You’ve probably heard the story of Rachel Dolezal in the news: a young woman who is (apparently) “White,” but who some now claim has been masquerading as “Black” for most of her adult life. She is also the [now former] President of the NAACP chapter in her community of Spokane, Washington; and a professor of Africana Studies at Eastern Washington University.
The concern of many is that she is not a “real Black” even though she claims to be. But, what is a “Real Black” – or, for that matter, a “Real White”? And, is all this controversy over her perceived racial makeup relevant in any case?
In a posting on Facebook, Kerstin Ludwig said:
To sum it up: Transblack?
The case of Rachel Dolezal is asking one interesting question: If we accept that people can be born in the wrong gender – why have we that difficulties with somebody who is claiming that he is born in the wrong skin?
As far as I know Dolezal fought a passionate fight for human rights and against racism. She was raised with black siblings.
She has custody over her brother (and she claims that he is her son) so chances are that the abuse allegations have some substance.
There is a deep rift between her and the parents. Who now put her right on the spot – those guys are definitely not the good guys here.
It is a very foreign concept to me that somebody feels like he should be born in a different skin color, but alas: So is transgender.
So if we accept that “gender” is more fluidly than just male and female – why is it so hard to accept that there might be people who would feel more comfortable in another skin?
We do not question the motivation of transgender. Why are we questioning the motivation of Dolezal?
This is worth considering, this concept of “Transblack.” And, we need to bear in mind that there seems to be dysfunction in her family of origin.
I know that many of my LGBTQ friends will object strenuously to this idea of Dolezal being “Transblack”, and with good reason. Folks who are Trans can point to a great deal of evidence that makes it clear there are deep, biological reasons why they do not fit into the standard (binary) definitions of sexual identity. And, those who are Black rightfully point out that someone like Rachel (or myself, for that matter) can easily walk away from “Blackness” if and when we feel like it: we aren’t irrevocably committed to “being Black” because of the color of our skin. But, could Rachel walk away from seeing herself as Black? Perhaps not, especially if those she identifies as “family” do not include her biological parents in any meaningful sense.
On the other hand, we’ve long known and accepted that some Blacks are so “light skinned” that they can pass for White, and many have. There are those I know well who are of mixed race parentage, and raised by a White family. Such people often grow up stuck between worlds – not accepted as White by Whites, nor as Black by Blacks. They are perpetually stuck in the gap between cultures: never fully part of one or the other, and frequently rejected by both.
Appearances seem to matter to others: regardless of reality we see within ourselves. So, should anyone have the right to reject us as not being “White enough” or “Black enough”? Should such a judgment be up to us, or to them, or somewhere in between? While deeply embedded racism is still everywhere in this country, the dividing line between who is Black and who is White has always been fuzzy, and is getting fuzzier with time.
Defining a person’s race has always been a multidimensional question, involving genetics, culture, emotional affinities, socioeconomic background, and personal and familial history, among many other factors. Trying to boil it down to a simple “yes you are” or “no you’re not” a member of a particular race does a great disservice to all who identify themselves as being of that race. It turns a deep and rich heritage that one has every right to be proud of into a simple binary label – a stereotype. To me, Rachel’s situation is a case in point.
Rachel Dolezal seems to have successfully kept the appearance of being “Black” while in a prominent position for quite a long time (assuming she was knowingly representing herself falsely, which I am not convinced-of). She is certainly very committed to the African American community. So why can’t a person like her, who is of “White” biological parentage, live her life as she believes she should, being who she believes herself to be? After all, she was raised with Black siblings, and seems to identify strongly with being “Black.” And, she has certainly invested her personal and professional life into “Blackness” in ways that would be costly to walk away from.
All of these types of considerations drive my belief that we must begin by accepting people as they see themselves to be. Any other choice means we are judging them, and I am very aware that I personally don’t know, and can’t know, their full story. I haven’t walked in their shoes, so judging them is highly problematic: I don’t feel what they feel about themselves, and don’t know what they know and believe about being themselves. People can be greatly deluded about who and what they are, but we should not start by assuming this is so, or that they are being false with us. And, we cannot assume that a person is an example of a straight “yes” or “no” about any sort of question regarding any dimension of their identity. Things are never that simple, human beings are never that simple: if we were, the world would be a very dull and depressing place.
We’ve all heard the narratives that many are putting upon Rachel: that she’s cheated her way into the position she has by “pretending” to be Black, and/or perhaps she has some sort of mental or emotional condition that drives her to do what she has done. But, I am certain that the truth is far more complex than the theories that so many are spinning about her right now.
Ultimately, my question is this: how does Rachel Dolezal see herself? Beginning with the question of does she really see herself as “Black,” or not? From what I can tell, from the comments of some I know and respect who in turn know her, is that she is a creative, energetic, likable person. We need to begin with that, and recognize that where she is in life now is the accumulation of decades of choices that all seemed to be the best (or only) option open to her at the time she made each one of them. That some may not like where she stands now is more a reflection of their own biases and agendas than the reality that is within her.
So, before we judge who Rachel Dolezal is, we need to allow her to be who she is, and allow her to have a voice in this discussion of who she should be. Starting by assuming we know her motivations, her understanding of her own racial identity, and her history, is wrong.
Beginning by labelling anyone as not really “Black” (or of another other racial identity for that matter) shows a lack of compassion, and a lack of understanding of the complexities of racism in this country, and an inability or unwillingness to respect or appreciate the depth and beauty of the complexities of human experience.
Copyright (c) 2015, Allen Vander Meulen III, all rights reserved. I’m happy to share my writings with you, as long as proper credit for my authorship is given. (e.g., via a credit that gives my full name and/or provides a link back to this site – or just email me and ask!)