Martinez: Dolezal documentary more damaging than helpful


Marissa Martinez, Assistant Opinion Editor

Last week, Netflix released “The Rachel Divide,” its documentary about Rachel Dolezal, a former NAACP chapter president who made headlines in 2015 after being outed as a white woman presenting herself as black. After reading initial reviews, I had planned to not give the movie any attention and legitimacy. However, I reluctantly decided to give watching it a shot.

The documentary is mostly sympathetic in nature. While it does showcase ugly parts of her life, Dolezal is given many opportunities to double down on her version of the story: that she was born to two white parents, thus making her white by blood, but now identifies as a black woman. Disregarding evidence to the contrary, Dolezal refuses to drop her narrative and explore the reasoning behind her “transracial” identity, making me lose any potential respect I would gain for her from watching the documentary.

The film tries to give some context for Dolezal’s racial transition. Dolezal’s biological parents were white and extremely religious. They allegedly physically abused her and her adopted black siblings and created a toxic household, leading Dolezal to help her sister Esther move out and adopt her brother Izaiah. Because she cared for her younger black siblings in a motherly role — and because her parents’ version of whiteness was so particularly violent — Dolezal found solace in her version of a black narrative.

Sources who worked with Dolezal in the NAACP say she often equated blackness with suffering through her work with the organization. They mentioned how she consistently brought up hardship and societal difficulties when she talked about her identity. In addition, she used her two black sons as further validation of her identity — a “struggle by proxy,” as one source put it.

Blackness is not only struggle. Yes, much of the African American experience comes from a somewhat shared sense of discrimination as well as residual trauma from slavery, systematic racism and having little connection to a grander ancestry. Through this film, however, Dolezal continues to perpetuate an unfair and damaging narrative that blackness is singularly linked to oppression, rather than the wide spectrum it encompasses: pride, community, strength, activism.

Dolezal’s use of what is essentially blackface takes full advantage of an inclusivity in the black community that stems from the systemic “one-drop” rule of the past. As has been stated dozens of times over the past few years, she used her privilege as a white woman to break into a community that was never hers — rising to NAACP prominence even as her disguise as a light-skinned black woman was viewed with suspicion by many sources, who said she resembled a white woman in a black woman’s wig.

In the film, she repeats that race is a social construct, a concept she believes should allow her to be transracial. Then why choose to identify as black, rather than white? That argument completely erases so much of the complexity and nuance of being African American — like the common phenomenon of black Americans having to pass as white to protect themselves from discrimination. For Dolezal to casually throw out that “race is a social construct” infuriates me. As someone who has struggled with her race in the context of a complicated American system for years, I find it offensive that Dolezal is able to claim blackness just because she believes her struggles are enough to be a member of the “African American club.”

Additionally, the documentary had an extremely negative effect on Dolezal’s teenage sons, Franklin and Izaiah. While at the beginning of the film, their interviews show frustration at the hate channeled toward their mother, the tone quickly changes toward the middle. Izaiah leaves for Spain at one point, in part to avoid the resurgence of media attention, and is unclear about when he will return. Franklin, the youngest, doesn’t want to attend school to avoid the bullying he faces for having Dolezal as his mother. Near the end, Franklin shows clear anger at his mother for moving forward with publishing her book, claiming that pushing herself back in the limelight won’t help anyone. He wishes the whole situation would go away, and claims he’s running out of patience for his mother’s antics.

This film should not have been made in the first place. Dolezal certainly was a recognizable name throughout 2015, occasionally appearing in the news when she publicized her book or changed her name. When her book first came out in 2016, it sold just 596 copies, according to the documentary. But by now, Dolezal, for the most part, had faded into the background. (Even when I told people I was writing this column, the main response was, “Who?”) She is pretty much universally hated or ignored, and does not need any additions to her platform. Creating a documentary only legitimizes her point of view and places her in the spotlight again, reviving an old and tired narrative.

This is part of a larger complaint: So many media organizations are once again giving her a platform, but still fail to do the same for black women who have been fighting for recognition for years. This documentary is part of a bigger pattern of giving white women priority over black voices. Notably, Netflix, the producer of “The Rachel Divide,” offered black comedian Mo’Nique half a million dollars for a stand-up special while giving Amy Schumer, a white comedian, $11 million. To be fair, much of the film did highlight black women as sources in contrast to Dolezal’s interviews, but the fact that the movie exists in the first place shows a clear prioritization of white women’s perspectives.

In the last scenes, Dolezal cuts out her protective hairstyle (which does not seem to be protecting her naturally straight, thin hair), and puts on a black, curly wig — one of many hair changes highlighted in the film. She heads to the DMV and requests a name change to Nkechi Amare Diallo, a name that reflects Nigerian and Fulani heritage.

It is a final punch to the gut. As Dolezal states multiple times, there is absolutely no regret or shame about her deep appropriation of black culture. She is cementing her transracial identity by clutching onto yet another aspect of what she perceives as blackness: an African name. Clearly, she has learned nothing from her experience, making me question what viewers are ultimately expected to gain from this film.

Marissa Martinez is a Medill freshman. She can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.