Tuesday, June 16, 2015

The Rachel Dolezal Debate

Most news stories that show up on Yahoo are basically light and fluffy, not even anything one would consider to be real news. The story of Rachel Dolezal, President of the NAACP in Spokane, however, caught my eye, and following this story as it unfolds is nothing short of fascinating. She is allegedly a white woman who for many years has been passing herself off as black. Rachel has stepped down from her position with the NAACP, having apparently been an exemplary leader, amid the scandal caused by her being outed to the media by her biological parents.

We have yet to hear from Rachel, except for a short interview in which she did verify that she identifies herself as a black woman. There has been a firestorm on social media over the issue, as you would expect. The NAACP itself has no issues with her being white, per se, as being black isn't a job prerequisite. Some black people in the media have even defended her. Melissa Harris-Perry of MHP posed the question as to whether Dolezal could actually be black, using the analogy of transgender experience.

I'm no expert on any of this, but I feel compelled to respond as a human being. It does appear that Rachel likely lied about her race on a government job application to be an ombudsman. She claimed to be white, black, and American Indian. Her birth parents say that she is mostly caucasion with a little Native American heritage. That sounds like a lot of us. I do know that to receive certain government benefits, one must be able to prove being at least 1/16 Native American. I don't know what the stipulations are for claiming to be racially black.

If Rachel did lie on her government job application, she might be charged in some way, so there is at least potentially a valid legal issue. We all know that lying is wrong. But let us not forget that Jesus said, "He who has not sinned, cast the first stone." No one who is ripping apart Rachel Dolezal's character and demonizing her could claim that they have never told a lie. Lying on a job application isn't earth-shattering news. Like Harris-Perry said, the reaction of the public to this story says more about us than it does about Rachel.

The U.S. has long been divided over issues of race and ethnicity, which are not limited to tensions between blacks and whites. For example, there was an article circulating on Facebook among members of the belly dance community that offended many people. The author slammed white belly dancers for "appropriating" Middle Eastern culture and contended that white women simply should not be belly dancers. Granted, I've never known a white belly dancer who pretended to be Egyptian or Lebanese, but I have known several who frequently visit the countries of the Middle East and very much enjoy being steeped in certain aspects of the culture. As Harris-Perry pointed out, there is more to race identification than sheer biology.

In the U.S., an ethnic and cultural melting pot, we have perhaps suffered from an identity crisis. Our country is very young, and many people are interested in genealogy and learning more about their ancestors. Often people strongly identify with one element of a mixed cultural history. I know people who are in small part Native American but who emphasize that part of their heritage over their more dominant ethnicities. I've seen white folks with dreadlocks. Many an American woman has married a Frenchman and fully embraced a French lifestyle. People without a bit of Irish and who are not Catholic wear green on St. Patrick's Day. It's not at all uncommon in the entertainment industry for white artists to appropriate black culture. Hello, Eminem. We consider President Barack Obama to be a black man, but he is just as much a white man.

It's easy to see why Rachel Dolezal identified so strongly with the black community. She has 4 adopted black brothers, was married to a black man, and has two black sons. She graduated from Howard, a prestigious black university. She has taught African Studies as a college professor. Are accusations of mental illness because she thinks of herself as black and altered her appearance to reflect that identification really valid? Remember the movie, "Dances with Wolves"? Kevin Costner's character was a white man who lived among American Indians. He took on their customs and dress, and yes, danced around a fire with a wolf. He was not depicted as a madman.

If you have seen Roots or have any basic knowledge of American history, you know that after the Civil War, people of mixed black-and-white race would sometimes pass themselves off as completely white. Those who were fair-skinned enough could successfully appropriate white culture and avoid racial prejudice and persecution. Obviously Rachel's racial misrepresentation is not the same as the "passing" of emancipated slaves. But I think that there is more to her story than meets the eye, and she may have had valid reasons for her transformation.

I watched the Good Morning America interview with Rachel's parents. The mother was curiously silent. She avoided answering many questions directed toward her, and her husband answered instead. When she did answer a question, she did not do so directly, offering rather what seemed to be a scripted response. We don't know why Rachel is estranged from her parents. Surely there is a reason that she felt the need to "adopt" a black father and to distance herself from her biological family. Many people have a compelling need to reinvent themselves and start over with a new life.

I have no idea how I would feel about Rachel's choices if I were a black woman. But I think that she deserves some compassion. As Christians, an ounce of charity is regardless required. I was very disappointed in Al Cresta for saying on Catholic Radio that he was glad that Dolezal's parents outed her. Her mother claimed that it was the media who contacted them, and otherwise they would not have exposed their daughter. But no reason was given as to why the media ostensibly sought them out. Why would they think that publicly humiliating their daughter was a good idea? It's possible that their intentions were well-meaning, an effort to force Rachel to get the "help" that they think she needs. But maybe she did what she did in order to break free from a past that we, at this time, know nothing about. And maybe it was the best way she knew of to create the successful, purposeful life that she was leading until the proverbial sh*t hit the fan.

Perhaps it would help us to understand Rachel if we consider that most of us, in one way or another, have presented ourselves in a modified light. We change our hairstyle and color, makeup, and wardrobe to reflect how we wish to be rather than the truth of how we were born. We might not be "deceptive" about our race, but haven't white people been obsessed with getting a tan to alter our pale skin, which we deem to be not as attractive? We attempt to hide our age by covering the grey and having cosmetic surgery. We buy houses and cars we can't afford in order to keep up with the Joneses. We desperately copy celebrities. Yep, we are a nation of posers. Authenticity, which we crave, so often eludes us.

Yet Rachel Dolezal apparently found a way to be her authentic self and has contributed very positively to society as a result. Is this really a case of a woman trying to be something she's not?

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