By Twanna F.
Race is complex, and depends more on various perspectives rather than how we personally identify ourselves. The documentary, “The Rachel Divide”, highlights Rachel Dolezal’s struggle with racial identity. Rachel self-identifies as black, although she was born to white parents. Laura Brownson, the director, does a great job of telling the story objectively. She provides insight from those closest to Rachel as well as those who are openly against her, leaving it up to the audience to form their own opinions.
achel Dolezal’s story didn’t pique my interest at first. I must admit, I had my own assumptions about who, and why, she was that deterred me from giving the documentary a chance. Laura Brownson, initially, showed me everything I imagined I would see, but as the story gets deeper a slight sense of sympathy, or at least curiosity, can be felt. Rachel Dolezal was raised by her white parents, who also adopted four black children. Her strong relationships with her adoptive siblings were made stronger by the feeling of alienation from her family. Pairing this with childhood trauma allowed for a strain on her sense of identity, her sense of belonging. Unsure of who she should be, she eventually latched onto the identity of a black female. Rachel Dolezal consistently says, “I feel Black.” This is because her interests and experiences, as well as her close relationships with black people, including her sons, formed a conglomerate of blackness in her mind. I believe for many people, especially black people, this story is a hard one to watch and apart of us doesn’t want to know the story behind Rachel. We’ve made a villain out of Rachel, due to us feeling victimized, but once new information is brought forward we are forced to feel understanding. With understanding Rachel becomes less accountable for our pain and so we are left with the question, who is to blame for all this? The answer has become less clear. Brownson forces us to answer that question with the entirety of the story in mind.
ontext is necessary when telling any story. Without context it is easier to make assumptions because our mind begins to fill in the gaps with our personal beliefs and pre-conceived notions. It is likely that many viewers will still make a few assumptions while watching the film, but Brownson makes a great effort to give us a full-bodied story with her use of contextual support.
or instance, Laura Brownson shows us what it’s like to reap the misfortune of associating with Rachel. Her biological son, Franklin, for instance, struggles to maintain a normal social life. When speaking to her after she’s finished a heated interview he says, “I didn’t ask for this.” She replies, “None of us did.” He then replies, “You did. I didn’t. You did.” The frustration he has is obvious as we can see he loves his mother with all his heart but resents the choices she’s made. Her adoptive sister, Esther, is an even better example in that her sexual abuse claim against Rachel’s older brother was dismissed after the race scandal. Rachel was supposed to testify against her brother in court. However, once her parents revealed to the media that Rachel was actually born white all of her credibility was tarnished. Through Esther’s eyes we see someone who’s had their justice taken away due to the media invading their personal lives. It adds an element of sympathy, if not for Rachel, definitely for Esther. Without the perspective of a loved one, it’s easy to see Rachel as a villain but this peek into her home life humanizes her in a way that the media has not allowed. On the other hand, Kitara Johnson (NAACP member), represents the point of view of the black community in America. She voices her concerns with Rachel’s credibility and her unwillingness to understand the pain she has caused with her privilege. She also notes the effect it has had on the credibility of the NAACP. Brownson is careful to incorporate opposite perspectives to create a balanced story.
Although short lived, Laura Brownson makes the audience sympathize with Rachel as we are exposed to many of the circumstances that led to her change in identity. With this sympathy comes confusion that is best explained by the Rorschach symbol. The symbolism of the Rorschach test assists in tackling the need to place blame on her. Rachel is compared to the test because of her ability to come off as villain, victim or misled hero depending on perspective. And if this were a different world, her circumstances would have justified her behavior, but when you take a step back and remember that the context is America its difficult to say that she shouldn’t be held accountable. Her logic is flawed, after all. She preaches, “Race is a social construct” as a justification for her choices when that fact can actually be held against her. Because race is a social made construct, the larger society makes the rules. Race has little to do with how we identify ourselves and everything to do with how society identifies us. Thus, why it triggers black people to see a white woman do what they never could, to wear blackness as a loose-fitting outfit rather than a shackle. All in all, I feel Rachel is just ahead of her time. She is one of the first, but she most certainly won’t be the last. America, with all of our racial tension and trauma, just isn’t ready for the laws of race to be distorted.