Caitlin Jenner, Rachel Dolezal and the American Politics of Identity

I was brought from Fukuoka, Japan, to the U.S. by my mother Ayako Nakashima and my father Roy Brock when I was 6. At the age of 33, 7 years after Roy had died and the day after Ayako died, I discovered that I had a Puerto Rican birth father, totally unknown to me.

The discovery was both a shock and reassuring truth. While I grew up as a mixed race person, I never really "felt" white. Roy's family in rural Mississippi treated me as one of the family, so I never suspected I might be adopted, but I did not understand what being "white" meant. I could make no sense of their evangelical Christianity, with its extravagant focus on the individual and overwrought emotional performances. I never believed I was so bad as to deserve what happened to Jesus, and I avoided getting "saved."

I struggled for many years to figure out who I was. No one ever treated me like I was white, whatever that is supposed to mean. White strangers would stare at me and often ask "what are you?"

From 1974-1984, I worked in Los Angeles with the National Conference of Christians and Jews in a human relations program for high school students. Our diverse adult staff spent a week in the summer with 250 students examining race, gender, sexuality, religion and family as markers of conflict and identity. I was assigned to work with Protestant, Asian American and mixed-race participants. I learned how little I really knew about the complexities of personal identity. The Asian Americans were as diverse as the mixed race group, ranging from Japanese to Pakistani to Indonesian, and religion was all over the place -- and each identity marker came with an implicit either/or political demand to choose sides: white or black, gay or straight, male or female, believer or nonbeliever.

We defined "mixed-race" as having parents of different races, and I learned that race identification had less to do with appearance than it had to do with the parents who most loved them well. A person who could pass as white would identify as African-American because the parent who abused or hurt them was the white parent. Or they might call themselves Hispanic, even though they looked very Asian, because their Asian parent had abandoned the family. Mostly, love trumped physical appearance, social pressure and belief.

I was sometimes challenged by white participants to claim my "white side." I never sought to deny my white father and family, but I had spent 6 years speaking Japanese and being nurtured by a large, loving family. I felt foreign in the U.S., and I was treated as not white. I was called, "dirty Jap" and got an occasional hit or punch in grammar school. This inner sense of not being half of my genetic identity has helped me understand what someone like Caitlin Jenner endured trying to claim the identity that fits her inner sense of self.

I adapted to being in predominantly white culture, religion and education. I tried to pass as white in high school -- cheerleader, student government, prom queen, salutatorian -- but I felt like a performer living outside her soul most of the time. Oddly enough, I felt most welcomed and loved by a conservative white Baptist minister and his family, who continue to matter deeply to me. Go figure.

I learned about my Puerto Rican family at my mother's funeral, when a couple that knew my family in Japan explained I had a Puerto Rican father. My first comment: "I always knew I wasn't white!"

Learning that truth changed my life. It was a powerful confirmation of a vague inner sense of myself that I had always carried. Yet, I did not feel Hispanic, spoke no Spanish and felt like a visitor to the loving, but foreign, world of my birth father. The family in Puerto Rico that welcomed me did not solve my identity dilemma.

I've gotten to know my Puerto Rican and Mississippi clans over the years, but I continue to feel outside those worlds in significant ways. I have realized increasingly that my roots and core identity were shaped by my Jodo Shinshyu, Buddhist family in Japan, a family I have not seen in a very long time and whose language I have not spoken since I was 6.

I don't know what motivated Rachel Dolezal to construct her identity on false premises, but a lot of us try to create an identity we can live with while living with pasts that stop making sense to us when we leave home. Her construction of a new identity through deception may feel a bit creepy, and she seems unsettled at being exposed, but I find no reason to judge her or Caitlin Jenner.

I understand that sense of dislocation from an identity imposed by others and the attempt to construct a meaning system that reflects who we want to be. The politics of race, identity, family, religion and acceptance are so fraught, hurtful and labyrinthine in the U.S. that I wish, for the increasing number of us who live in multiple worlds with multiple heritages, as much love and peace as we can find and meaningful work to create a better world. God bless all those who love us and want that better world too.