This Is Why We Don't Talk About Her Anymore
Behind the Book: That time I interviewed that white woman in Spokane
Today marks five years since the editors at The Stranger hit “publish” on one of my riskiest and most impactful pieces to date - my interview with Rachel Dolezal.
When I realized that the five year anniversary was coming up and started mentioning it, the response from most people was, “wow, it’s been five years already?” Whereas I’m all, “Oh wow, only five years? It feels like a whole lifetime ago.” So much about my life has changed in the five years since that sometimes I actually forget that I ever wrote this piece - or maybe sometimes I just want to forget.
When I heard voicemail on my phone from Charles Mudede I just knew. “Ijeoma, I have a fabulous idea,” he said excitedly in his light Zimbabwean accent, “Call me back.” I looked at my phone that day, sometime in March 2017, and said:
“Oh this asshole is going to try to make me interview Rachel Dolezal.”
I was convinced that I was going to say no. Why? Fuck her and fuck every bit of white media that had kept her thieving white self in the spotlight for so long, that’s why.
But Charles is still the best essay editor I’ve ever worked with, to this day. I mean, he is more likely to make your spelling and grammar worse rather than better, and I’m pretty sure he has no idea how human beings actually talk to each other because he’s a very weird dude - but this man has vision. Like….vision. Charles Mudede is a filmmaker at heart (and practice: I have actually acted in one of his films), and his vision for what writers can accomplish is beautiful and illustrative like a masterpiece painting.
When Charles turned his eye to me and my writing, he saw more in me than I had thought I was capable with. And as a Black man, he was able to see my perspective more quickly and easily than non-Black editors were able to. Some of the very best of my early writing was done with Charles, who would always catch the spark of an idea in my brain and gently fan it into a roaring flame. He trusted my writing instincts, and in doing so, taught me to trust them as well.
So when I sat down to coffee with Charles and he looked me in the eyes and told me that I could do this - that I could write the piece that was going to set this entire conversation that had been so damaging to Black women back on track - I believed him. I said yes.
He handed me a copy of her autobiography (still to this day the worst book I’ve ever read), and I quickly stashed it in my bag, lest anybody recognize me with it in the coffee shop.
As I prepared for the interview in the coming weeks, my confidence waned. I did not mistrust my ability per se, but these pieces are tricky for even the best writers.
In a world where “all publicity is good publicity” there is a thin line between “raising awareness about a harmful thing”, and “giving a harmful thing more attention and, therefore, legitimacy.” We are in a world and a time where twenty-something white supremacists are given feature interviews so we can figure out what makes them so hateful, while their victims remain unheard and un-humanized. We are in a time where despicable people have been able to ride on the fascination and tolerance of white media for, well, any absurd thing that white people want to do, to political and social power. It literally got a President elected. When we look back on these years, and what went so very wrong, there will be a lot of media held to account for how much their “curiosity” and “concern” strengthened and validated violent white supremacy and patriarchy with their coverage. I mean, they'll be held to account if media still exists in the future, and the right people still exist to be able to hold them to account, and they have the power to….ok, fine, they’ll likely never be held to account, but they should.
The conversation around Dolezal had been harmful. It turned what would have otherwise been a curiosity for a small town to deal with - a town so white that they couldn’t tell that the head of their local NAACP chapter wasn’t really a Black woman but actually just a white woman with box braids and a fake tan - into an international media craze.
Actual Black women were erased from this story on Black womanhood. Our stories - our pain and fear, joy and triumph- were replaced by the story of how whiteness decided that even this, our identity as Black women, belonged to them. It hurt. And when I was getting ready for this interview, it was still hurting.
No matter how many fantasies I had about falling ill or breaking my leg so that I would have a good excuse to not do the interview, I ended up flying to Spokane to spend a very unpleasant day with Dolezal. When it was all over, I called Charles to dump out all my first impressions, sent him the audio recordings of the interview, had a brief conversation with my partner (who wasn’t actually my partner at the time, just a friend I had a huge crush on who happened to call) and then fell asleep for about 12 hours.
My first draft of the piece was about 15,000 words. There was so much in the recordings and in my brain that I didn’t know what to do with it. I finally just sent it to Charles like, “Here- please find what is good in this.” And that’s exactly what he did. He teased out the parts of the story that shone while violently cutting out the rest - and pointed out where he wanted more. When I got back his edits I was able to see that I had not forgotten how to write, and might actually be able to make something out of the mountain of text.
A few days before the piece went out I posted a brief status on facebook letting people know that it was going to be coming out. I was so terrified about how it would be received, and my community deserved a warning.
Looking back over the reaction to the warning, I now see a clear divide in response. The most enthusiastic excitement came from white people - many of whom had found this whole Dolezal scandal quite juicy and couldn’t wait to see what I would add to it. But Black people - particularly Black women - were far less enthused. Many voiced their nervousness at the project, while also trying to be clear that they thought that if anyone could write the piece well, it would be me. Others were scared for me, worried that I’d made a huge career mistake. Others were angry and spoke of the betrayal they felt that I would write the piece at all.
I took no offense at the responses that were less than supportive. The truth is, the piece could have been harmful. And if it was, regardless of my intentions, then I would have been the cause of that harm. That was a risk I had decided to take - one that these other Black women hadn’t asked me to take - and if it didn’t work out, that was a risk I was going to have to own.
I have a white mother. A white mother who loves her Black children and loves Black people. Sometimes that love goes a little overboard. Sometimes my mom forgets about boundaries and forgets that she is still, for all of her love, just as white a white woman as she’s always been. As I boarded the plane to Spokane I was worried - what if Rachel Dolezal is just like my mom but like… she took it to 11? What if she’s a misguided woman with a good heart who probably needs a really good therapist but she’s really trying her best to help a community she loves? Then how would I write the piece? I certainly couldn’t lie. But how would that reflection help the Black women who had been so harmed by her and the coverage of her? How would that piece not add to the mountain of think pieces about Dolezal that were really just reminding us that white women really could be anything they wanted, and that Black women didn’t really exist until a white woman decided she wanted to become one?
I guess lucky for me (although I certainly didn’t feel lucky sitting in her house), Dolezal showed her whole metaphorical ass that day. I shouldn’t have been surprised after reading her book to see personally how little respect she really shows to Black people - especially Black women. I remember turning to the photographer at one point and saying, “You saw that right? That actually happened…” and he stared back at me wide eyed and answered, “Yeah, that actually happened.” But even after writing and rewriting and rewriting the piece again, I was still scared. What if? What if people didn’t get it? What if I wasn’t as good a writer as Charles thought I was? What if I wasn’t even as good a writer as I thought I was?
When the piece published the response was instant and overwhelming. It absolutely blew people’s minds - well, white people’s minds, mostly. It was like I could actually see the lightbulbs going off all over the internet as people finally began to get it. A few tried to pretend like they had gotten it all along. A lot of Black people - especially Black women - read it and breathed a sigh of relief. A few Black men who had been stanning for Dolezal like she was their light-skinned queen tried to act like none of that embarrassing shit had happened. The piece got so much traffic that it overwhelmed The Stranger’s servers and the whole site was shut down for a while. It was, I believe, the most traffic that any article they had ever published had received.
I was suddenly flooded with requests for interviews about the article. Remembering that my goal was to actually quiet down the Dolezal fascination, I declined almost every single one. I didn’t want to talk about her any more. That is why I had written the piece. The piece would either speak for itself or it wouldn’t. We would have to wait and see.
Five years later I can confidently say that it did accomplish what I hoped it would. The conversation around Dolezal shifted that day. The piece stripped away the gloss that media (and Dolezal herself) had layered onto the story and left it exposed for what it actually was: the very old and very tired story of white people stealing wantonly from Blackness and then throwing a fit when Black people try to protect what is theirs.
I almost never hear her name these days except as a hack punchline - in fact, I’ve now typed her name more in this last hour or so than I have in probably two years. The only time I’m reminded of her or that interview is when somebody tags me in a social media comment in response to somebody who brought Dolezal up. The comment with a link to the piece is often something like, “We don’t talk about her anymore. Read this.”
The notoriety around the piece did help my career at first. It brought me to the attention of editors who had no idea who I was before. It showed what I was capable of to a much broader audience. And the piece itself increased my confidence in my ability to write longer form articles and interesting interviews. So You Want To Talk About Race published in 2018 and, thankfully, far eclipsed any attention the Dolezal piece had brought to me. But I’m still glad that I trusted what Charles saw in me and the piece, and I’m still proud of what we accomplished.
That would be the last piece I would write with Charles Mudede. Just a few days before the interview was published, The Stranger ran an op-ed written by the then-mayor of Seattle. He had been accused of sexual assault by multiple men of color who said he had assaulted them when they were teenagers, when he worked with underprivileged youth in Portland. The Stranger gave the mayor carte-blanche to call his accusers liars and drag their names through the mud.
I quietly ended my relationship with The Stranger that day, even as I publicly voiced my disgust and disapproval of the editorial decision to allow an accused rapist - already arguably the most powerful man in the city - a platform to call his accusers liars. It was a heartbreaking time for me and Charles (who was in no way involved in decisions around the mayor’s op-ed), knowing that one of the biggest pieces of our career was about to come out, and it would be our last. A few weeks later, when The Stranger decided to double down on their fuckery and publish an article that was very harmful to the trans community (and engaged in some pretty shitty behavior against a trans woman who spoke out about it) I made the split public and irrevocable. (Side note: Later, after even more accusers came forward, the mayor stepped down from office, and was replaced by a mayor whose term would be known for overseeing the violent crackdown on protesters in the 2020 uprisings and… not being accused of rape)
When I think about this piece, I mostly think about what it was like to work with Charles. There are few Black editors at major publications around this country. That sort of cushy, reliable, 401k-and-healthcare work is usually reserved for white people. I had only had the opportunity to write for one other Black editor my entire career - and that was only for one article. The period of time that I worked with Charles was pretty magical for me. It was a brief period of time where I didn’t have to argue, defend, or translate my Blackness for an editor in order to say what I needed to say. I was seen by Charles, in a way that no editor has seen me before or since. I cried when I had to walk away from it, and sometimes it still stings. But I’m still so grateful for the time it existed, and what it meant for my burgeoning career.
And so, on this day, I toast my friend and former colleague Charles Mudede. And I toast a younger me who didn’t have any idea that she was about to discover that she was perhaps, a damn good writer after all.
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