I don’t usually connect enough with news and popular culture to comment upon it, but as it has intruded upon me, comment I will – if only to make my own way through my own thoughts. If you’re trying to avoid this particular pundit-feeding-of-the-piranhas, pop by another day when I’ll be back to my full-time job of writing lies and bad poetry. 😉
“So what,” someone asked casually, “do you think of our friend, Rachel Dolezal?”
I had to give the question some thought. Even in the UK Guardian, I’d seen pictures of the frizzy-haired Washingtonian and former NAACP leader. At every turn, I am confronted by her face (and that awesome, but sadly-not-“natural” hair). And yet, mostly what I felt – feel? is… confused. Is there suddenly some cachet in being perceived as less-than, that I hadn’t understood?
First, by now we’re well acquainted with the truth that race is a construct, an arbitrary collection of ideas masquerading as fact. Many, many people have made a living and a whole life’s work out of reinforcing and maintaining that construct, but it’s only a chimera, a made-creature, not something born a living, breathing thing. In this age of reinvention, where gender and sexual identities are being at last renegotiated, race still is waved about to sell things, make things “cool” or to deem them as thoroughly and totally unacceptable. It’s not biological, it’s social, and inasmuch as I am an African American in this country, I know that I have European antecedents, Native antecedents, and my lineage is no more “pure” anything than is any other Heinz-57 American. Social groupings, social stratas, social rules. By this viewpoint, because she changed groups (and she changed groups the “wrong” direction, although being caught out either “direction” would be problematic), Ms. Dolezal broke societal rules. By being disingenuous, she also broke any kind of rules of integrity.
Only the latter is truly egregious, perhaps.
As this story has continued to push into the forefront of news cycles, it has made me, oddly, think about a pivotal moment in the life of Moses. Yeah, that Moses, the baby-in-the-bulrushes who grew up to challenge Pharaoh for the amnesty of the Hebrews and later became a great rabbi and received the Law or the Torah. If you know the story (and I do: thanks Mom!) you know he was actually a little Hebrew baby who’d been found (not that he was lost, but this was all a Plan) and raised by the Pharaoh’s daughter as a prince, with thousand-thread Egyptian cotton sheets, in the lap of slave-fueled luxury. All around him he saw how the Hebrews were treated – and he was tormented by it, to the point of beating to death an overseer who was beating (probably also to death) a slave. Can I even say how well that did not go? Sure, Moses offed the guy because of decency and compassion, but then the slave he was protecting gave him a reality check about how much WORSE that action was going to make the slave’s life — and everyone got in his face about it, including the Pharaoh, which was kind of a problem. And Moses was bewildered and disappointed. (And also: quickly leaving town.)
People in search of an identity often latch onto one that helps them navigate the feelings that they are having. Rachel Dolezal was possibly feeling confused and conflicted about her life and her relative unimportance, in the sea of other people like her (whomever she felt was in that sea) so she …co-opted what she perceived as the suffering of a group. I get that: many people believe that people of color are “cool” and wanting to be a part of something so badly is nothing new – we all know people who have claimed racial and ethnic identities not their own, going so far as to speak for those groups in social situations (hello, claimants of ancestral Cherokee princesses, makers of dream-catchers and feather-wearing, tribal-tatt-sporting models from stupid magazines; greetings, wearers of “boho” and mehndi, dabblers in Eastern religions who “namaste” everyone to death without actual practice or understanding of that faith – or that it IS a faith. Yep: we’re talking to you). In all likelihood, Moses, too, was feeling confusion and rage and guilt — But: he was actually Hebrew. Jewish. Of the tribe and the People.
Probably the most confusing thing about the racial affectations and identity-crisis of Rachel Dolezal is that she took leadership in the NAACP for four years, going so far as to get deeply involved with that organization and to take on that mantle of … authority? as a woman of color (though to be clear: the NAACP has only historical authority and perhaps a kind of social authority to certain people of color who looked to them for leadership in “uplifting the race” through the earliest days of the civil rights movement. To more modern generations, the organization remains questionable and does not actually advance or uplift anyone, colored person or otherwise. ). Unnecessary, since the NAACP has, from day one, had Caucasian people in its ranks (the founders were seven prominent white people, and one black one) and its allies have included well-loved and well-known people of all races. There is room within a social construct for everyone. If a person wants to identify as an African American, fine. No one can decide the identity of another, just as transcultural, transgender and transsexual people often choose one or the other — or both — options to create a blend of their perceived identity. We are all a pastiche, made up of bits and pieces that feel like “us.” But, Rachel Dolezal, for me, blurred the lines between aspiration and theft, when she took up leadership based on a lie… and I don’t think we’ll ever know the why behind this. Making up hate crimes and trying to own something – some ineffable thing – which isn’t hers to own – so people will… what? Love her more? see her as more “legitimate?” Feel like she’s one of the nation, the tribe, and the people?
Ms. Dolezal’s actions are, at their root, a violation of trust for those who trusted her, a violation of her community position for the community she hoped to support. In view of that, it’s easy to understand why there’s so much froth and foment and so many ambivalent feelings within many communities. Ms. Dolezal used her privilege to barter for membership into a group bound in some cases only by a shared troubled past – trouble of which Ms. Dolezal took advantage. Is it any wonder that the Hebrews weren’t that fond of Moses? Proving yourself to be an ally takes time – and work. It’s two steps forward and then having it all unravel — and digging in your heels and starting again. It’s not enough just to identify as one of the people. There’s no shortcut, in working with people, to being a person of integrity, someone whom they can trust. Where Rachel Dolezal blew it is in not trying to let those she wanted to help speak first — she tried to speak for everyone.
And even after writing all of that, I still don’t know quite what to think.