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As Rachel Dolezal Breaks Silence, a Roundtable Discussion on Race, Appropriation and Identity

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We look at the growing national debate over racial identity sparked by the story of Rachel Dolezal. A Washington state civil rights advocate and educator, Dolezal resigned her post as president of the Spokane chapter of the NAACP on Monday amid reports she falsely identified as black. The controversy began when Dolezal’s parents told reporters their daughter is white, and shared photographs of her as a child. On Tuesday, Dolezal broke her silence, saying she has identified as black since a young age. We host a roundtable discussion with four guests: Stacey Patton, senior enterprise reporter for The Chronicle of Higher Education; Lacey Schwartz, producer/director of the documentary film “Little White Lie”; Linda Martín Alcoff, professor of philosophy at the City University of New York and author of several books; and Jelani Cobb, associate professor of history and director of the Africana Studies Institute at the University of Connecticut.

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Web ExclusiveJun 17, 2015WATCH: Four Perspectives on Race and Identity in the Wake of the Rachel Dolezal Controversy
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We turn now to the growing national debate over racial identity sparked by the story of Rachel Dolezal. Dolezal is the Washington state civil rights advocate and educator who resigned her post as president of the Spokane chapter of the NAACP on Monday amid reports she falsely identified as black. The controversy began when Dolezal’s parents told reporters their daughter is white, and shared photographs of her as a child. On Tuesday, she broke her silence. During an appearance on the Today Show, Rachel Dolezal told host Matt Lauer she has identified as black since a young age.

RACHEL DOLEZAL: This goes back to a very early age with my self-identification with the black experience as a very young child.

MATT LAUER: When did it start?

RACHEL DOLEZAL: I would say about five years old.

MATT LAUER: You began identifying yourself as African-American?

RACHEL DOLEZAL: I was drawing self-portraits with the brown crayon instead of the peach crayon.

AMY GOODMAN: Rachel Dolezal then went on to say how she came to identify as black.

RACHEL DOLEZAL: It’s a little more complex than me identifying as black or answering a question of “Are you black or white?” I was actually identified, when I was doing human rights work in North Idaho, as, first, transracial, and then, when some of the opposition to some of the human rights work I was doing came forward and started, the next newspaper article identified me as being a biracial woman. And then the next article, when there were—there were actually burglaries, nooses, etc., was this is happening to a black woman. And I never corrected that—

MATT LAUER: Well, why didn’t you correct it? You knew it wasn’t true.

RACHEL DOLEZAL: Well, because—because it’s more complex than, you know, being true or false in that particular instance.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Today Show host Matt Lauer also asked Rachel Dolezal about why she sued Howard University in 2002, the year she graduated from the historically black university with a master’s in fine art, accusing them of discriminating against her because she was white.

RACHEL DOLEZAL: I have a huge issue with blackface. This is not some freak, Birth of a Nation, mockery, blackface performance. This is on a very real, connected level, how I’ve actually had to go there with the experience, not just a visible representation, but with the experience.

AMY GOODMAN: And we now go to another clip of Rachel Dolezal answering Matt Lauer about her suit against Howard University.

RACHEL DOLEZAL: The reasons for my full-tuition scholarship being removed and my teaching position, as well, my TA position, were that other people needed opportunities, and you probably have white relatives, and that, you know, they can afford to help you with your tuition. And I thought that that was an injustice.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, today we host a roundtable discussion on the issues around race and identity sparked by this story. We’re joined by three guests here in New York.

Stacey Patton is with us, senior enterprise reporter for The Chronicle of Higher Education. Last night, she received the Vernon Jarrett Medal for Journalistic Excellence for her reporting on the African-American experience in America.

Lacey Schwartz also joins us. She is the producer, writer and director of the documentary film Little White Lie, which tells her story of growing up in a white Jewish household in Woodstock, New York, only to discover at 18 that her biological father was African-American.

Also with us, Linda Martín Alcoff, professor of philosophy at the City University of New York, author of several books, including Visible Identities: Race, Gender, and the Self. Her forthcoming book is titled The Future of Whiteness, which will be out in September.

And with us from Hartford, Connecticut, Jelani Cobb, associate professor of history and director of Africana Studies Institute at the University of Connecticut, also a contributor to The New Yorker. His latest piece is headlined “Black Like Her.”

I want to start today with Stacey Patton. Stacey, despite the fact you were getting this big award in New York last night, you spent yesterday interviewing professors across the country of Africana and African-American studies about their feelings. Particularly, you talked to the professors at Eastern Washington, where Rachel was—where Rachel Dolezal also taught.


AMY GOODMAN: What have you found?

STACEY PATTON: Well, I had a chance to speak with Scott Finnie, the director of the Africana studies program there, and I particularly was interested in trying to get a sense of what the impact that this sort of media circus around Dolezal was having on the department itself and students and faculty there. And Mr. Finnie indicated that her deception came as a huge shock to him and to other faculty members, because she had presented an African-American man to them as her father and indicated that she had a white mom. So their understanding of her was that she was biracial. Mr. Finnie also indicated that she was very—presented herself as fired up about race issues, about the African-American experience. So, for them, they thought she shared, you know, the same kind of lineage and generational experience with discrimination as them.

AMY GOODMAN: And she was supposed to be the graduation speaker for the Africana studies graduation—


AMY GOODMAN: —and ultimately said she would pull out, didn’t want to be a distraction, right?

STACEY PATTON: Yeah, it was that morning that she was scheduled to do the keynote for the students. Mr. Finnie was not clear about what she would actually speak about for that morning. But she called and said, “Perhaps I shouldn’t show up, because this will be a distraction.” But ultimately it still was, because when Mr. Finnie and the students showed up for the ceremony, they were deluged by reporters, and they actually held him for about 15 minutes, grilling him about the situation. And then afterwards, students were, you know, swarmed by reporters. And so, it really took away from the students being able to celebrate, you know, their own accomplishments.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Lacey Schwartz, you’ve dealt in your film, Little White Lie, about the issue of denial when it comes to racial identity. And do you see any parallels between the experience that you went through and what you presented in the film and what’s going on here with Rachel Dolezal?

LACEY SCHWARTZ: I would say yes and no. I mean, I don’t think that the denial, like in my family, the collective denial that we experienced, is the same as what’s going on here. I mean, you’re dealing with—at this point, it seems fairly apparent that she actually lied, that she created this image, both physically how she changed her appearance and actually what she put forward in terms of, as you spoke about, who she said her family was and what her association was. I think with my family, there was actually stories that were put forward to explain why I was my parents’ child, you know, why they actually thought that I was white. And I think even my mother, who is the person who was, you know, kind of the first to lose that denial, even she believed it at a period of time. I think that’s different from this story.

AMY GOODMAN: You knew you were adopted from an early age?


AMY GOODMAN: Or you weren’t adopted?

LACEY SCHWARTZ: No, I wasn’t adopted, yes. My mother had an affair with a black man, so it turned out that my biological father was black.

AMY GOODMAN: And so, how did you learn about this?

LACEY SCHWARTZ: You know, I learned about it when I was 18 years old. And I had a whole—as my film goes into, is I had a whole experience growing up and knowing that I looked different, but I grew up in a white liberal town, where we really didn’t talk about race. So I didn’t understand what that difference was connected to and where to really place it. It was—I think it’s fascinating that even to this day so many of us can really live our lives without a race, while so many of us have such a strong racialized experience. So I was having that experience but not knowing how to name it.

And so, when I went away to college, I had started questioning it. My parents broke up. And I started really questioning why I looked the way I did. When I went to college, I submitted a photograph, but I didn’t check any boxes at that point, because I was already very confused but didn’t have any answers. And I was admitted to college as a black student. So, when I went to college, I still wasn’t identifying as being black, but I was being categorized as being black based on how I looked.

And that was really when, you know, kind of—my story is very much a coming-of-age story. And I think, obviously, all of us have that, is who you think you—who your parents are, who you think you are, but then it’s kind of coming into that and finding out your own truth. And I think, within families, this idea of what is the truth, how can we empower the truth, even if it’s difficult, and how can we have those conversations? Clearly, in this story, there’s a lot of struggle, right? Her parents going to the media, her creating these lies, there’s all sorts of conflict within the family.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And what about that situation where you have actually here the parents, in essence, outing her and saying what she’s been saying all these years is not true?

LACEY SCHWARTZ: Yeah, I mean, that’s a particular family dynamic, I would say. I mean, you know, I’m not necessarily the one to judge, but I do think, though, that it really shows how much that these big social issues like race can be connected to kind of the family dynamics.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, let’s turn to Rachel’s parents, Ruthanne and Larry Dolezal, initially confirming last week that their estranged daughter was white and pretending to be black. In an interview with NBC, Ruthanne Dolezal spoke of her daughter’s identification with African Americans.

RUTHANNE DOLEZAL: Her identification with African Americans has been for over probably 20 years, but her choice to represent herself visually as an African American or to be involved in their causes, and now to be deceptive about what her ethnicity is, those are two different things, and that’s what’s changed most recently.

AMY GOODMAN: When Rachel Dolezal’s parents were asked why it was important for them to set the record straight on Rachel’s life, this was her response on NBC.

RUTHANNE DOLEZAL: It’s important to us that the truth is known. And so that’s why we are speaking, because we cannot participate by our silence in the lies.

LARRY DOLEZAL: We hadn’t been contacted and asked these questions until just a few days ago. So, we didn’t take the initiative. We were contacted by news media and asked. So, we had three choices: to lie, to tell the truth or, I guess, say “no comment” and hang up.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Rachel Dolezal’s parents. We’re joined by Jelani Cobb in Hartford, associate professor of history and director of Africana Studies Institute at the University of Connecticut, his latest piece headlined “Black Like Her.” Your response to this whole controversy, which is—of course, goes beyond Rachel, talks about how we perceive race in America and the response of African Americans, of whites, of all different people?

JELANI COBB: Well, first, I think I was pretty surprised, as many people I’ve spoken to have been. I was surprised at the degree of interest that this story generated. And for me, it was fairly clear-cut: This person is not black. And, you know, there was a lot of kind of handwringing about how to say that. And I understand that because we’re talking about a category that essentially does not exist biologically, that, you know, it’s difficult to say this person doesn’t belong on the basis of something that is actually real; however, the experience, the historical experience that created the community that we know of as African Americans in this country now, with the entire spectrum of appearance that goes along with that, that is something that is very real, and she is not part of that lineage and that tradition. And so, I think that were it simply to say, like, we can identify in any kind of way that we want, I don’t think she would have to take the extra step of inventing a parent that would kind of vouch for her belonging within this community.

The other thing that I think is really cynical about this, and probably the element of this story that I found most disturbing, is that—you know, I taught in Moscow as a Fulbright, on a Fulbright, about five years ago. And one of the questions that people had was: How is it that someone who—you know, the entire range of complexions would all be counted as black, like a black person who looks like Halle Berry, a black person who looks like Viola Davis, and, you know, someone who looks even lighter than Halle Berry—how do they all fit into the same category? And I had to talk about the ugly truth, which is the amount of institutionalized rape that happened in slavery. And so, with African Americans, we don’t typically check ID at the door, so to speak. You know, people can look in a variety of different ways and still be considered part of this community. So, for someone who has spent as much time around black people as Ms. Dolezal has, she certainly knows that there is a painful history around this. She knows why people don’t raise questions. Because, you know, in my own family, there are people who are nearly white and people who are very dark, and we’re coming from the same parentage. And so, that happens in black families. And so, for her to take advantage of that, I think, and to use that as a means by which people would not second-guess her identity, I thought that was particularly pernicious and cynical.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: But what about this—when you mentioned the surprise that you had over the firestorm this has created, isn’t this somewhat a commentary about the way our society deals with issues of race, that it’s almost as if it’s an individual spectacle rather than the institutional manifestations, and in this particular case, that there’s such a fixation? Now there’s even reports today that she’s involved in negotiations to have a reality show as a result of the huge attention the media has focused on her.

JELANI COBB: Right. I mean, there’s a man-bites-dog element of this, and I think that’s probably about the level of significance that this particular case has. And this is not to take away anything from the work that she did or her affinity for the culture or her connections to—very close familial connections to people who are black. Those things are all fine. But I think it takes another step to say that you are in fact part of this lineage when in fact you aren’t. I think that’s one side element. But we saw the same thing with Donald Sterling, you know, where all the very troubling issues around housing discrimination that had been associated with him for a really long time didn’t register in the same way that a kind of weird, at-home rant about, you know, what he does and how significant he is vis-à-vis black people to basketball. And that was what we got our ire about. And so, that is pretty much the way that we discuss race here, you know, as spectacle, as opposed to a systemic, institutionalized dynamic that determines and influences the outcomes and opportunities of people’s lives.

AMY GOODMAN: Interestingly, Jelani Cobb, you write about the history of the NAACP. I mean, she was the, you know, chapter president of the NAACP in Spokane. It’s not a paid position. But you talk about the founding of the NAACP.

JELANI COBB: Right, certainly. And there are—when Marcus Garvey, you know, the early 20th century black nationalist, when he criticized the NAACP, he said it was an organization full of white people and black people who look like white people. And so, I mean, there have been black people who have a range of complexions, and including up to Walter White, who was the executive director of the NAACP for two decades. And Walter White had blond hair and blue eyes and was so—his skin was so light that he was actually able to investigate lynchings, and he’d go to places and ask simply what happened, and people would talk to him, because they thought they were talking to a white person. And so, there is this dynamic that has happened previously. And I think that’s kind of a thing that makes this story a little bit more complicated, which is to say there are people who look like her who belong to this community. And it seems that you—it becomes a point where you almost seem like you’re splitting hairs to say, well, someone can look exactly like her, but if they don’t have African ancestry or they don’t have an experience—Walter White, in this case, his parents were enslaved, and he witnessed the 1906 Atlanta race riot. Those things kind of shaped him and grounded him in what exactly the black community was experiencing. To simply say, “I used the brown crayon, therefore I’m black,” is kind of insulting to that.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And we’re also joined by Linda Martín Alcoff. You’ve been studying this whole issue of race and gender and identity. Your reaction to this latest controversy?

LINDA MARTÍN ALCOFF: Well, I think it has become such a big issue because it taps into a certain zeitgeist going on in the country. More and more people now realize that race is not biological, that there’s no DNA of race, and so it’s socially constructed. But what does that mean? What does it mean to say it’s socially constructed? There’s a lot of confusion around that. And when she says things like, you know, “It’s complicated,” people are not sure how to make sense of that. But what it means to say it’s socially constructed is that it’s socially constructed, it’s not individually constructed. It’s based in social customs and practices and histories. And so, you know, we have decided together that a piece of paper counts as a dollar; everybody has to agree to that, or it’s not going to work. That’s what social construction means. And we have to then think about what are the political conditions by which our racial practices have been socially constructed. Who has participated in that, and who has not been able to participate in that? And how has—you know, how has it been constructed? For what end? For what purpose?

And I think also we have to realize that because identities like race are socially constructed, they can be socially constructed in different ways and different contexts. I know you’re going to cover the Dominican Republic later today. In the United States, we have usually lineage which trumps all other considerations. If you have one drop of lineage way, way, way back, that trumps all other considerations. In a lot of parts of Latin America, appearance trumps lineage. So, to say, if you’re light-skinned, you’re blanco. And what it means to be blanco is to be light-skinned. It’s appearance. The joke is, you know, that in the DR, they have sort of the reverse one-drop rule—one drop of white blood makes you white—whereas in the United States it’s the reverse. So, contexts make a difference.

AMY GOODMAN: You’re Panamanian-American.

LINDA MARTÍN ALCOFF: Yes, yes. And in much of Latin America, appearance works. So you have three different criteria that can work to create race: lineage, appearance and cultural assimilation. There are some indigenous groups that use cultural assimilation. I think if you talk like a group, if you have accepted their ways and their belief systems, that you can be a full member of that group. And this the kind of thing that Dolezal is kind of making, you know, reference to. She’s claiming a kind of cultural assimilation. But we know that she was presenting herself as black and relying on the fact that people around her were assuming that meant lineage. She may herself have been wanting to use this definition of cultural assimilation, but she was playing on the fact that in the United States it’s lineage, and that’s what people are assuming. And she had to know that.

AMY GOODMAN: To clarify on her father, the black man that she presented to others as her father, she said she had met him in northern Idaho, she identified with him as a kind of father figure, and there are biological fathers, and there are other kind of fathers, she said. And it’s just a very complicated story. I guess she has her own African-American child and also adopted her foster brother as her child. And another brother has been accused of sexually molesting an African-American child in Colorado. It’s very complicated. Lacey?

LACEY SCHWARTZ: Yeah, it is. But, I mean, I think there’s other things she did besides making the statements about the father. She also talked about her hair looking a certain way being natural. Again, going back to it, there’s assumptions in that, that that is the way her hair grew out of her head. And we’ve seen pictures that imply that that probably is not the case. So I think she really played upon these things and understood the culture really well and understood how to play into it to make people think certain things. And I think, in particular, for me, I have to say, throughout this whole thing, she said something on the Today Show that really hit a chord in a negative way, that, you know, she said, “You know, I have to be this person to raise my black sons.” And I think that that was, as I said on Twitter, a real diss to white moms, many white moms who have raised children of color, that you have to be actually a person of color to successfully raise people of color. And I think that that’s really making a larger statement about society, not just about her experience, that, you know, is not right.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s right. I mean, Melissa Harris-Perry, MSNBC host, also interviewed her and raised that very issue, because Melissa’s own mother, a white mother, was born—lived in Spokane, Washington. And she said, “My mother raised me. She did not say she was black.” We’re going to come back to this discussion. Our guests are Lacey Schwartz, who did the documentary, Little White Lie; also Linda Martín Alcoff, CUNY professor here in New York, philosopher; Jelani Cobb is with us from the University of Connecticut; and Stacey Patton is with us from Washington. She is the—she wrote a piece in The Chronicle of Higher Education and won a major award in journalism last night. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: “Is It Because I’m Black” by Syl Johnson, and the video we played, for our radio audience, was from Little White Lie, the film that Lacey Schwartz produced. She is CEO of Truth Aid, producer, writer and director of the documentary, Little White Lie, that tells the story of her growing up in a typical upper-middle-class Jewish household in Woodstock, New York, only discovering at the age of 18 that her biological father was actually a black man named Rodney whom her mother had had an affair with. We also joined, in addition to Lacey, by Stacey Patton. Stacey Patton is senior enterprise reporter for The Chronicle of Higher Education, 2015 recipient of the Vernon Jarrett Medal for Journalistic Excellence, that was given by Morgan State University, and it’s the first award of its kind. Linda Martín Alcoff is with us, professor of philosophy at City University of New York. And we’re joined by Professor Jelani Cobb at University of Connecticut.

So, Stacey, you spent the last day talking with professors across the country, not only at Eastern Washington. Can you talk about their response? Your headline is “Rachel Dolezal Case Leaves a Campus Bewildered and Some Scholars Disgusted.”

STACEY PATTON: Mm-hmm. Well, I’ve been watching the coverage since the news broke, and decided I wanted to talk to the very people that she pretended to be and the people that she renounced. And so I decided to talk to black women professors and also white women professors who do work in Africana studies and related fields. And around the virtual table—I was watching some of this stuff go down on social media—there’s a general consensus of, you know, shock and disgust and disrespect.

From African-American women scholars, they’re particularly disgusted by her manufacturing of black self-presentation. They talked about what it—most of the black women scholars talked about their own personal experiences navigating academe, from—you know, some of them talked about their girlhood experiences and then going through graduate school and going on the job market and having to carry anxieties about their hair, their size, the tone of their voice, how they present themselves to hiring committees. They talked about what it’s like being black women in the classroom, where their intellect is challenged. White students, in particular, treat them like mammies, you know, sort of these altars for their emotional needs. You know, they are disrespected. They’re not called Doctor or Professor So-and-So; they’re Miss So-and-So. And they talk about how their theoretical work and ideas on race and gender studies are often under attack. And so, they feel like what Rachel has done is added yet another blow to this.

I was particularly interested in talking to white women scholars who do race, as well. And again, you know, the consensus from them was, well, you know, you don’t renounce—she didn’t have to renounce her whiteness; you renounce white supremacy. And so, for them, you know, they carry their burdens for doing this work, as well. You know, one particular professor talked about how—

AMY GOODMAN: Which professor?

STACEY PATTON: This is the criminal justice professor I—her name—there were so many people I talked to yesterday, but she’s there in the piece. She talked about how people will come to her and say, “Oh, you must be—you must want to sleep with black males. That’s why you do this work.” So there’s constant assaults on her loyalty to her own people. And so, you know, the white women professors that I spoke to felt like, you know, she’s made a joke of us, she’s made an embarrassment of us, and now people are going to look at us sideways. And what she’s done is potentially exacerbated, you know, trust issues between black and white female academics, which already suffer from a fraught history on the feminist question.

But then there are others who say, “Listen, this is a distraction.” This controversy happens at a moment when we’re just talking about the abuse of women by police officers, killings of black women, the McKinney police officer who slammed a bikini-clad teenager into the ground. And so, you know, Rachel comes along, and, you know, there’s this big distraction. And then there are others who say, “Look, you know, she’s not—her controversy isn’t going to harm the serious scholarship being done by both black and white women academics.”

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I mean, I tend to lean to the distraction analysis myself, because we’re really dealing with a troubled person, individually, and then, as you say, in the climate that we’re in right now, the media has grabbed it all up and turned it into this huge story, that it doesn’t necessarily have an impact on others who are struggling to get their scholarship and their work recognized, only to the degree that they accept that this is a pervasive problem.

STACEY PATTON: But I think, too, is another important race—important point that some scholars raised was that this is connected to Say Her Name and Black Lives Matter, that, you know, on campuses, faculty are working really hard to keep students of color safe. Some of these academics talked about Ersula Ore, the Arizona State professor who was slammed in the street by a university police officer just for, you know, jaywalking. They cited Charles Blow’s son, who was detained and held at gunpoint by campus police at Yale.

AMY GOODMAN: New York Times reporter.

STACEY PATTON: Yes, yes. So, we’re dealing with people, you know, people of color, who cannot manufacture white bodies in and outside of the college experience to protect themselves from unconscious bias, from police officers who view their black bodies as threats. So, the fact that she’s playing with blackness in this way is terribly troubling to a lot of people.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you all for being with us. Do you think this will be a flash in the pan, Professor Cobb, from your experience, or whether this is just going to deeper issues, which is why there’s been so much attention paid to this?

JELANI COBB: Well, I do think there is one other point about this that makes it a little bit more substantial. And, you know, what happens with Ms. Dolezal, whether she does a reality show or a memoir or whatever, is probably not that consequential. But there is a longer history of appropriation, of the belief that anything that African Americans produce is really culturally fair game, and that whites, who have advantages that blacks don’t have, can take as they choose. And I think that that is part of this narrative, as well. And beyond this, one of the kind of more notable things about this now is that when you look at polling on this, and you ask what group of people is most disadvantaged because of their race in America, there’s a pretty substantial plurality of white people who will say that it is in fact whites. And so, I don’t think that this idea about kind of being outside the narrative of oppression and then just kind of jumping yourself in and identifying this particular way—it may be weird, but I think there is something—there is a there there, in some ways. And, you know, what happens with this issue may not be directly related to her, but I think this is not the last time we’ll be having this conversation.

AMY GOODMAN: Jelani Cobb, associate professor of history, director of Africana Studies Institute at University of Connecticut, thanks so much for being with us. We will link to your piece, “Black Like Her,” at The New Yorker magazine. Thank you very much to Linda Martín Alcoff, a professor of philosophy at the City University of New York, author of several books, Visible Identities: Race, Gender, and the Self. Her forthcoming book, titled The Future of Whiteness, will be out in September. Thank you so much to Lacey Schwartz, CEO of Truth Aid, producer, writer and director of the documentary film, Little White Lie. And thank you very much to Stacey Patton, senior enterprise reporter for The Chronicle of Higher Education and the 2015 recipient of the Vernon Jarrett Medal for Journalistic Excellence from the historically black college, Morgan State. And a special shout-out to Morgan State’s radio station, WEAA, in Baltimore. That’s it for this discussion, though I’m sure it will carry on on Facebook and Twitter, and you can follow us in all of those places. But next up, we’ll be speaking with Edwidge Danticat. She’s a Haitian-American writer. She’ll talk about what’s happening to people in the Dominican Republic. Stay with us.

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