Friday, June 12, 2015

The Curious Case of Rachel Dolezal

By now you've probably heard about Rachel Dolezal, a prominent civil rights activist who happens to be white. Of course that is hardly news worthy, except for the fact that she misrepresented herself as being black. The interesting part is that she is mixed, and her heritage consists of Czech, Swedish, German, and Native American. Allegedly Native American is a small percentage but let's ignore all that right now and get back to the main issue,which is outrage over the fact that Ms. Dolezal identified herself as mixed-raced (including black) in the past. Is this real outrage or just uncomfortableness?

To be honest, personally I have zero outrage on the whole matter. If someone wants to identify as black and spend their life dedicated to promoting and furthering black causes and agendas, I have zero complaints. Now it would be different if someone "misappropriated" a culture to capitalize on a certain advantage but the current facts do not support that here. She's not someone pretending to be Native-American in order to open a casino or any unethical thing like that. I feel like black women have voiced the most outrage on the matter, which makes sense because they feel like their identity is being threatened here. Historically, they have been trivialized by mainstream media, while simultaneously having aspects of their identity misappropriated. That is a very legitimate gripe, I just don't think it applies here. I'm also aware that as a man, my perspective is different, so I understand how black women may feel exploited. I read a tweet that mentioned because of colorism, Rachel Dolezal gained an advantage in the job force by being a fairer complexion African-American. I found that a bit amusing because there's no way that being a lighter complexion black woman could trump putting white and identifying as being white as far as employment opportunities go. Don't over-think this by making up unsubstantiated advantages she may have had. Someone could easily play devil's advocate and counter that with disadvantages, especially if they don't have to actually have happened. Basically don't try to create a reason for being offended. Either you are or aren't based on real information.

Let's talk about race for a minute here. Race is a social construct, meaning that it is determined and differs based on the ideologies of each society. There is no natural world order to race. It exists however we want it to exists in our head. What about the biological aspect of race? That is also just as unclear, as genetic variation is often times higher AMONGST populations (races) than BETWEEN them. I read a story this year about mix-raced twins that are different races, because one appears white, and one appears black which is absurd to me. How can two people that share the same parental lineage be of different races. Another example is that during the Civil War, some white southerners based their right to succeed on the fact that they were a different race than northerners. While both were primarily descendants of Englishmen, the southerners claim they descended from Huguenots and Jacobites (rulers and nobles), while northerners were Puritans descended from serfs. In this example their position of power determined "race". Historically race has been used as nothing more than an instrument to promote superiority and justify discrimination.

Back to Rachel Dolezal; I'm not saying her methods were right, anytime you lie it probably isn't. But it would be contradictory to ostracize someone who has done more work for black causes than most black people.  I don't think the lie itself (as far as how she used it) was damaging per se, but with that said when you lie, you have to lie to keep up that original lie and as that multiplies it can become very damaging. I don't know if that happened or not, but I'm aware of the possibility. So why the lack of fury from me? Well because part of me can understand why she felt she needed to represent herself as black. Now before I finish this rationale, please understand that me understanding the basis of her decision does not equate to me supporting it as being right. It seems to me that very early on, Ms. Dolezal decided that she would dedicate her life to black culture. As a black person, I can say with confidence that we are not very inclusive to white people. That is mostly the result of years of mistreatment by them, but that is a subject for another day. The point is that we don't accept people often. We are even quick to exclude other blacks. Every black person is familiar with the phrase, "You're not really black because _______ (insert almost anything you can think of). We also demand constantly that our people prove their blackness and if they can't the validity of any argument they have regarding our race is null and void. It can be a bit of a hassle at times, and that's for a non-activist.

So you take a white woman wanting to make black culture her life's work and it doesn't take a rocket scientist to imagine the barriers she would face, not because of her work ethic or dedication to black causes but because of her race (ironically this is an issue that black people know too well). Add to the fact that white women and black women have a rivalrous relationship (that's putting it nicely and is another topic that deserves its own post), it's hard to imagine her progressing as far as she has or having the same influence. Maybe she considered representing herself as black as the only way to effectively carry out her work, which apparently she has done a pretty good job of doing. My intentions are not to make her out as the victim here at all, but I can understand why she did it. As an activist, not being in the "in-crowd" does not carry the same weight, it just doesn't. So if her reason for representing herself as black was to be a better civil rights activist and positively impact black lives, I personally don't see any reason for outrage. Now possibly I'm being naive and it could be a less ambitious reason that I don't know of yet, and I reserve the right to change my stance based on relevant and available information. But I'm open-minded. I believe that since race is a social construct, people can chose to identify with whatever they want as long as they are doing "right" by that group and actually accepts that group as their own. And no that does not include someone that dresses or tries to look a certain culture, but switches whenever it is convenient for them or when they can gain an advantage.

BONUS Thought. It's also interesting that Walter Francis White, former chair of the NAACP for over a quarter century, had white skin, blue eyes and blond hair by virtue of mixed European ancestry on both sides (primarily white), but identified completely as being black despite being the great grandson of President William Henry Harrison. Both of his parents were born into slavery though. It just goes to show how peculiar "race" is.