Like Rachel Dolezal, I have always identified as multiracial. And like Rachel, I was born with blonde hair and blue eyes. Yet, here is where Rachel and I differ -- I am actually multiracial. (And according to AncestryDNA, I am biologically 15% African). My mother was born and raised in Kingston, Jamaica, and her parents both come from very racially blended families. I do stick out like a sore thumb at family gatherings -- so much so that my relatives have taken to calling me the "white sheep" of the family.
And while my Jamaican family loves me and teases me about it, I have also faced backlash from people for trying to "pretend" to be black or trying to "appropriate" Afro-Caribbean culture. On applications, I have always marked biracial, mixed racial or other. In college, I was turned away from attending a trip to work with youth in Jamaica. The requirement to attend was to be of African or Afro-Caribbean descent. When I applied, I was told I was "too white" to attend. In law school, since I had marked "other" on my application and written in that my mother was Jamaican, the school then identified me automatically as black. This led to the different black student groups reaching out to me to participate in their activities -- until they realized I was "white."
But where does presentation stop and identity start? Am I only allowed to identify as how I present? Or am I allowed to embrace my entire cultural history and identify myself how I truly am?
Anyone who is reading this and saying, "You haven't had a true 'black experience'" would be 100% correct. You are right; I haven't been targeted because of my race here in America. I've never been pulled over for Driving While Black or been stopped for "looking suspicious."
But I did grow up with an experience that is unique to those of us who have parents from the islands. I grew up eating curried goat and oxtail and rice and peas. I've always known about celebrating Boxing Day and eating rum pudding at Christmas and assumed that all dads cooked Thanksgiving Dinner, since Mom had never learned how to do it (smart move, Mom). When I was younger, whenever I was about to get into serious trouble, my mom always told me, "Chicken merry, hawk is near." All of these experiences are something that only those of us from certain heritages can share.
But here in America, I am so often made to feel like I have to "choose" one or the other. I can't have it both ways. I can't look white, but embrace being multiracial. Forgive the bad analogy, but in this country, it seems so often that everything must be either black or white. There is no room for middle ground. You can't have things both ways. I can't present as white and be allowed to identify as mixed.
I will be the first to fully admit that I get the benefits of white privilege by presenting as a white woman. It doesn't make it "right," but it is the truth. I know that I benefit from a societal standpoint by presenting as white. But the exterior presentation doesn't begin to touch the interior identity.
So, while I am not saying that what Rachel Dolezal did was right, especially based on the fact that she doesn't appear (from what we know) to have any mixed racial background, I am saying that we all shouldn't be so quick to dismiss when someone's identity doesn't match their presentation. Genetics do crazy shit sometimes. And that can mean someone will look white or black or mixed, but identify with both or only one of their outer racial identities. So, the next time you may be tempted to completely disregard someone's discussion of their identity based on how they present, maybe take a step back and realize things are not always merely skin deep.