Thursday, June 18, 2015

Rachel Dolezal: Do We Care?

And if we do, why should we?

Unless you’ve been roaming the wilderness or chose to be completely unplugged recently, you’re no doubt aware of the Rachel Dolezal story, the Spokane chapter president of the NAACP who was recently outed by a reporter who discovered that she’s actually white, and not African American (or even Native American) as she’s presented herself.

Should we care that she’s chosen to identify with a race or ethnic group into which she wasn’t born? Not really. Not on the face of it, we shouldn’t. After all, we’re all free to support a mission, advocate for and even identify with any group we choose. That’s part of the beauty of being who we are, Americans and human beings. We can do that here. And many of us do just that. As reasonably intelligent adults, we don’t have to necessarily be of a group to understand that group and to support and advocate for that group. Certainly, the NAACP doesn’t care that she’s not African American. It has other non-African American chapter leaders across the country that do a fine job in their roles.

But that’s not what this is all about, is it? It’s really about the fact that she lied. It’s about integrity; it’s about misrepresentation; deceit. That’s why we should care. As HR pros, we view lapses in honesty and integrity quite seriously. Even one lapse can be a red flag. What else has this person been less than truthful about?

"This is not about race," said Kitara Johnson, a member of the Spokane chapter of the NAACP and organizer of the petition to remove Dolezal. "This is about integrity."


Ms. Dolezal went to some pretty serious extremes to create her chosen persona, and then to hide her origins. Take a read of the article linked above. It’s a pretty astonishing story.  And it seems more astonishing each day since....

If there’s one question that I think all of us legitimately have, it’s why? Why did she lie? Why did she build this fabrication? She didn’t need to in order to be successful. By all accounts she did a bang-up job as the Spokane chapter president. Her efforts made a success of the chapter and got it recognition and reputation it didn’t have prior to her leadership, in a very short period of time. Did she think she couldn’t do that if she wasn’t black? Her efforts and abilities are not tied to her race. If she really thought so, doesn’t it negate what we’ve all been working for – to recognize that the color of our skin shouldn’t and doesn’t matter?

Integrity. She began working as a part-time professor in the Africana studies program at Eastern Washington University in 2010 but a spokesman has now said that she is no longer employed by the university. She taught a class, using her "personal experiences" as a black woman. Many of her students are now questioning the value of her teaching in light of her deception. And I imagine the university did that as well before it didn’t renew her contract this week.

So, the answer is no, we shouldn’t care that she identifies with and advocates for a group into which she wasn’t born. But yes, we should care that she built all this around a lie – a very elaborate lie, a serious misrepresentation of facts that now calls into question much of what she has accomplished. That’s a terrible shame. We may never know what she felt she gained by this deception. But she now knows what she lost. 

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