I must admit that when I first read about Rachel Dolezal―who 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 birth―I 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.