Rachel Dolezal is an American woman who became infamous in June of 2015 over the discovery that she was not, as claimed, African-American. Since the initial controversy, Rachel Dolezal has claimed to be transracial, admitting that she was born to white parents, but saying that her experience and self-perception has made her African-American. This line of reasoning has been greeted with mockery, including from the African-American community.
Rachel Dolezal was living in Spokane, Washington and was working as a Black Studies instructor at Eastern Washington University and was volunteering as the head of the local NAACP, and was in general active in the African-American community. Apparently, she was part of a voluntary ombudsman committee for the Spokane police department, and friction with the police chief and mayor led them to investigate her purported background. Over the course of several days, several people, notably her parents, came forward to debate her claims of being of African descent.
Rachel Dolezal was born in Northwest Montana in 1977, and was raised in a fundamentalist Christian household. Although her claims that she was raised in a teepee, and that she hunted for food with bow and arrow might have been exaggerated, her parents have admitted that they lived in a teepee for a short time. The section of Montana she came from was, even by Montana standards, isolated. Her parents fundamentalism also seems to have isolated her further, as she was homeschooled. Her first experience with African culture presumably would have came when her parents adopted three African-American children and a Haitian child. She went to college at Belhaven College in Mississippi, and later attended Howard University, a Historically Black College & University, in Atlanta, Georgia. Although she was not yet claiming to have be racially black, she was apparently adopting more "black mannerisms" at this time. Sometime after her return to the Northwest, she begin to claim to be of African descent. She also reported a series of hate crimes against her, all of which had no other witnesses and a lack of evidence. When the interviews with her parents first appeared, different facts about her past life came to light, and she stopped trying to factually dispute them, instead claiming that she was, despite her parentage, essentially black. She maintains this story to this day, and has changed her name to "Nkechi Amare Diallo", and written a book describing her life and identity as a black woman.
The factual details of Dolezal's life, while somewhat hard to follow, have been widely reported in the media. But the question of "why" is harder to answer. One of Dolezal's main arguments is that race is a social construct, and that her experience and feelings make more of a difference to who she is than simple biology. I actually agree with this in general, but one of the problems with Dolezal's story is that it is self-serving and histrionic. Most of her claims seem copied from a list of bad fanfiction cliches: being raised in a teepee and hunting with a bow and arrow, being the subject of terrible abuse, and being adopted by a common family when her real parents were much more exotic: all of it shows a desire to be different and special. Which are of course fine things to want, but the problem is she constructed the identity with seemingly no regard for African-American people, they became just another costume to put on to help define her identity. There are plenty of people who are "transracial", or who elude the United States' arbitrary system of racial classification. I live in South America, and I meet many people who in the United States would be considered of African or Native American descent, but don't identify as being part of those categories. But that does not fit Dolezal's story. Without knowing too much of her true feelings, it seems that in many ways her attitude towards identity reflects the epitome of the post-war suburban mindset: people are isolated individuals, and everything is a product to be selected at will, including entire communities.
I sympathize with Dolezal. Her early life was defined by being isolated, and when she viewed "white people" as they were portrayed in the media, and as she encountered them in her daily life, they probably seemed quite alien to her. This experience isn't unique to her, of course: in fact, being raised by separatist parents in the extreme wild of the Pacific Northwest, resembles the life stories of humorists Allie Brosh and Sean Reiley, (and to a lesser extent, my own). That "white America" is a myth, and its cliches don't really fit the lived experiences of many people, is a true thing, and something that needs to be dealt with. And while we can't know for sure, it seems likely that Dolezal did face mental and physical abuse as a child. All of these would be reasons why someone might question the culture they "belong to". But Dolezal's answer is disingenuous: while she argues that race is a construct, she has picked a single racial identity, in a fairly stereotypes form, and used it as a solution to the problem of racial and cultural identity. When faced with the false, fractured and artificial world of American cultural and racial identity, rather than trying to transcend the problem, she just typed in a cheat code and run with it. And the negative response from nearly everyone, including her own chosen community, shows that there are no short-cuts around America's problems with race and identity.