Rachel Dolezal speaking at a Spokane, WA rally.

In 2015, Rachel Dolezal entered the spotlight. The NAACP chapter leader and instructor in Spokane, WA, was previously unremarkable – a black activist woman working to make a difference in her small city.

However, in 2015, an important detail brought Dolezal to infamy: she isn’t black.

Dolezal’s shifty story quickly caught the public eye and spun its way into countless think pieces, memes, and news shows.

Three years later, it seems Dolezal isn’t quite out of the spotlight yet. Netflix recently announced a documentary about her life called The Rachel Divide. This aptly-named documentary has already received a lot of negative attention. Critics say she doesn’t deserve this publicity — and that her kids are suffering because of it.

Her son’s public statements about his mother and her story back up their concerns. However, like it or not, The Rachel Divide is slated to come out in late April. 

Who is Rachel Dolezal?

The closer you look at Dolezal’s story, the more the widening divide she caused makes sense.

Her parents outed her as white in 2015, completely upending the life she’d built for herself. Dolezal had been posturing as black for years. She taught Africana studies at a nearby university and attended Howard University, a historically black college, on a scholarship. Dolezal presented herself as black, even though she could have done all these things as a white woman. She is white – and always has been.

The news about her actual heritage caused her to step down from her NAACP position, and lose her teaching opportunities, among other things. However, Dolezal maintains that she is black — in fact, she claims to be “trans-racial.”

Her critics (and there are many) generally agree that you can’t be trans-racial the same way you can be transgender. Dolezal has been accused of cultural appropriation of the highest order, giving what might be the longest blackface performance in history.

What could make a white person do this? Many people claim Dolezal is mentally unstable (although that certainly doesn’t excuse her behavior). However, the picture has become a little more clear as more details about her childhood emerge.

Raising Rachel

Dolezal’s parents aren’t just white: they’re Young Earth creationists who don’t believe in evolution, climate change, and other established scientific knowledge. Did her bizarre upbringing play a part in her bad behavior?

Young Earth creationists believe God created both dinosaurs and the Earth 6,000 years ago. Even among religious communities, their perspectives are extreme. This philosophy is more than just bizarre: it’s also linked to a host of problematic ideas about raising children.

Dolezal’s parents homeschooled their children using a curriculum from the Christian Liberty Academy Satellite School (CLASS). Dolezal’s father worked for Creation Ministries International, the organization behind the Ark Encounter Creationist Museum in Kentucky, which features strange exhibits showing humans and dinosaurs coexisting, among other things.

These hyper-religious parents also began adopting black children in the 1990s. This wasn’t uncommon: many strictly religious, homeschooling families adopt children as a way of spreading their worldview.

Their lifestyle didn’t support the kind of open-mindedness one would hope for from white parents raising black children, though. White supremacists actually recommend the CLASS homeschooling curriculum, which was taught in the Dolezal household.

Dolezal’s adopted siblings, and some people who know the family, claim that child abuse was rampant at home – although some of the other siblings deny it. Dolezal herself says her parents abused her, too. She became a legal guardian to one of her younger brothers when he was 16, after he took his abuse claims to court.

Although many people don’t see Dolezal herself as a credible source (for good reason), it seems likely that the Dolezal household was a troubling place to grow up, at the very least.

A Recipe for Resentment

People from abusive households often struggle to break the cycle of abuse with their own families. Although Dolezal’s three children haven’t claimed that she abused them, her oldest son Franklin certainly isn’t happy about her life choices.

In the trailer for The Rachel Divide, Franklin, who is black, sullenly argues with his mother about whether or not she can redeem herself. In front of the camera, he says, “This book coming out, and this documentary might just backfire like everything else has backfired. […] I resent some of her choices, and I resent some of the words she’s spoken in interviews. It affected me, it affected my brother.”

Franklin chooses his words carefully, although he’s visibly unhappy on camera. His words hint at a much deeper resentment toward his mother, and maybe something even stronger. Whether the documentary will dig into those feelings or not remains to be seen, but one thing is for sure: Dolezal’s actions have unfairly thrown her children into the spotlight with her.

A First Look at The Rachel Divide

The Rachel Divide is just the latest controversial installment in Dolezal’s saga. Many people don’t believe she deserves this ongoing attention, but there’s no doubt lots of viewers will be tuning into the documentary.

Netflix has tapped into the reason Dolezal is still a talking point: people want an explanation. What could drive this level of cultural appropriation? Why did she do it?

Will you be watching? Let us know down in the comments.

Will this documentary give any answers, or will it just raise more questions? Watch the trailer below, and then let us know what you think:

Featured Image CC by 4.0, by Aaron Robert Kathman, via Wikimedia Commons.