TV Review - The Rachel Divide

Rachel Dolezal made national news in June 2015 when she resigned as President of the NAACP chapter in Spokane, Washington. She resigned because it was revealed that she wasn't African-American biologically, despite having led people to think she was. She was labeled as a fraud, the white woman pretending to be black. She drew a lot of controversy, as many leveled much disbelief and hatred toward her. This documentary by Laura Brownson follows Dolezal in the immediate aftermath of this scandal and for a year or so until her book is published, which attempts to explain her side of the story.

This documentary also attempts to explain her side of the story, as Brownson's cameras go inside Dolezal's home and speaks with the family members still in her life. Brownson's film isn't one-sided totally, as she includes interviews from people who argue against what Dolezal did and what she feels and believes about her identity. The movie is compassionate, but it isn't completely sympathetic. Brownson is fair, balanced and objective. The movie gives voice to the opposite side and doesn't allow Dolezal a pass.

Obviously, when the story first broke, all the major TV news organizations reported it and had commentary. Most of that commentary was negative. A lot of it was just trying to understand or reconcile what happened. However, Dolezal goes to those news organizations herself for direct, live interviews. First, she goes to New York City for The Today Show. Later, we see her do an online, video chat with The New York Times. After The Today Show, Dolezal sees social media react to her interview. During The New York Times chat, Dolezal is able to see and hear the Internet react instantaneously. Dolezal even goes to speak at an event, and people, specifically black women in the audience of that event, also criticize Dolezal, and this movie gives breath and space to all of that criticism.

The chief and the basic criticism is that she wasn't born black. She doesn't pass what was considered the "one-drop rule" or the so-called one-drop of black blood, meaning having any ancestor of African descent. However, at no point does Dolezal take an ancestral DNA test. West Chester University has been doing the DNA Discussion Project, which has had plenty of white people discover they have a small percentage of African DNA in their background. However, to find that ancestor, a white person would have to go back hundreds if not thousands of years. For most people, the test would have to be that either your parents, grandparents or great grandparents would have to be of African-descent. For Dolezal, she can't even claim that. Biologically, she is white or Caucasian.

Another argument is then raised, which is never really refuted on its own terms. That argument is about Caitlyn Jenner. In April 2015, two months prior to the Dolezal scandal, Jenner came out as transgender. Transgender is when someone is biologically born as one gender or sex but they feel as if they should be the opposite gender or sex. Jenner was biologically born a male but she felt as though she were really a female and thus transitioned into one. In the movie, we see Harvey Levin of TMZ make the case that people were having to accept Jenner for identifying as something that she wasn't in terms of her biology. Levin says that if we have to accept Jenner, why not Dolezal?

Even though it's a term that Dolezal doesn't like to use, she has been described as being transracial, which is something similar to transgender, except instead of changing one's gender, the person changes their racial identity. Until Dolezal, the word "transracial" had been used to describe people of one race being adopted into the family of another. Adoption groups have been critical of the use of the term being applied to Dolezal, which is fair, but the word isn't a commercial brand and many words have multiple definitions, so for now, I will use the term transracial, and logically speaking, Levin is correct that no matter what it's called, if you accept Jenner's new identity, not accepting Dolezal's identity is illogical.

However, people make strong, emotional arguments against her. Many claim that what Dolezal is doing is tantamount to cultural appropriation and white privilege. Cultural appropriation is a fancy term for stealing. Some people see it as theft of ideas, expressions, art or intellectual property by people who don't belong or come from the group that originated that property. This includes hair-styles, clothing, certain words or behaviors, as well as social or authoritative positions. For Dolezal, this included her attendance at Howard University, a HBCU or historically black college. Howard doesn't exclude white people, but it's curious as to why she would go there. Dolezal even rose to become the president of the NAACP chapter in Spokane. The NAACP has not excluded white members and has even had white presidents in other chapters, but none of them have claimed to be black.

Brownson never pushes Dolezal to distinguish between her so-called lies, meaning what she told people at the NAACP what her race was. It's assumed that she told everyone she was black and everyone mostly accepted it. If so, people are justified to be angry but for how long? Before coming out as transgender, Jenner used to secretly cross-dress and said she felt like a liar, as many in the LGBT community feel before coming out. The question then becomes how long do you stay mad at that person. People do get mad at LGBT people and call them phonies and liars, but most understand the stigma and the fears with coming out, so if we can be understanding of LGBT people, why can't we be understanding of Dolezal?

The white privilege argument is another interesting one in that some people in this movie say that Dolezal's success as an artist, an activist and an educator has been because she's white and that affords her privileges that actual biological black women don't get. I'm not sure if that argument totally holds water. One black woman argues that Dolezal's book got coverage by The New York Times when statistically books by black women don't get nearly the amount of coverage as they should, which is a valid critique of that news organization, but to argue that because of that criticism, the newspaper should ignore a story that is unique, weird and controversial is arguing a zero-sum philosophy in which the news media doesn't have to engage. Ultimately, the news should be doing more not less, leaning more toward inclusion not exclusion.

A couple of black women also argue white privilege on another level. Their points directly go to the color of Dolezal's skin. One particular black woman on the TV series The Real argues that because Dolezal's skin is light or white, then she won't experience the kinds of things that black skin women experience, so therefore her identity can't be like theirs. At no point, however, does anyone, including Brownson, bring up that there are people who are biologically black who don't have dark skin and have such light skin that they could "pass" for white. Such people include Mariah Carey, Rashida Jones, Nicole Richie or Paris Jackson, the daughter of Michael Jackson.

Back in the 90's, many people mistook Mariah Carey as being white when she's actually biracial. The other aforementioned celebrities could also be accused of the same thing as Dolezal of not being able to identify as black based solely on the way they look skin-wise. Yet, for technical reasons, they can't be criticized when on the face, it's the same thing. It's helpful to look into Dolezal's past and see what kind of upbringing she had and what brought her to this point, which this documentary does.

It's important to note that people can call her guilty of cultural appropriation, but it's not as if she decided in college that she was black because she thought black culture was cool or she thought it would give her some kind of weird advantage. Some people defend that being gay is not a choice by asking why would anyone choose to be gay. I don't agree but some people argue the overall disadvantages of being gay would make such a choice illogical. The same could be argued about being black. Who would choose to be black, if one considered all the disadvantages? I reject those arguments because they assume being gay or being black are inherently bad, if only because of outside forces that would discriminate or be bigoted.

Nevertheless, as this movie reveals Dolezal's history, we see that this isn't the case. Dolezal is adopted and she was raised around black people, ever since she was a child. The majority of her siblings were black. Her adopted parents were white but were reportedly abusive, making her separate from them and bond more with her brothers and sisters. In a weird twist, she ended up adopting her own sibling. She married a black man and had a child with him. Arguably, a lot of her identity is wrapped up in her children, which may or may not be fair, but black culture is all she knows at this point. She has truly been assimilated. It feels authentic to her and not like it's just an act.

Rated TV-MA.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 44 mins.

Available on Netflix.


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