Let’s all try to look away from this train wreck | PostIndependent.com

Let’s all try to look away from this train wreck

Randy Essex
Staff Photo |

Oh, it’s so easy to criticize the media. After so many years of being on the receiving end, let me take this opportunity to dish it out.

I don’t understand why Rachel Dolezal’s weird stumble is a national story that has sustained attention for several days now.

Dolezal is the freshly resigned president of the Spokane chapter of the NAACP, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. She resigned after her parents in Montana outed her as white.

To be clear, that doesn’t matter to the NAACP, which welcomes people of all skin colors and has had white people in local and national leadership roles in the past. Of course honesty matters to any organization.

This strikes me as a really troubling story involving a badly estranged family and a 37-year-old woman who craves attention.

Dolezal has a history, it turns out, of reporting hate crimes and threats that, so far, have lacked sufficient evidence for authorities to pursue.

Before she began telling people seven or so years ago that she is of African-American ancestry, she sued Howard University (a traditionally black school in Washington, D.C., where she earned a master’s of fine arts) for discrimination against her as a woman and a white person.

She claims to have been abused by her white parents — who adopted four black children — and referred in interviews to her stepfather (she doesn’t really have a stepfather). Early this year she posted a photo on Facebook of a black man she said is her father.

This is a mess, and I worry that it is emblematic of the modern media latching onto a geek show because it is certain to draw digital traffic. I worry that the media are elevating a troubled woman to national celebrity status, making her a symbol of our national racial confusion and discomfort when she’s just personally confused.

It certainly is a story in Spokane, where the local NAACP is in turmoil and where Dolezal is an African studies professor at Eastern Washington University and works for the Office of Police Ombudsman Commission. On her application for the latter role, she said she was white, black and American Indian.

But why has this been a story of national interest beyond a mention of the oddity of a white person in a local leadership role claiming to be black? Yes, that’s an odd twist — so it fits the man-bites-dog definition of news.

Beyond that, I think a coincidence of timing enabled the story to catch a little bit of fire. Coming on the high heels of the Caitlyn Jenner story, Dolezal touches the identity questions being posed by Jenner.

Dolezal told the “Today” show on Tuesday that, despite the criticisms, she identifies as black.

Fine. Really, the question is not skin color.

In evaluating the information available, I’m uncomfortable with all those reported hate crimes and some of the rather bizarre things she’s said in interviews, such as having been born in a teepee.

I suspect that Dolezal will parlay this all into a book, speeches and paid appearances, all based on a string of lies and abetted by the media. It risks making her a false role model.

Young people of mixed ancestry at times have trouble feeling like they fit anywhere, and I hope the Dolezal path is not one to which they aspire.

It’s not like she’s a national figure to merit such attention. People say, well, she’s a civil rights leader. But local NAACP chapters and other rights organizations, in my experience as a journalist working in several spots across the country, are often not run super tightly.

Often, the people who lead them get the job by raising their hand and saying, “I’ll do it.” They are sincere folk who believe in the cause and want to serve. They may fail to pay national dues (as happened with the NAACP chapter when I was in Detroit) or fail to file proper papers with the secretary of state (as apparently happened at another stop in my career). They are sincere but they aren’t bookkeepers, let’s say.

Sometimes, someone with more overt political motives might elbow out a longtime local leader. With nonprofits, that can lead to well-intentioned or publicity-needing or just-plain wing nuts getting leadership roles.

I don’t know what happened in Spokane, whose population is a bit north of 2 percent black, but it’s my educated guess that the NAACP chapter there was not the most vibrant, tightest ship before Dolezal took over. She’s credited with invigorating the organization and elevating the cause.

Some positives could come from this.

At one level, it’s true that there’s only one race: the human race, and to the extent that this reminds people of that, good. And it’s good to underscore how silly it is for white people to think that adopting others’ cultural norms and physical appearance even remotely approaches grasping their experience.

One Twitter comment asked what color Dolezal would be if a cop pulled her over. Even if she would be true to what she says is her identity, she can’t possibly understand — nor can I — what it is like to be pulled over or followed in a store because of skin color.

This is a sad little train wreck from which we know we probably should but are having trouble looking away.

Now I’ve added to it. Damned media.

Randy Essex is editor of the Post Independent.

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