Renée Canada explores racism and identity through the lens of Rachel Dolezal.
Growing up as one of about a dozen brown-skinned children in a small, suburban town in Connecticut in the ‘80s and early ‘90s, the burning desire to fit in was real. Each morning, my mother tamed my “wild” hair into tidy, braided pigtails until fifth grade when I declared that I wanted straight, flowing hair like the rest of my female classmates. Risking chemical damage and scalp burn to relax my hair, I embraced the life and culture of a mostly white community. While I couldn’t wear the same makeup, use the same hair products or always fit into the same fashions of my peers, I managed to fit in it rather well. I had friends across cliques. I excelled academically, athletically and artistically. And despite the “junk in my trunk,” I convincingly danced “like a white girl” as my younger cousin from the South teased.
Yet the feeling of “otherness” throughout my adolescence grew with each stereotypical assumption or racist comment from my peers or perceived snub by a potential suitor who wasn’t afraid to flirt mercilessly with me, but never went on to ask me out. I was embarrassingly singled out in an English class for my advice on which African American literature we should focus—presumably as the sole representative of that culture in my class, I knew better than my well-educated and seasoned teacher. The incident that most got under my skin was when my guidance counselor discouraged me from applying to a top-rated school I went on to attend; my similarly-ranked classmates, on the other hand, were encouraged and supported in applying to the Ivy Leagues to which few got in.
Life in Blackface: Does Fitting in Mean Deceiving All?
No, despite my early efforts to fit in, I never deluded myself into believing I was, in fact, white. This is perhaps what I find most baffling about civil rights activist Rachel Dolezal’s decade-long charade of living life as a light-skinned African American. This woman of white, European descent, appears to have gone to great lengths to identify as and be recognized as a black or multiracial woman—altering skin and hair tone to adopt a stereotypically ethnic look, claiming a black man in a photo is her father, lecturing and writing about African American issues struggles from a personal stance.
To me, what is more fascinating than how she managed to convince colleagues, neighbors and friends to believe all of her delusions and/or lies is why she chose to do so. Dolezal grew up in a diverse household with two black, adopted siblings and was surrounded by a reportedly diverse community of family friends. Embracing a culture to which you genuinely feel a kinship is nothing new, startling or concerning. Live in the community where you feel most comfortable. Extensively study and responsibly teach whichever culture to which you are most drawn. Style your hair however you wish.
However, to take on a false identity so that you can fully immerse in a different ethnic experience (to your advantage) is far more disturbing and ethically questionable at best.
The president of the Spokane chapter of the NAACP and adjunct professor of Africana studies went far beyond the cultural appropriation of Miley Cyrus, Katy Perry or Iggy to be edgy or hip by embracing the artistic flavor of the year. Dolezal went beyond the “blackface” of C. Thomas Howell’s character pretending to be black to get a full ride to college in the ‘80s flick Soul Man. In addition to accepting a full scholarship to graduate school at a historically black college under the assumption that she was black, Dolezal also reportedly concocted stories about her parents physically abusing her and punishing her and her siblings by skin complexion , claimed her black, adopted brother was actually her son, and proudly proclaimed on Facebook that she was “going natural” with her hair at age 36. Most recently, and perhaps most disturbingly, Dolezal claimed to be the victim of racially fueled hate mail.
Is There Room For Other Voices on Race?
History is full of stories about black people who “passed as white” to avoid the institutional racism, cultural bigotry, and socioeconomic disadvantages of growing up as an oppressed person of color. It is difficult then to conceive of the reasons why a white woman worked so hard to be recognized as a minority, especially when people are still fighting for recognition, financial opportunities and legal justice because of class, color and creed. Did Dolezal truly believe that she would only receive the type of recognition and reward she desired living as a minority? While a historically black college, Howard University rewards students of diverse ethnic background. Dolezal also wouldn’t have been the first white leader of a local chapter of the NAACP in the state of Washington.
In an interview with The Guardian, Dolezal’s mother Ruthanne, who describes her daughter as a master artist, said Rachel has wanted to be someone she is not, despite having the capability to, “accomplish the work that she set out to do in the beginning by being herself and by being a white woman who is an advocate for African Americans.”
Perhaps the idea that my own accomplishment should speak for itself, regardless of the color of my skin was or which ethnicity I identified with, motivated my deliberate decision to leave any racial/ethnic identification out of the college application process. I chose not to apply for college scholarships based on the color of my skin, or my African American or Native American heritage. When the Black Honor Society of my university—whose qualifications were at a significantly lower standard than the other honor societies—offered me academic recognition, I rejected it. I fully realize not everyone is able to take the perhaps idealistic stance I chose, and perhaps it was foolish financially, but I felt it was true to my genuine identification with the human race.
The Elusiveness of Race in America
Please don’t misunderstand me—I wasn’t denying the color of my skin. I also wasn’t denying the diversity of my family, which includes not only African heritage and brown skin, but also includes Native Americans and Europeans with white skin and blue and gray eyes. During college, I ditched the relaxers and embraced my natural mane of curls, waves and straight hair, black, brown, red and golden hairs. I studied jazz, went to hippie concerts, sang European Medieval and Renaissance tunes, and listened to classical music to relax. Before finally switching to Communication, I majored in the newly created field of study Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity, taking courses in exoticism in art, gender in pop culture and guilt from cross-cultural perspective, studying religions and reading literature from around the globe. I traveled as much of the world as I could, studied different languages and saw myself as a global citizen. I didn’t relate to just one culture, so I tried to immerse myself in it all.
Yet I was not blind to the reality of people choosing to see others in only one light due to the color of our skin. While I’ve had the freedom to live my life a certain way, others have been forcibly denied opportunities they deserve simply due to ethnic background or income level. In her social justice work, Dolezal fought for people of color to have these rights and privileges. Yet her positive efforts have been lost in the din of confusion about the kind of person she really is.
Until she chooses to tell the true story, we are left to wonder whether Dolezal deliberately chose to live a life of deception due to a corrosive desire for sympathy and reparations or whether she genuinely suffers from delusions and desperately needs psychological help. Yet one thing her story does for certain is force us to keep rethinking the concept of race—is it ingrained biology or learned culture? Is it skin color or the mixed heritage of the family to which you were born? Is it something that can be acquired or discarded with privilege?
And what does the blurred and elusive definition of race say about the constructs of our culture? Clearly we need to begin dismantling the strangling socioeconomic structures that are built on such flimsy foundations.