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:
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.
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.
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.