RACHEL DOLEZAL, AMERICA'S NEWEST "VICTIM"
By Heather Wilhelm (with permission of the author)
One of the notable things about taking a vacation—and taking a week off from the news—is that when you return, the world can seem even nuttier than when you left. One of the greatest ironies of free market capitalism, meanwhile, is that it creates such a mind-boggling level of prosperity that its beneficiaries are often then free to invent and agonize over bizarre and dubious problems that otherwise would not exist.
So it is that we have Rachel Dolezal, a new media Venus who last week emerged, in coy Botticelli style, from the tumbling, foamy mists of Spokane, Wash. Dolezal, of course, is the now-infamous white woman who resolutely identifies as black, falsely claimed an African-American father, and who until recently headed the Spokane chapter of the NAACP. According to the latest accounts, Dolezal also once appeared in a dodgy homemade sex tape, because this is America, and if you’re not a poor man’s Kardashian by now, my friend, you will soon be.
If you peruse the exhaustive press coverage since Dolezal was “outed,” you’ll enjoy various stuffy and serious-faced speculations on the social constructs surrounding race, the complex intersections of biology and modern identity, the similarities between Dolezal’s “transracial” experiment and Caitlyn Jenner’s transgender gambit, and the insistence that any comparison between the two is so offensive that we might all suddenly implode like a box of half-baked Chinese fireworks naively purchased from a backwoods Indiana roadside shed. It is, to put it mildly, a lot to digest. It’s almost like auditing a class at Oberlin, but without the half-hearted drum circles, pilfered Xanax, and crippling piles of denial and student loan debt.
This is all fine and good—because again, this is America, and we’ve been bonkers for a solid while now—but when it comes down to it, the key takeaway of the Rachel Dolezal saga might be a whole lot simpler than many want to admit: Her story, deep down, doesn’t center on race. Dolezal wanted, first and foremost, to be a victim, and as such, she serves as an almost-perfect emblem of America’s growing “poor me” cult.
Of all of Dolezal’s fabrications—the dramatic teepee birth, the South African childhood, the bow-and-arrow subsistence hunting, the adopted brother who became her “son”—the most consistent thread centers on her alleged victimization. Her parents, she claimed, beat her with a South African baboon whip: “They were pretty similar to what was used as whips during slavery.” She claimed to be the victim of eight “documented hate crimes,” enacted by crazed white supremacists, in Idaho alone; but no documentation exists.
While in Spokane, Dolezal received mysterious racist “hate mail” at the NAACP, inspiring a heartwarming rally of nearly 200 supporters. Police later noted the package must have been placed by someone internal with a mailbox key, making this the most questionable hate crime since tacky 1980s sensation Morton Downey Jr. erroneously painted a backwards swastika on his face— to demonstrate that “skinheads” had attacked him -- using an airport bathroom mirror.
The coup de grace, it should be noted, came years before this unfortunate, ramshackle variety show hit the road: In 2002, as a then-white undergraduate at Howard University, Dolezal sued the school for, you guessed it, racial discrimination. If you’re dedicated enough, victimhood is shockingly easy to find—and in Dolezal’s case, it’s also completely colorblind.
Today, the concept of victimhood is so powerful that it often morphs into a cudgel. It’s now routine to read news of male college students suing their alma maters after being sanctioned for spurious rape charges. (This week’s comes from Amherst, where a student was expelled despite his “victim’s” text messages claiming full responsibility for the incident.)
Meanwhile, a new staff manual for schools affiliated with the University of California, displays a lengthy list of frowned-upon “micro-aggressions,” including calling America “the land of opportunity.” (This, we are told, victimizes students with the “myth of meritocracy.”)
The victimhood cult seeps into our culture in quieter ways as well: earlier this year, documentary director Jennifer Siebel Newsom released “The Mask You Live In,” a film centered on the conceit that, among other things, we’re victimizing young boys by telling them to “be a man.”
Really? No offense, but if Teddy Roosevelt were brought back from the dead and invited to a showing, he’d probably shoot a hole through the screen, dismantle the projector with one bare hand, and then, just for fun, head out back to tame a wild, rabid boar, all while wearing a belt made of live piranhas that he found on his last deadly outing to the Amazon.
In short, it would be amazing. Alas, we live in a different day and age, one where heroism is marked by how many micro-aggressions one can dodge on the way to Starbucks, and where one Ms. Rachel Dolezal is reportedly entertaining offers for a reality show.
That last part’s true, by the way. Victimhood, even when it’s faux, can pay!
[This commentary was originally published on “REALCLEARPOLITICS.COM” (http://www.realclearpolitics.com/)
Heather Wilhelm is a writer based in Austin,Texas. Her work can be found at