As additional information continues to surface regarding Rachel Dolezal and her level of deception, my opinion continues to evolve. One thing remains constant --it highlights how truly obsessed we are with assigning boundaries of identity based on "race" and the damage it can do to the soul and mind.
Many white warriors before her chose to fight for social justice in the skin they were in, marginalized by their own community. Some are the descendents of black women who chose to "pass" in order to make a way out of no way as their ancestral family footprint was erased in the process. Some are the descendants of those "other" non-English women who were adopted into the sisterhood of whiteness and the privileges that came with it. The fact she was accepted as "black" to begin with also highlights the intraracial complexities of colorism within the community she sought to immerse herself in.
The bottom line is we are obsessed with knowing which "team" everyone is on, as if the color of your skin and family tree clearly indicate what you are entitled to versus what you are appropriating. Socially constructed cultural assignments are a distraction from solid alliances based on shared purpose and vision across the color line.
Fake Daddy, fabricated hate crimes and plagiarized art? Absolutely indefensible. However, those committed to shredding her while barely mentioning the racist white teacher from Texas arguing for a return to segregation speaks volumes. Racists couldn't be happier that social media has chosen Rachel Dolezal as white villain of the week.
I admit it--I fell out laughing at the mockery memes. Humor keeps us human. What's not funny are the stereotypes about black and white women resonate because we ALL know exactly what they mean, whether we agree or not. They have become part of our collective consciousness. It's not a black or white thing, it's an American thing. Don't believe me? Ask an African or European.
I stopped laughing when I read the comments from her adopted brothers, Ezra and Izaiah Dolezal. My empathy returned full force, encouraging me to try and understood why rather than just what or how. I'm not her. I don't know her; I certainly am not trying to speak on her behalf and I am not defending dishonesty. I'm simply hoping we all use this media circus moment to inspire some painful, vulnerable, and candid conversations about the damage we do to each other as we navigate the narrative about racial identities.
Dolezal's time at predominantly black Howard University may have been a major turning point in her transformation, her adopted brother said.
'When she applied they thought she was a black student," he said. "When she came there, they saw she was white and she wasn't treated that well, especially by people that worked there. She probably started developing this kind of dislike for being white and dislike for white people. She used to tell Izaiah ... that all white people are racists. She might have developed some self-hatred.'
She didn't commit fraud by submitting a portfolio that folks assumed was created by a black woman (alleged plagiarism is an entirely different subject). Instead, she learned fast that a black artist was valued in the community where she now lived, but a white artist creating "black art" was not. Ultimately, she constructed an alternative reality to pursue her passion and purpose.
Again, I am not condoning dishonesty, but I do understand that not being accepted solely because of the color of your skin can deeply damage the soul and mind. Can we all agree on that at least? Some of the most distressing comments I read were those that compared what she did to pretending to have cancer. Say what? Rachel isn't the only one with a self-love issue if "blackness" is being compared to a terminal illness. And for those who say this is just another pity party full of white woman tears because one had to step down, please stop. The level of hatefulness we continue to dump on each other related to identity is incomprehensible.
In his conversation with Bill Moyers in 2007, Archbishop Desmond Tutu explained the power of language, identity and self love:
BILL MOYERS: What was the worst thing about apartheid?
ARCHBISHOP TUTU: Ultimately, it is actually when it makes you doubt that you are a child of God. When you are subjected to treatment that begins to work in here and you begin to say, maybe they are right. Language is very powerful, language does not just describe reality, language creates the reality it describes. And so when they call you a non-European, a non-this you may think it is not working on you, but in fact it is corrosive of your self image. You end up wondering whether you are actually as human as those others.
If as Archbishop Tutu asserted, language has the power to create rather than just describe reality, Ms. Dolezal's story highlights how destructive the ways we "other" really are.
Am I crystal clear that white privilege meant that at any time, she could have chosen to return to another reality rather than wear a mask and assume a manufactured identify? You bet I am. So is every other white woman who has ever chosen to speak out against racism or study African-American (Black) Art, Literature and History from a place of sincere empathy, admiration and respect.
Those of us who continue to challenge the status quo on the margins of membership in the whiteness club have heard it all--it's a fetish, you're a traitor, wannabe, spy, wigger, dumb a** white girl, etc. Most of us have vocally expressed fury over racial injustice since a young age. The cost can be counted in terms of lost friends, family members and opportunities from those of every color who don't like dissenters or outsiders. Rachel Dolezal didn't just disrespect black women; she disrespected all women who fight each day to be heard as authentic warriors in myriad battles for social justice.
I have finally learned that if you want to understand something clearly, ask a child. I asked my own kids what they think about the story. In summary, both said lying always catches up with you so that is wrong; but if grown-ups didn't spend so much time trying to group people, then everyone could just focus on being a good person and doing whatever it is they love and care about.
Agreed. By the way, my daughter is a spirited, redheaded aspiring artist named after Maya Angelou. She calls herself THE Maya and wants to be a kitty. Be whatever you want baby girl, no matter what--just be authentic, original and don't claim Grumpy Cat is your Daddy.