Weighing In On…Rachel Dolezal—Why Does Race Remain Locked, Unchangeable?

I must admit that when I first read about Rachel Dolezalwho leads the Spokane chapter of the NAACP, teaches African studies to college students and sits on a police oversight commission, and who claims to be black when she may not be by birthI was surprised and amused. You see, my short story, “Howdy Billy, Cabbage Ma’am,” (Damaged Angels,2012) deals with the same issue—a privileged white woman masquerades as black for decades and is eventually found out. But the more I read, the madder I got. It seems the entire controversy surrounds how Rachel Dolezal identifies racially. Say what?

Why are we so outraged by Rachel Dolezal’s racial identification in an age when we are told gender exists on a spectrum and can be “fluid,” in an age when it is argued that marriage is the right of any two people in love? Why are we outraged by this when we accept the fluidity of gender roles and embrace the reality of stay-at-home dads, and women on the battlefield? Just the other day I saw a trash collector who was not only female but Muslim.

Why is it, that race alone remains locked, solid, unchangeable?

It was widely reported that Rachel married a black man—I thought at first this was revealed by her defenders, you know those folk who believe in “black by injection.” But just as quickly it was revealed she had married a black man, it was revealed she’d divorced him, leaving me to think this revelation was meant to say, “see if she was really black, they’d still be married.”

Much has been made of her refusal to answer questions about her race. Many seem to think this is her admission of falsehood, of her guilt, but I prefer to think that she, like me, like Michael Jackson is not gonna spend her life being a color.

I’ve overheard (I’m a writer; I eavesdrop) so many straight men say, after seeing  Caitlin Jenner on the cover of Vanity Fair, “I’d date her.” When I questioned one friend about it, he shrugged and said, “She’s beautiful and she seems so much more comfortable now than she ever did as Bruce.” Maybe Rachel feels more comfortable, more her authentic self as black woman. Why, then, can’t we accept and embrace her racial identification? And really what difference does how she chooses to identify racially make?

Why do we insist on treating Caitlin Jenner with respect but mock Rachel Dolezal?

Maybe because by claiming to be black, she has flung shit in the faces of her white ancestors. Her parents seem to believe that they are exclusively white: “Ruthanne Dolezal said the family's ancestry is Czech, Swedish and German.” Condescendingly, but cautiously acknowledging, “with a trace of Native American heritage.” Why are these parents who adopted black children so adamant that Rachel identify as white?

I don’t understand why black people are offended either. Is our race, this club of “black,” or African American—hell we can’t even agree on a term to call ourselves—this race that includes a color spectrum from blue-black to “high yellow” to damned near white, a race that is so broad in its definition it includes everyone with “one drop” of black blood—so exclusive that we must be offended that someone not confined to our race by birth would dare breach its walls?

White people have—and continue to appropriate black culture—from Elvis Presley to the ghastly Iggy Azalia to suburban teens in sagging jeans, and Beyonce looks more like a white woman with every appearance—yet this is fine, presumably because they each firmly identify with their assigned birth race despite opposing actions.

To Rachel Dolezal I have just these words: Welcome to the tribe my sister.

Agree with me? Disagree with me? Share your thoughts in the comments below. Let’s talk.
 
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Comments

  1. I can intellectually understand the transgender condition where one’s identity does not match his or her biological gender. But I will never have the transgender experience. I certainly have no idea what it’s like to grow up trying to sort that out. It was difficult enough realizing that my orientation was not the same as my parents, siblings, and many of my friends.

    I have to say that I’m unprepared to intellectually understand this concept of racial identity.

    I’ve seen reports about children of color identifying white skin as more beautiful or desirable than their own, richer-hued skin tone. Do the Rachel Dolezals of the world have – for want of a better term – a reverse conditioning?

    On the other hand, it’s none of my business to have someone else’s ancestral makeup presented to me for scrutiny, just as it is no one’s business to ‘force’ a transgender person to expose themselves just to enter a restroom.

    I once worked with a woman whose skin was the blue black you mentioned, but, as she was born and raised in Panama, her native language was Spanish. In this country, though, she was not accepted in the black community because of her accent and she was not accepted in the Hispanic community due to the color of her skin.

    For this reason, I think my only obligation is to accept the person you present yourself to be, however you identify.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I think you're right about your--our--obligation to accept people as they present themselves. And seriously who is she hurting.

      I think understanding is irrelevant. Many don't understand me, us, which is fine. I just ask that others accept and respect my truth as I respect and accept theirs.

      Maybe I find it easy to accept her as she presents herself becaue I really di write a character in a similar situation and to do that I had to imagine what it felt like to be in her skin, to understand why such a deception was necessary and acceptable.

      As for her parents who have no relationship with her currently but who have produced pictures of her blue eyed & blonde-haired--if she had been transgendered, would pulling out pictures of her as a child of another prove anything? Or would it just humiliate and deny her truth?

      Delete
  2. As an Asian person who grew up from 4th grade on, bussed to predominantly black schools, and making mostly black friends to this day as a result of that, I too identify with a "black experience" more than my own Asian ethnic experience, ever since I was about 9 years old. I agree 100% with your blog and wish it would be blasted out all over the social media hemisphere. Great, great piece Larry.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. thank you Shirley. And thank you for bringing your unique experience to the conversation. I think your experience is one that, too often, is missing, or ignored in discussions of race.

      Delete
  3. Do I contradict myself?
    Very well then I contradict myself,
    (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

    ReplyDelete
  4. Those who define others to control them now rage at those who choose to define themselves. As we struggle to move beyond a culture where race is central others struggle equally hard to maintain that world because it gives them power. The fight against those who would define us is also a fight within ourselves.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. David, I think you are right--it is all just a struggle to define, to control. He who owns the definition, has the power.

      Delete

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