What’s the deal with Dolezal?

I may need someone to explain what all this fuss is about. And before I continue, I must admit… I am white. I have Western European ancestry and those ancestors I know of came to this country by way of Quebec. I grew up in the middle class, attended catholic church and catholic school and pretty much only knew other people of similar backgrounds as my own.
So now that all that is out of the way… why is everyone so crazy over Rachel Dolezal?

When the story first broke awhile ago, I just assumed she was another crazy person. But over time, as my life has changed, and maybe my thinking has changed, I’ve just come to feel sorry for her and for how people are treating her. She is white. She was born white, she was raised white. But, in her view, she doesn’t feel white.

I can accept this without any judgment. And here is why. I’ll take you back to high school with me. There was a girl in my class that I would notice sometimes at lunch. She ate fries a lot. And she had this particular way of tapping her fries before she ate them. This wasn’t something that I had pointed out or spoken about. It was just something I noticed in passing. I didn’t give it a second thought, really. But one day I realized that I had started doing the same thing. And the realization caught me off guard. I mean I didn’t think that it was cool, or a more effective way to eat fries. It was something I noticed once or twice and then I ended up doing it.

When we are around other people we naturally take on their mannerisms. It could be their way of speaking, their way of dressing, or even something as mundane as how they eat their fries. And I’m sure sometimes a conscious effort is made to emulate someone else if you admire them in some way or wish to be more like them, but sometimes it just happens with no conscious effort on our part.

So when I think of Rachel Dolezal I imagine someone who had a natural curiosity and admiration of African American culture. People are drawn to different professions, different lifestyles, have different values, desires, etc. And people that are passionate about something will immerse themselves in it. And being immersed in African American culture and surrounded by African Americans would have certainly rubbed off on her. It comes as no surprise to me that she began to feel a part of this group.

Here’s another lame example. I love Jane Austen novels and I am fascinated by the Regency-era. I have all the novels, the sequelizations, the movies, etc, and even took an Austen class in college. I think Jane Austen is an amazing storyteller and that she was ahead of her time in her portrayals of strong female characters. My first daughter’s middle name is partially inspired by one of Austen’s heroines. As much as I love all of this, I’m not surrounded by it. If I found myself in, let’s say, a grad program writing a dissertation on Austen at some quaint English college, I for damn sure would be a very different person than I am today. I could see myself dressing differently, acting differently, but not in a way that was false or contradictory to who I am. I would just have been shaped differently by my experiences. Being immersed in Regency-Era culture would have changed me.

Rachel Dolezal’s resume shows she was more than immersed. She is a civil rights activist, a former head of a local NAACP chapter and a professor of Africana studies. This was her passion. These people are who she felt so drawn to and so connected to.

One of the central arguments that I have read are about the outrage of people who say that Rachel, born white, cannot possibly understand the African experience. But what confuses me is I don’t see how simply belonging to a particular group of people makes you an expert on the historical struggles of that group. Unless, of course, that person has their own negative experiences that speak to the larger issues. For example, being of Irish ancestry, doesn’t mean that I understand or am part of the larger ‘Irish experience.’ I’ve seen the “Irish Need Not Apply” signs in history textbooks. I’ve read about the potato famine and the Easter Rebellion, I’ve been to Ireland and even took Irish step-dancing classes. But as I wasn’t a part of these events personally, nor did I have a direct family member who was affected, I don’t feel qualified to judge anyone else on their identification with this particular group. I know this is a poor example but it was all I could come up with. But do you see what I’m getting at?

I agree that Rachel has no tangible connection to the African American experience. But living (for as long as she got away with it) as a part of that group, and devoting her life to teaching about that group and supporting the advancement of members of that group… well I can see why she chooses to identify as black.

And people say that she is lying about who she really is. Well, I’m pretty sure she still knows she was born white. Changing her hair and darkening her skin must be her ways of identifying just on a physical level with the group. Just look back to any culture at any time and you will find many many examples of people who have changed their looks, changed their manner of acting or speaking, or simply pretended to be something other than what they were born as. And for so many different reasons – for their own safety, for their own advancement, to be with the person they love, etc. It’s sad to say but probably true – but put Rachel (as she was born) next to Rachel (as she changed herself) and see which one a college would hire as a professor of Africana studies.

Maybe I’m not seeing the big deal because I am white. Or maybe it’s because I’m not someone who was directly affected by her or who knew her and felt betrayed. But I support every person’s right to be who they want to be. Rachel identifies as a black woman. So be it. Some people identify as a different gender from what their birth-genitalia signifies. So be it. How Rachel Dolezal lives her life has no effect on how I live mine. I think that the work she was doing in cultural studies and with the NAACP was admirable no matter what color her skin was when she was born.

Maybe we can stop judging people by how they choose to see themselves and present themselves and worry about something more important. Like being decent human beings and looking out for each other. Just a thought.

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