Race is not an easy topic to write about for reporters. Add deceit, the reputation and integrity of the NAACP and the question of what does it mean to be black or white, and the story becomes even more slippery. Enter the stranger than fiction story of Rachel Dolezal, the president of the Spokane chapter of the NAACP, who is purportedly white but has passed herself off as black, and then all hell breaks loose. Now, the topic of being “transracial” is right up there with transgender.
Compare the Dolezal story with the horrific slaughter of nine church members at a historic black church in Charleston, and her story seems incredibly trivial. The Dolezal story has turned into fodder for Twitter and material for comedians. However, it’s the media examination of itself and of race that has continued to develop. It’s a fascinating case study in how the media covers race and how society discusses it. NPR has used the story to focus on the topic of race with its listeners.
Many of us will never have to deal with the crisis communications that the NAACP is going through. The topic provides a close up look at how media covers a unique – albeit odd – story, where a woman has reportedly lied for years about her race and an organization now trying desperately to save its reputation.
We have seen the ebbs and flow of the story as it has developed across several news cycles. Now, we’re at the point where reporters are reflecting on how they allowed themselves to be duped despite warning signs ranging from growing up in a teepee and hunting with bows and arrows to the seemingly large number of racist attacks against Dolezal.
Reporter Shawn Vestal of the Spokesman Review, the hometown paper of Dolezal, asks:
“So it is not an idle question for those of us who helped move the story along while waving away the smoke: While Dolezal was “passing,” did too many of us give her a pass?”
For others, it was definitely a laugh moment. Jezebel’s Kara Brown focused on how Dolezal nailed the hair:
“Look, I can be mad at Rachel Dolezal about a lot of things, but I can’t be mad about her hair game. Rachel, girl, YOU DID THAT.”
But for New York Times commentator Charles M. Blow, Dolezal’s story was an affront.
“Dolezal’s performance of blackness may have been born of affinity, but it was based on a lie — one she has never sufficiently recanted — and her feeble attempts to use professorial language and faux-intellectual obfuscations only add insult to the cultural injury.”
Now, we see another race related story develop with the murders in South Carolina. While Dolezal pushed us to talk about race, the shootings are moving us to see how one group of people has endured.