To call out acts of racism and prejudice, be they systemic or micro, as a person of color in the so-called post-racial era, is to be accused of “race-baiting” at worst or seeing something that isn’t actually there at best. When a hate crime or an incident of racial profiling goes viral, excuses swiftly follow. Maybe they should’ve complied with the police. There’s been an “egregious display of hatred, bigotry, and violence, on many sides.” Just “buy a cup of coffee!” It’s a pervasive form of gaslighting, in which trolls and public figures alike attempt to manipulate others into believing that their own perceptions of the world are not grounded in reality. And it’s been used to delegitimize the very real proof that racism continues to fester in the United States and has in fact been on the uptick in recent years.
There’s a particularly wicked sense of irony to The Rachel Divide, Laura Brownson’s new documentary following the post-viral life of Rachel Dolezal, debuting on Netflix April 27. In an infamous local news story from 2015, Dolezal—both of whose biological parents are white, although she led people for many years to believe that she is black—was confronted by reporter Jeff Humphrey about a Facebook post in which she called an older black gentleman her “dad.” In the movie, Humphrey says he became interested in Dolezal after she claimed that the Spokane, Washington, chapter of the NAACP, of which she was president at the time, had received racist hate mail. Police records obtained by Humphrey’s team showed that the mail was never processed through the postal service, casting doubts upon her claims. But it’s what Humphrey says about why he became suspicious of Dolezal to begin with, presumably before learning any of this information, that is telling: “Rachel’s complaints that she had been the victim of hate crimes made it appear that racism and the white supremacist movement was making a comeback, and it wasn’t. And because it wasn’t, we felt compelled to out her.” Had Dolezal not been seen as a black woman, would the local news outlet have been so hungry to expose her and “prove” that racism is dead?
Of course, had Dolezal not been presenting herself as a black woman, she probably wouldn’t have been elected president of the Spokane NAACP chapter in the first place and in turn would not have been able to make those dubious claims. But that is the paradox of Dolezal’s existence in the public eye, which is on full, self-absorbed display in The Rachel Divide. She’s helped call attention to some of the thorniest facets of how race plays out in America, by way of cleverly constructed artifice.
Watching The Rachel Divide, it’s easy to see why Dolezal chose to invite such unfettered access into her life, which has been upended by the fallout from the viral story. She’s been applying for jobs in the field of race and cultural studies, but has found no takers. We see her 13-year-old son, Franklin (from her previous marriage to a black man) and her black adopted brother, Izaiah (whom she eventually legally adopted herself), asking her to wait in the car so as not to draw unwanted attention. And her childhood growing up with abusive parents, as she tells it, sounds immensely sad and traumatic, if you believe there to be some truth to it. (I do, if cautiously—her adopted siblings corroborate much of her characterizations, although her parents and her biological brother dispute the claims.) Her goal, it seems, is for the world to see her as a sympathetic pariah struggling to support her family, hopefully opening the door for lucrative career opportunities. “There’s a sense of hopelessness that it’s never gonna be the same,” she laments to a friend. “I’m never gonna be able to be me. I’m never gonna be seen as black … I’m always gonna be seen as the faker.”
Brownson’s documentary achieves a different end, however, eliciting sympathy for the people around her but little for Dolezal herself. We learn that Esther, another of Rachel’s black adopted siblings, has accused their parents’ biological son, Joshua, of sexual abuse, and that Rachel was supposed to testify on her sister’s behalf—Rachel claims that she too was abused by him. But the holes punched in Rachel’s credibility by the negative media attention around her identity made her useless as a witness; her parents told the press that just as she had lied about her background, Rachel was lying about the abuse. A visit to Howard University with Izaiah puts a target on his back after she posts photos on social media and strangers leave nasty comments about his potential for admission. (Dolezal attended Howard as a graduate student and unsuccessfully sued the institution for racial discrimination—against white people.)
Most heartbreaking of all is Franklin, an incredibly perceptive kid, wise and weary beyond his years, who barely tries to hide his deep-seated embarrassment of his mother in front of the cameras. During the shoot, Dolezal is pregnant, and on multiple occasions, he talks about wanting to protect his future sibling from the pain he’s already had to go through. He barely has any friends, and after she gives a particularly unsettling interview to a daytime talk show, he asks to skip school the next day out of fear that other students will tease him. He questions her motivations for making the documentary and writing a book, stating that he “resents” some of the things she’s said in interviews:
She can identify as whatever she wants to be because that’s her business. But when it’s put in the limelight, I don’t think you should be pissing people off more than they already are, unless you want to get bit in the ass from it. And she did not choose her words carefully. And it affected me. It affected my brother. The more I talk to people about it, the more it drains me.
It’s devastating to see so many innocent people torn down by Dolezal’s deceit, and The Rachel Divide benefits immensely by highlighting their voices, including those of some of the NAACP members she worked with. They, as well as others, rightfully point out that while her mission of black empowerment was just, her way of pursuing it was not, and that ended up being severely damaging; she could have done so much more by identifying as a white activist rather than leading people on. (One person says that her public statements were too often wrapped up solely in “hardships” and suggests that she used her black sons as pawns in the movement.)
Yet throughout the documentary, Dolezal refuses to fully reconcile with the fact that she’s tarnished the trust of the very community she’s claimed to feel a part of. “I’m hoping it’s just kind of like a family feud,” she tells a friend. “There’s this misunderstanding between some black people and me, and we’ll come to terms and get over it.” Even when she bemoans that her activism has come to a full stop, she likens it to a sport: “I’m benched from the game right now, and that’s hard because I feel like I could be an asset. Just put me back in the game. I’m ready.” The sadness of The Rachel Divide isn’t that Dolezal can’t just hop back on to the social-activist court and coach black people to victory. It’s how the movie demonstrates the power of the white lie to destroy, however unwittingly, the people of color in its orbit, leaving emotional and political damage in its wake.