Rachel Dolezal's confirmation Tuesday that she doesn't see herself as a white person, despite the now-undisputable fact that she was born to white parents, has touched off a wide-ranging series of reactions from the public, who have undoubtedly found this latest episode of the country's continuing dialogue about race intriguing, to say the least. But perhaps the loudest responses to what appears to be a white woman having masqueraded as a black woman for the better part of a decade is coming from black people themselves, with reactions ranging from anger to confusion to support, and everything in between.
"I identify as black," Dolezal confidently told Matt Lauer Tuesday morning during an interview on NBC's "Today" show, echoing her previous claims that were widely reported after she was outed last week as a white woman who was leading her local NAACP chapter in Spokane, Washington.
Dolezal, 37, has highlighted her career in art and academics by becoming an activist for black people and related causes, and she was elected as NAACP president in Spokane. But for some prominent black voices in America, her role within the organization -- regardless of her triumphs -- was either admirable or duplicitous, depending on who you ask.
"Assuming again that her intentions were noble, is there a better way for Ms. Dolezal to have advocated for the rights of marginalized fellow citizens without fronting as somebody she’s not?" asked the outspoken activist, author and broadcaster Tavis Smiley in an opinion piece published in Time on Saturday. Taking it one step further, Smiley, keeping in mind the historical context of black people in America, wondered again: "When God was passing out colors, who raised their hand for a life of social disenfranchisement, political marginalization, economic exploitation and cultural larceny?"
Smiley's nuanced response was tempered and measured compared to what others had to say. Like Dr. Steve Perry, a biracial educator who rose to renown as founder and principal of a highly successful magnet school for low-income, minority students in Hartford, Connecticut. Perry, also a regular contributor to CNN and MSNBC, has a white mother and a black father, and took umbrage with Dolezal for her insistence that she's identified with black people from the age of 5 but then decades later turned around and sued a historically black college for discrimination because she was white.
"As someone who grew up having to CONSTANTLY declare my race bc my mother is White I resent #RachelDolezal cartoonish approach. Str8 fraud," Perry tweeted Tuesday shortly after the "Today" interview aired. Perry encouraged Dolezal through his tweets to allow herself to be interviewed on black media to "Answer why you consciously deceived your friends, colleagues & community."
— Dr. Steve Perry (@DrStevePerry) June 16, 2015
At least one black broadcaster and commentator was apparently left confused by the Dolezal disclosure. “Is it possible that she might actually be black?” Melissa Harris-Perry wondered aloud Saturday on her eponymous MSNBC show, according to the Root.
But it was Dolezal's legacy that led Al Sharpton to, for the most part, stick up for the disgraced civil rights activist, who resigned Monday from her position in the NAACP. “On one level, you’ve got to say to her, ‘you’re misleading us’, but another level, mom and dad, come on,” said Sharpton in reference to Dolezal's parents, who have spoken to the media on multiple occasions to discredit their daughter, Mediaite reported. “Are we gonna have this dysfunctional family stuff play out and distract us from key civil rights causes?"
Sharpton was not alone in weighing Dolezal's identity issues against the work she has done on behalf of black people in America. "Despite all this, you can’t deny that Dolezal has proven herself a fierce and unrelenting champion for African-Americans politically and culturally," basketball icon Kareem Abdul-Jabbar wrote Monday in Time. "Perhaps some of this sensitivity comes from her adoptive black siblings. Whatever the reason, she has been fighting the fight for several years and seemingly doing a first-rate job."
On the other hand, it is very possible and understandable for a person of one race to call themselves a member of another race, said Michael Eric Dyson, a sociology professor at Georgetown University who has published a number of books on racial issues in America. "Bill Clinton is the 'first black president,' though he didn't claim he was black," Dyson said Monday on MSNBC's "The Ed Show" before expounding on the metaphor. "It means that she may not be African-American, but she certainly could be black in a cultural sense. She's taking on the ideas, the identities, the struggles. She’s identified with them. I bet a lot more black people would support Rachel Dolezal than would support, say, Clarence Thomas."
Despite all the accolades that could be heaped upon Dolezal for her work to help black people, there were still plenty of negative comments being tossed around. Black people seem to be caught up in the idea of Dolezal's work on their behalf and for the NAACP, but what many are overlooking is that "she's a pathological liar," according to Roland Martin, the host of News One Now and former pundit for CNN who spoke Tuesday on Fox News Radio. "I think she's nuts, I think she's crazy."
Dolezal's apparent yearslong charade is nothing but a scene out of the movie "Soul Man," rapper and activist Talib Kweli said Tuesday to Rolling Stone. Kweli, who equated Dolezal's plight to the 1986 comedy about a white teen who was rejected by Harvard University before resorting to eating tanning pills so he could be accepted as a black student with the help of a scholarship for minority students.
"She's said she identifies as black. Cool story, but that's not a real thing – because at any time, she could go back," Kweli wrote. "That is a privilege that people of color do not have. You cannot just jump back and forth between those worlds. It's very disrespectful to the people of color that she claims to identify with to say something like that. When you say something like that, you are not identifying with us, at all, in any way, shape, or form."
Still, perhaps the only response that really matters -- at least to Dolezal -- came last Friday from the NAACP, which rejected the idea that the still-unfolding episode has anything to do with race at all. "One’s racial identity is not a qualifying criteria or disqualifying standard for NAACP leadership. The NAACP Alaska-Oregon-Washington State Conference stands behind Ms. Dolezal’s advocacy record."