Racial Roulette and Rachel Dolezal

Over the past few days, I’ve been in multiple discussions with people on Twitter over the Rachel Dolezal controversy. Here are a variety of links to the story (from various left- and right-wing establishments), if you are unaware of what is going on:

CNN 

The Daily Mail

Breitbart

New York Daily News

BuzzFeed

Washington Post

They all pretty much say the same thing; a woman, born white, decided to be Black, complete with curly hair and tanned skin, and became an activist for Black people, up to and including, becoming the leader of the Spokane chapter of the NAACP.

First off, whether she is Black or White makes no difference to her position within the NAACP. The NAACP was originally began as a collaborated effort between Black and White community leaders who organized to “fight for social justice for all Americans”. From their website:

WELCOME TO THE NAACP

Founded in 1909, the NAACP is the nation’s oldest and largest civil rights organization. From the ballot box to the classroom, the thousands of dedicated workers, organizers, leaders and members who make up the NAACP continue to fight for social justice for all Americans.

Founding group
The NAACP was formed partly in response to the continuing horrific practice of lynching and the 1908 race riot in Springfield, the capital of Illinois and resting place of President Abraham Lincoln. Appalled at the violence that was committed against blacks, a group of white liberals that included Mary White Ovington and Oswald Garrison Villard, both the descendants of abolitionists, William English Walling and Dr. Henry Moscowitz issued a call for a meeting to discuss racial justice. Some 60 people, seven of whom were African American (including W. E. B. Du Bois, Ida B. Wells-Barnett and Mary Church Terrell), signed the call, which was released on the centennial of Lincoln’s birth.

Nondiscrimination Policy

The NAACP is an Equal Employment Opportunity employer.  As such, it is the continuing policy of the NAACP to take affirmative action to assure equal opportunity for all employees or prospective employees without regard to race, color, religion, national origin, age, gender, sexual orientation, genetic information, veteran status, physical or mental disability, and any other categories protected by applicable federal, state, or local law (www.naacp.org).

Many people have stated that Rachel Dolezal is “trans-racial”, similar to Caitlyn Jenner being transgender. This argument, however, minimalizes what Transgender folks deal with their entire lives, and I’m not even going to entertain it. What I am going to entertain is the idea of a person coming from privilege, by virtue of being born White, and choosing to be marginalized, by putting on “blackface“.

As a woman who was born Cuban-American, that is, my heritage, my culture, my language, all comes from being a 2nd generation Cuban-American, the daughter of Cuban immigrants, I understand how one can be made to feel inadequate, so that you then reach out to groups that help make you feel accepted. I have lived my life like this. This, however, does not stem from me being Cuban-American. That part of my identity is actually just another complex layer to the cake that is me. My Latino roots and my ability to speak Spanish, to dance salsa, to eat Cuban food, etc., let those around me know that I am “other”. Now, my parents are Cuban, but (to use the racial construct that most people know and are familiar with) my mother is Black (African descent, thanks to slavery) and my father is White (Spanish descent, thanks to privilege/colonization). This makes me bi-racial.

As a child, I recall a time when I was attending elementary school. I never considered myself, at that time, as anything much other than what I saw around me, which was plenty of White people (as my father’s children with his 1st wife are all White with dark brown hair), so I also thought of myself as part of that group. It wasn’t until kindergarten that I understood that I was “different”. To my young mind and understanding, my extremely curly, unruly hair was because “I’m Cuban” and not because “my mom is Black”. I never even viewed my mother as anything other than just Cuban (and she spent more time inside, out of the sun, than outside, and for her own reasons). I distinctly recall, however, sitting in the sandbox at recess at South Christian Grade School, in Kalamazoo, Michigan, playing with my friend, Dawn. We were making little sandcastles, as the sand was damp and sticky. A little boy comes walking up to the sandbox and looks at me and says “You’re a n*gger”. At five years old, this was the moment that defined much of how I viewed myself and viewed the world. FIVE. YEARS. OLD.

I laughingly joke with my friends now that I’ve always been a chameleon. In the predominantly Black neighborhood where I grew up, I was seen as the “White girl” by my Black friends. I have a friend that, even today, will tease me about being a White girl. At the predominantly White/Dutch Christian schools I attended, I was a “Black girl”; never quite rejected, but never fully accepted, either. I spent my school days being friends with everyone, on the surface, because I wasn’t the same as everyone else and that dynamic had been set for me at five years old, in a sandbox. In my parents home, and in the community areas where Latinos were abundant, I was neither Black nor White, but just Hispanic or Latino. I spoke Spanish. Ate Cuban food. Listened to Spanish-speaking music, radio shows and news, and hung out with other Latinos at the other Spanish-speaking church we attended.

If I ever looked or dressed like a White girl, it was also in the context of being around White people; this mostly occurred while at the Christian Reformed church we attended and while I was at school. If I ever looked or dressed like a Black girl, it was in the context of being around my Black friends; this mostly occurred while hanging out after school, playing tag in our neighborhood, or when we’d go cruising down the main strip in our little town. If I ever looked or dressed like a Latina, it was in the context of being at home or at the Spanish-speaking church and  community events that were specific for Latinos.

The biggest difference between my chameleon nature and what Rachel Dolezal has done, is that I am all those things in one. However, because of how society views the social construct of race, I never had the full benefits of White privilege, unless it was by extension of my father. When I was with my father in public, no one would ever have thought to call me a “n*gger”. Once I left my parent’s home, the wide world around me knew me for what I was (or rather, what they wanted me to be) and that is NOT WHITE. I can straighten my hair, like a White girl, but at the touch of water or humidity, its curly kinks come right back. I can stay out of the sun for six months to lighten my skin, but let a ray of sunlight touch me and I’m tan in moments. My facial features hint at my Spanish ancestry, but my ample bosom, round belly, and thick thighs are quite different from the White girls I went to school with. Even those things, however, can be changed, if I chose to do so. Plastic surgery could remove much of what distinguishes me from being a White girl. However, and here is the salient point, plastic surgery cannot remove from my mind and memory, the little boy that walked up to me and called me a n*gger, when I was only five years old. Plastic surgery or makeup or a wig cannot remove from me the numerous times I’ve walked into a predominantly White shopping center, and been followed or side-eyed, or when my children have been inspected when walking out of Sam’s Club, because they were well-dressed, had on gold jewelry, and were listening to their Ipods. The subtle, insidious racism that I have faced over 40 years of life cannot be scrubbed away, covered up, or removed like an old scarf. That sits with me, daily, and is part and parcel of who I am.

Rachel Dolezal was born a white girl in Montana. She chose, as an adult, to live her life as a Black woman. She never said, however, “I am white, I just feel better accepted by the Black community”. She instead relied on deception to portray herself as a Black woman. From news articles I have read, she even went so far as to enlist a Black older man to portray her father and, there is question regarding the legitimacy of the alleged death threats she has received over the years. To add to this strange situation, she also seemed to deem herself a worthy judge of “Latino-ness”, when it came to teaching her students.

I can understand wanting to fit into a culture where you feel more accepted. I find myself having to do this daily, as I struggle with my identity in the different environments I live in (Black, White, Latina). I just cannot get over, however, the deception, as this leads me to think that there was different motivation behind her desire to live her adult life as a Black woman.

Some articles insinuate that she grew up with some self-loathing or hatred towards White people, and consequently here we are. The thing is, I’ve hated White people before. I’ve hated Black people before. I’ve hated Cuban people before. I, too, have experienced self-loathing.

I suppose the most telling difference between Ms. Dolezal and I, is that when I felt that way, I got therapy.

True story.

-Lisa

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What Am I? A Rag?

In a crazy turn of events, I’ve had to move from my rented home in Kalamazoo, Michigan to my parent’s house in Naples, Florida. My parents are reaching (or have arrived) at the golden age of life, where they have difficulty doing for themselves. So, I packed up my things, stuck them in a storage unit, hopped into my little Aveo, and drove the 1300+ miles South.

The trip was grueling, as I dragged along my youngest daughter, her friend, and my dog. I had to leave my pup (who is actually about ten years old) with a friend, as my parents are severely allergic to cats and dogs. It hurts my heart to not have her with me, but I know she is in good hands until I can get her back again.

What’s really crazy is what I’ve been through the last few weeks.

My mother has two siblings in Cuba that are quite ill. My uncle Luminado and my aunt Celeste. Both have cancer and, from what I understand, my uncle is terminal. My aunt is fairing a bit better. My mother traveled to see them for ten days and, during that time, I was left to take care of my ailing father, who had suffered a mini stroke about two months ago.

My father is, at the very least, a difficult man. In our youth, he was somewhat a tyrant. He was intolerant of anything that was outside the “machismo” Cuban way of thinking. I cannot speak for my other siblings, but my experience growing up was hindered by the daily mantra of “you are a girl, you cannot do (insert activity here).” Whereas many of my friends were climbing trees, doing lemondrops off the horizontal bars, riding their bikes through their neighborhoods, and finding new friends at the mall, I was relegated to only playing in my backyard or on the front sidewalk, going to the store with siblings or my parents, or having to turn down invites to spend the night at friend’s houses. All in the name of “girldom” (a.k.a. “weaker-sex-istan”).

What my parents never imagined would happen was that I would grow up into a woman that does things for herself, as much as possible, if only because I refuse to believe the “you are a girl, you can’t do that” bullshit.

A prime example of this is the conversation I had with my father the other day, before my mother came home.

He was sleeping in his bed, taking an afternoon nap (which, apparently, old folks like to do). He comes shuffling out of the bedroom and into the back lanai, where I am sitting, reading a book. He sits down in his recliner, kicks back and raises the leg rest, and proceeds to huff and puff. I throw him some side-eye, because (thanks to my psychology schooling) I am certain he’s fishing for attention. (One thing I’ve learned in all this, is that my father requires attention and validation of his ailments just to feel “alive”.)

Me: What’s on your mind? 

Him: (shakes his head) Hmmm, nothing.

Me: That’s a lie. I can tell you are thinking about something and it’s bothering you. What thoughts have you got running around in that head of yours?

Him: Well, I was lying in my bed, with my eyes closed, thinking. 

Me: Thinking about what?

Him: When I die. I was thinking that your mother is going to need help and maybe, we can bring her sister here (from Cuba) and between her sister and your cousin, they can live here and take care of your mother. 

I have to admit, even using the skills that I have acquired after not only being a single mother of three kids, but also, from my five years of study, I have a tough time dealing with the things my father says in an objective way. But, can you blame me? He’s my father. There’s a long, and varied history there with many not-so-good moments that tend to rise to the surface when I am around him. However, I maintain composure and ask:

What am I, a rag? 

Okay, I lied. Composure was lost. I was a bit upset. To my logical brain, I had picked up in the middle of my life (albeit, a poor life, but I had left my two oldest daughters and my granddaughter in Michigan to come help my parents), left my friends and two of my children and my grandchild, left all my belongings (not to sound materialistic, but, that furniture was mine and I had paid good money for it), and then traveled in a teeny tiny car, thousands of miles, to sit here and basically be told I was insignificant.

He stares at me.

Me: Do you not realize what I’ve done to come down here to help you, but most importantly, to help my mother? (insert litany of all the things I listed above)

Him: (stammering) Yes, yes, I know. It’s just that, who’s going to take care of your mother when I am gone? 

Again? Really? Do you not realize you’ve now TWICE said that I am incapable or unworthy to complete this task of caring for my mother if you so happen to die? At this point, I’m shaking my head because I cannot imagine that he cannot see the forest for the trees (yes, I know, a cliche. Bite me, this is MY story!).

Me: Do you not realize that I have raised three kids on my own? (And, they are healthy, intelligent, and kind women.) I have owned homes, owned cars, worked hard, had money, not had money. I have traveled to new places, lived in two states, and, although my current circumstance is not ideal (yup, I am, by FULL definition, homeless), that does not mean that I will not continue to better my situation and that definitely does not mean that I am not capable of caring for my mother if you happen to die. 

Him: I know. I know. But – 

Me: There is no “but”. Do you know that this way of thinking has made me who I am today? You and mom always worried about me “finding a man”. What do I need a man for? I’ve built homes, cleaned shit, have technical and computer skills, can take out my own trash, wash my own car, buy my own things. I don’t “need” someone to care for me, because I am not a “girl that can’t do anything, or shouldn’t do anything” by virtue of being a girl. That phrase you always said to me, growing up, is part of what has fueled me to not let me get in my own way. And, when you say that my aunt and my cousin need to be here to take care of my mother, when I am already here and left everything to be here, that hurts my feelings. 

I left him pensive.

Did it matter what I said? I don’t know for certain. See, he’s not developing dementia or Alzheimer’s, but there is significant cognitive decline happening. Times where he asks a question, to receive an answer, then five minutes later, asks the same question again (presumably because his mind is still processing what he wants to know and hasn’t caught up yet).

This topic hasn’t come up again, but it really burned my cookies. I’ve been through quite a lot with this man as my father. Many of it, horrible. I’m fairly certain I have PTSD because of my childhood under his roof. But, at the end of the day, at the end of my lifetime and his, he is still my “father“. I don’t mean he’s my mother’s “baby daddy”. I mean, he took care of me by providing for my schooling, put a roof over my head, and made sure there was good food to eat on the table every day. He sired me and performed the duties of taking care of his offspring. He is not my “daddy”. That is where he fell short. However, I understand that he is human. I understand that, just as I was subject to the environment in which I was raised, thus was he subject to the environment in which he was raised. I could find fault in his behavior all day long, but if I do not consider that aspect, that he may have suffered something in his youth, as well, then I am no better than any judgmental person who has no empathy or sympathy for others. I would not be able to deal with this situation, without reminding myself that everyone goes through something, that everyone is influenced by the environment in which they are raised, and that many behaviors are the result of that environment.

Until next time –

 

Lisa