In the espionage trade, a ‘burn notice’ is an official denunciation of a human intelligence source known to spread lies and fabrications. Famous recipients of burn notices include Manucher Ghorbanifar, whose manipulations created the Iran-Contra scandal; the infamous Curveball, around whose fictions the Bush administration built the case for invading Iraq; and Ahmed Chalabi, who used false evidence to lobby for an American invasion of Iraq throughout the 1990s. That all three men were reinstated as intelligence sources by neoconservatives working in the Bush administration says a great deal about how America got lured into that strategic quagmire in 2003.
Eastern Washington University professor and Spokane NAACP chapter president Rachel Dolezal came to national attention late last week for her cosmetic transformation into an African American woman. Citing her history of “inventing realities,” Dolezal’s parents and siblings describe her as a person who was so unhappy being herself that she created a whole new biography and coached family members to lie for her. On one level, this story is about the mutability of race: detractors insist that Dolezal has appropriated a minority culture ‘in blackface,’ while supporters wonder why blacks ‘passing for white’ are accepted even though Dolezal’s role-reversal is not. On another level, Dolezal is an example of the long American tradition of self-reinvention which causes otherwise-normal people to quit their careers, take up new hobbies, or pull up stakes all of a sudden and move to Alaska. Whether or not her ‘transracial’ identity is real, the NAACP has white members and officers, and Dolezal has not committed any crime by curling her hair or applying artificial tan to her skin.
But all of this is beside the point, because whatever else she may want to be, Rachel Dolezal appears to be a habitual fabricator. While she is allowed to present herself to the world any way she likes, her apparent history of perpetrating a specific set of hoaxes makes her unfit for leadership of any organization of any kind — and raises serious questions about whether she has the ethical integrity needed to teach college students.
History of fabrication
The most injurious accusation leveled against Dolezal is that she fabricated hate crimes against herself for attention. Indeed, right wing blogs are crowing about this aspect of the story as if it overturns all the real hate crimes that have ever been committed. If this charge is substantiated, then the NAACP needs to expel Dolezal from her leadership position immediately, or convince her to resign, lest her continued presence does incalculable damage to legitimate efforts at reporting and documenting actual, real, not-imaginary hate crimes.
According to KREM-TV, Dolezal has reported being the victim of a hate crime as many as nine times in less than a decade — about once a year — in roughly the same time frame that she has been ‘passing for black.’ In fact, her latest false complaint about a hateful letter supposedly received through the organization’s Post Office box is what led to her being outed.
Postal officials told SPD officers that a letter or package would never be put in a mail box purposefully without those things even if it was hand delivered to the post office. Postal workers said it is possible that the letter could have gotten stuck to another letter and thus missed the scanner and postal marking. But they said the chances of this happening were extremely low.
Staff said the only other way for a unprocessed letter to land in a PO Box would be if it were placed there by someone with a key or a USPS employee was involved.
[…] Representatives from the NAACP said that all mail sent to their PO Box has been automatically forwarded to their new location since it opened in January. But, Dolezal reported receiving the letter at the PO Box after that move.
None of Dolezal’s reports has led to an arrest, and Spokane police have now suspended all investigations of them in a clear sign that they no longer believe any of her stories. When KXLY-TV looked into the details of Dolezal’s hate crime reporting history, they found a total of four incidents, none of which involved an independent witness. They also got this quote from Dolezal:
When asked, since she had a key to the post office box, was it possible she put that envelope in there herself, Dolezal said: “I don’t know if I even have any words for that because, as a mother of two black sons, I would never terrorize my children and I don’t know any mother, personally who would trump up or fabricate anything that severe that would affect her kids.”
Rather than answer the interrogatory with a simple “no,” as normal innocent people might, Dolezal uses motherhood as a shield against the implied accusation of a hoax. But exactly how were her children “terrorized” by a letter they did not read for themselves? Dolezal would be much more credible if she worried about the potential for violence against her adopted black sons, for example, or if she could say that one of them had opened the letter to read it. As things stand, she looks like a liar who has been caught out and wants to dodge questions.
Clearly, Dolezal’s issues with reality run deeper than mere skin. According to Dolezal’s adoptive brother Ezra, she claimed to have been diagnosed with cervical cancer in 2006 — an assertion he no longer believes — and her story about living in South Africa with her parents is completely false. The Spokesman-Review also contacted the man that Dolezal has called her “father” in social media and got this much from him:
Albert Wilkerson Jr., who used to live in North Idaho and volunteered at the Human Rights Education Institute where Dolezal worked, said during a brief phone call Friday that he has “nothing negative to say about Rachel” but was reluctant to get involved in the controversy.
“I don’t want to throw anyone under the bus,” Wilkerson said. Asked about social media postings in which Dolezal identifies him as her father, Wilkerson replied: “You know the answer to that, and that’s all I’m going to say,” then hung up.
If not for these alleged false law enforcement reports, Dolezal would still be unknown to us and her ethnic ‘transition’ would be fairly unremarkable. Taken as a whole, however, they paint an unflattering portrait of a person whose understandable insecurity, and craving for legitimacy within a community, led her to invent threats against herself: See? I really am black, and you know its true because these white racists are attacking me. Dolezal’s alleged behavior reminds me of Munchausen Syndrome, a rare psychological condition wherein patients lie, fake symptoms, alter medical tests, and even hurt themselves in order to fabricate a medical drama so they can remain at the center of everyone’s attention.
I will leave it to mental health professionals to draw any lines of distinction between illness and ill-usage, however, as Dolezal seems rational even in the depths of denial. And as in the case of Ashley Todd, the McCain campaign volunteer who fabricated an assault by a black Obama supporter in 2008, Dolezal may be held legally liable even if she does suffer from mental health issues.
Dolezal and the NAACP were both set to speak about all of this tomorrow evening with an emphasis on her “legitimacy,” but she has postponed her public statement “to continue discussion with regional and national NAACP leaders.” This is an encouraging sign that the organization recognizes the potential damage that Dolezal can do to the cause of civil rights, and that people within the NAACP are asking the right questions about her past hate crime reports. As I stated above, should these accusations of fabrication have any merit at all, it is vital that the organization suspend or force out Dolezal post-haste — not because she was born ‘white,’ but because of her clear moral turpitude in making false claims of harassment.
The same goes for Eastern Washington University. Dolezal’s bio on the school website claims “at least eight documented hate crimes targeted Dolezal and her children during her residency in North Idaho,” suggesting that this pattern of deception has crept into her teaching. In fact, her ‘transition’ may very well have been spurred by a desire to better represent African American study topics to her students. But even that motivation does not excuse her violation of academic integrity — a transgression that is at least the equal of the one perpetrated by fake Vietnam veteran Joseph J. Ellis, a professor who was famously suspended from his position at Mount Holyoke for a year in 2001.
”Perpetuated over many years, his lie about himself clearly violates the ethics of our profession and the integrity we expect of all members of our community,” Ms. Creighton, a scholar of American literature, said in a statement posted yesterday on the college’s Web site. ”Misleading students is wrong and nothing can excuse it.”’
Indeed. [See Update #2 below]
A disambiguation is in order. First, Rachel Dolezal did not receive any academic, professional, or personal advancement for ‘being black’ as far as anyone can establish, and she didn’t lie on her college applications. This is strictly a story about a person who strongly identified with a tribe, and who immersed herself in that tribe, but who also appears to have engaged in a hoax to win the affections of that tribe. Only the last part of that is immoral or harmful to anyone.
So I firmly support Rachel Dolezal’s right to be herself, whatever her favorite self is, as long as she’s honest.
Rather than pour fuel on the flames, Rachel Dolezal resigned today, saying: “In the eye of this current storm, I can see that a separation of family and organizational outcomes is in the best interest of the NAACP.” That’s a good thing, in my opinion, but the full story is still coming out anyway. For instance, we now know that Dolezal sued Howard University for denial of employment and discrimination in 2002, the year that she graduated with her MFA.
Dolezal, then known as Rachel Moore, named the university and Professor Alfred Smith as defendants in a lawsuit filed in Washington, D.C.’s Superior Court. During the pendency of the civil case, Smith was chairman of Howard’s Department of Art.
According to a Court of Appeals opinion, Dolezal’s lawsuit “claimed discrimination based on race, pregnancy, family responsibilities and gender.” She alleged that Smith and other school officials improperly blocked her appointment to a teaching assistant post, rejected her application for a post-graduate instructorship, and denied her scholarship aid while she was a student.
The court opinion also noted that Dolezal claimed that the university’s decision to remove some of her artworks from a February 2001 student exhibition was “motivated by a discriminatory purpose to favor African-American students over” her.
As detailed in the court opinion, Dolezal’s lawsuit contended that Howard was “permeated with discriminatory intimidation, ridicule, and insult.”
The case was later dismissed, with the dismissal upheld on appeal. I find the removal of her artwork from the show very interesting, as we already have evidence that she has claimed copyright of what appears to be a copy of another artist’s work. Was the Howard University Art Department’s “discriminatory purpose” really a matter of race, or was it about a lack of artistic integrity?