The saga of Rachel Dolezal — the former NAACP official who still insists "I identify as black," despite her parents' assertions that she's white — has fueled debates about the very nature of racial identity, and about the mindset that inspired her practically unheard-of brand of deception.
The story, about a person who many critics would argue doesn't deserve a spotlight, continues because, well, we desperately want answers.
With a media tour that started with the Today show on Tuesday morning, Dolezal is opening up — sort of. She's doubled down on the idea that she identifies as black, and revealed that this all started when she was 5 years old and chose brown crayons for her self-portraits, but she hasn't been pressed much on the why or the when, let alone the explain how this is okay.
Fusion's Latoya Peterson put together a list of questions that she wishes Matt Lauer would have asked Dolezal, including an especially important set that gets to the core of the entire debate: "What is the essence of blackness? How do you define it? And what is the essence of whiteness? How do you define it?" (Less urgent but equally intriguing, Peterson asks, "How did you fake the shrinkage photo?" — in other words, "Please explain your hair.") She wasn't the only one with outstanding queries: All Digitogracy rounded up the responses of Twitter users who found the exchange unsatisfying.
Like Peterson and many other viewers, I'd love to see Dolezal challenged to explain her own choices in a way that makes more sense than Americans' attempts to explain them to each other.
So I have my own set of questions. They're not meant to antagonize or embarrass Dolezal, but just to figure out, for curiosity's sake, what exactly she was thinking, and where — if anywhere — she comes out on the bigger-than-Rachel questions that her story has been forcing the country to grapple with.
Questions for Rachel Dolezal
1) Is there any distinction in your mind between being black and feeling a connection to black people and culture? If so, describe. If not, explain how these things are synonymous.
2) You said in your Today show interview that you were drawing self-portraits with a brown crayon as a child. But as a graduate student at Howard University, you must have perceived of yourself as white, given that you sued the school for racial discrimination, based on this identity. At exactly what moment did you begin to think of yourself as someone who was black versus someone who related to or felt connected to black people? Or did you simply take a hiatus from being black in order to file the lawsuit?
3) You've also said that newspapers began identifying you as biracial without your prompting. Was this a time when you still self-identified as a white person but allowed or encouraged people to identify you as a black person? Why did this seem like the right choice to you?
4) At what points were you less than fully honest about your heritage and your transition from a child who was seen as white to an adult who presented herself as black? If you truly believe your path to identifying publicly as black was legitimate — which you seem to — why weren't you always transparent about it?
5) Is it your position that anyone born to parents who identify as white can decide to be black, for any reason? Are there any criteria aside from a person's declaration of his or her feelings?
6) About your black brother, who is in your custody, you said you "certainly can't be seen as white and be Isaiah's mom." Should all parents of black adopted children and all parents of children with one black parent identify as black, according to your worldview?
7) What would you say, for example, to Donald Trump if he announced today that he was black? What would you say to a white supremacist who decided today that he was black? Are there any objective measures that determine who should and should not adopt a black identity and who we will and will not take seriously if they do so? Who should get to make this assessment? If a person is identified as white at birth but now calls himself or herself black, what criteria do you suggest people use to determine whether to take that decision seriously?
8) Should a person born to parents who identify as black be able to decide to be white? How do you feel about the fact that the physical changes you made to convince the public to go along with your decision might be impossible for a person who was born to black parents and identified as black at birth but wanted to be white? As a person who's concerned with equality and racial justice, what do you make of the idea that asserting a racial identity different from the one assigned at birth is much easier for people who start off white? Does that strike you as fair?
9) If you truly believe you were the victim of racially motivated hate crimes, did you gain any comfort from the fact that you could avoid future incidents by reclaiming a white identity? How do you think you experienced hate and discrimination differently than those who didn't have an option about whether they were perceived as black?
10) You've spoken at length about the racial justice issues you care about. Do you feel you missed an opportunity or avoided a moral responsibility to work as a white person, with white people, to address these issues?
11) Has widespread criticism from within the black community (that your choice to identify as black was misguided at best and deeply offensive at worst) made you question any of your decisions?
12) ... Or is it that you believe you understand something about black identity that most people who have been identified as black since birth do not? If so, please explain. Thoroughly.