playing their roles.

In calling me out as the trickster, in performing as tricksters themselves, my informants in Michoacan had called out (my) racial privilege and how that privilege intersects with the ability to cross racial boundaries, project a gaze, frame the object, render the persuasive account. In performing race as a trickster figure, Dolezal did exactly the opposite—she erased or disguised (her) white privilege and how that privilege intersects with the ability to cross racial boundaries, project a voice, render the persuasive account.

In her public activism against racism, Dolezal has accomplished so much more than me, so much more than most of us. I can only guess how much more Dolezal could have done and how much more she may yet do some day, by surfacing and acknowledging and looking back at here own journey, her crossings and how these have been perceived—by letting that be a two-way conversation between her and the communities which had invited her to speak on their behalf.

As it stands, not only has Dolezal’s credibility been tarnished, but the credibility of the cause for racial justice in Spokane and within the inland Northwest has also taken a hit. In her recent interview with the Spokesman Review Quarles-Burnley has noted that the story “has hurt our organization because people are now questioning our integrity…Not just the integrity of the former president, but the integrity of the organization as a whole.”

Outside or beyond the racial justice movement both in Spokane and nationwide, doubts about Dolezals’s credibility and integrity have been projected and amplified into doubts about the integrity and credibility of claims regarding racial inequality and the contemporary struggles for racial justice in general.

These post-racial perspectives based in denial, as expressed by Bill O’Reilly on Fox News, David French in the National Review, and by so many other conservative and so-called moderate pundits, and bloggers, and concerned citizens posting comments into news websites, offer no recognition, no acknowledgement of the actual issues, questions, concerns, regarding Dolezal that have surfaced or emerged within communities of color in Spokane and across the country. In itself, this inability to recognize and hear itself illustrates and points to the practice and persistence of white privilege and racial inequality, as minority concerns, experiences, and testimonies are once again muted and marginalized and ignored.

The interview that Dolezal gave to Matt Lauer and Savannah Guthrie in her 14th minute of national fame will probably be the most remembered aspect of the story at the national level, and that surely compounds the tragedy. Very predictably, Lauer and Guthrie re-personalized the story, side-lining the bigger issues of racial justice, activism, and institutionalism racism that Dolezal had emphasized in the public resignation letter that she had submitted to the NAACP. Working within that framework, Dolezal endorsed the comparison between herself and Caitlyn Jenner. This comparison is problematic because it erases or omits the fact that racial appropriation and ventriloquism, what bell hooks calls “eating the other,” has a history even older than blackface and minstrelsy in marking and expressing white privilege and power, whereas gender crossings in both directions have historically been social taboos, stigmatized activities. The most unsettling detail of that interview however, is Dolezal’s cringe-worthy response to questions regarding the birth certificate that her biological parents furnished. Dolezal stated that the certificate might be doctored and that nothing could be proven or confirmed about her pedigree without genetic testing. This comment would have worked brilliantly as a satiric and Colbert-esque jab at birtherism, but it was in fact an earnest remark.

To me and to many others Dolezal had been a local hero. This unraveling is a tragedy. She may be a self-serving racial entrepreneur. Or perhaps she is a well-meaning individual, who made some very bad judgments and then kept going further into the big muddy. We do know, however, that racism is real, even if race is a construct. As a cipher, Dolezal is also a testament to the troubled state of race relations in America. Still, I will resist ending this piece on such a down note. We need to acknowledge the important and effective work that Dolezal has done. But it’s also good to remember that we are all but bit actors in a drama that began long before us and will continue long after we exit the stage.

Pavel Shlossberg received his Ph.D. in Communication at Columbia University in New York City and is an assistant professor at Gonzaga University in Spokane, WA. Prior to his appointment at Gonzaga, he had been a postdoctoral fellow at the University of New Mexico and a lecturer at the University of Virginia. He is the author of Crafting Identity: Transnational Indian Arts and the Politics of Race in Central Mexico (Arizona, 2015).