The Psychology of Rachel Dolezal's Changing Identity
A lot has been written recently about Rachel Dolezal, the activist who ‘passed’ as black when in fact she was white by birth and until she resigned was president of a local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People. Her naturally straight light brown hair was permed and her skinned darkened to disguise her ethnicity.
In America’s long history of racial discrimination it was not uncommon for pale skinned black people of mixed race to ‘pass’ as white. It was understandable given how much of a disadvangage it was and still can be to be black. However, living a lie is never easy and people find it very difficult to understand why anyone who is white would want to pass for black. What is the gain from this action? Clearly there were personal reasons why she made this choice but I would argue that choosing to live a lie is an act of distress rather than a positive choice. It does not speak of someone who is happy in their skin.
Whilst it is very unusual to have a white person pass themselves off as black, it is not so unusual for people to claim a victim status that is a fabrication. Frank Furedi in his book ‘Therapy Culture’ believes that our culture provides a strong incentive for people to present themselves as victims in order to evoke compassion and interest.
Feeling oneself a victim is most definitely not the same as being a victim.
Binjamin Wilkormirski famously wrote a book ‘Memories of a Wartime Childhood’ describing his life as a small boy in a concentration camp. It was widely acclaimed as deeply moving. The only problem was that Binjamin Wilkormirski had not spent his early years in a concentration camp, nor was he Jewish. He clearly needed to present himself as a suffering man with a terrible history but feeling oneself a victim is most definitely not the same as being a victim.
It is also not uncommon for people to claim they have a serious illness in order to evoke sympathy. One client who was very depressed and lonely told me that if she had cancer then people would be understanding and she would get support. She would be seen as a brave woman who fought her illness. As it was she felt like an outsider who didn’t belong. In fact the truth is that many people suffer depression and feel very alone; ironically is was through social media she found a very active support group.
The distaste that people feel when they discover such lies is understandable. For people who have been genuinely victimised it can feel very wrong that someone should claim that they are in a similar situation when they are not. No matter how much you identify with their suffering, the person who is white as in the recent case of Rachel Dolezal, always has a choice not to be black. Likewise being seriously ill or holocaust survivor is never an act of choice.
Yet some have argued that social media encourages us all to promote a fantasy image of ourselves, a false self. India Sturgis wrote an very interesting article in the Telegraph about this.
People have always felt pressure to be good looking, successful and popular but through social media we can now create and ‘star’ in our own productions. A young client of mine, following the break-up of a relationship made sure that all the photos she posted showed her having fun, looking as if she wasn’t broken-hearted. The message to her ex boyfriend was clear and a lie: ‘I’m feeling fine without you’.
If there is a link between outright lies and misleading self-promotion it is in the need to be other than oneself.
If there is a link between outright lies and misleading self-promotion it is in the need to be other than oneself. At bottom there is a feeling that being oneself isn’t good enough. You have to be somebody else to be admired, or loved or understood. It is perhaps the main reason why people seek therapy. Yet admitting one’s vulnerability makes us human and is a strength.
Spinning an image doesn’t nurture us, it just makes us feel fraudulent. The ability to like oneself and feel good in ones own skin is a precious gift and we need to understand that there is more possibility for understanding and acceptance than we realise.