Anyone remember that book “Black Like Me”? How about the movie starring lengendary actor James Whitmore of the same name? Of course, those of us from the 1980s generation will undoubtedly remember C. Thomas Howell’s “Soul Man”, which was about a white student pretending to be black to qualify for a black only Harvard scholarship. Well from the makers of those zany stories comes The Curious Case of Rachel Dolezal! If you’re reading this, I’m sure you’ve heard by now that last week, the parents of the Spokane Washington NAACP President, Ruthanne and Lawrence Dolezal told a reporter that their daughter, Rachel is not black as she is believed, but is white. Today, it was announced that Rachel Dolezal has resigned her position with the NAACP Chapter in Spokane. Since then, the internet has gone afire over her apparent transgressions. From absolute shock to utter disdain, disgust and hatred for who she is and what she’s done. My initial reactions were lukewarm at best. I read it and said “Oh, a white girl is the president of a NAACP branch(that’s nice)… So, what’s going on with Caitlin Jenner? And did she help those two (actual) criminals escape up in New York?” Clearly, there are more pressing matters in the world. However, the more I looked into the story, the more I looked into who Rachel Dolezal is, the more I became fascinated with her history, what she did and has done and ultimately, I’ve become frustrated with the reactions of those who shame her.
So who is Rachel Dolezal? Naturally if you ask Facebook or Twitter it will tell you “Liar”, “Bitch”, “Fraud”, “Mentally Ill”… let’s see… “Delusional”, “Con” and “Criminal”, among select other descriptors. However, when I actually looked at this and thought about it, I had to look it up myself. So, without further adieu, feel free to read who she actually is:
Professor Rachel Doelzal is a professor of African Studies at Eastern Washington University. She has a Master’s Degree from Howard University and has taught African and African-American Art History, African History, African-American Culture, as well as “The Black Woman’s Struggle” at EWU as well as North Idaho College. Her passion for civil and human rights has lead her to work in rural Mississippi advocating for equal rights and community development, coordinating cultural events, panel discussions and trainings on Human Rights as well. She is the former Director of Education at the Human Rights Education Institute and is a licensed Diversity Trainer and Human Rights Consultant working with businesses and organizations on inclusivity, diversity and fair practices. Most recently, she has been appointed by the Mayor of Spokane, Washington to serve as a police commissioner for the Office of the Police Ombudsman, to oversee fairness and equity in law enforcement.
Clearly, Rachel Dolezal is educated, accomplished and has not knee-deep, not waist-deep, but literally so deeply involved, invested and ingrained into the African-American community, she is hair-deep(see what I did there… pun) in the African-American Community. Her work and advocacy in helping and advancing the goals and desires of the black community is quite extensive. That is no way fraudulent. To be perfectly honest, she has done more to promote our issues, agenda and experiences than a multitude of others IN the black Community alone. As compared to others outside of our race, she is a needle in a haystack. Too frequently, when discussing issues of the black experience in America, mainstream(white) audiences are ambivalent at best. Over the last few years, I have used Your Friendly Neighborhood Black Man, as well as Facebook and other forms of media to tell the story of the effects of what happens in Ferguson, Missouri, Long Island, Stamford, Florida and now Baltimore, Maryland, McKinney, Texas and Fredricksburg, Virginia and what black folks have been experiencing for years. Sometimes people listen, most times they don’t. But we share outrages on social media of these happenings because we want a blind world to wake up and look what’s happening and has been happening to us in our lives. Most mainstream(white) audiences don’t know. But then again, there are those that not only do know, but work as much as I do to open up eyes, minds and hearts of the world around us. Rachel Dolezal has done just that.
Yet, there is the idea and belief by many of her blatant and perceived deception of lying to the NAACP, Eastern Washington staff, and city of Spokane about her ethnicity. Her parents identify as white(Czech, German and Native American at least). Rachel Herself, according to her Twitter account, identifies herself as “Transracial” or at the very least multi-ethnic. However, as uncovered by the fraudulently named “The Smoking Gun”(no one named Gunn works there), she had a suit opened against Howard University, a historically Black College, of “discriminating against her as a white woman”. The suit was dismissed, however with the suit she contended that Howard was “permeated with discriminatory intimidation, ridicule and insult.” That’s how she felt… being judged as a white woman. However over the last decade plus she has been living her life as not a white woman. Why? Why would someone consciously elect to forfeit their identity as a white woman and the perceived or apparent advantaged it may have to be someone who is often discriminated against themselves? So the question remains, did she lie about who she is? Did she lie about being black or lie about being white?
First of all, it should be stated that most are confused on the matter. The NAACP, in a letter of support stated that “one’s racial identity is NOT a qualifying criteria OR disqualifying standard for NAACP leadership. Moreover, anyone remember what Equal Opportunity Laws are? Affirmative Action? Anyone? Contrary to what people believe it to be, what it actually says is that hiring, accepting or otherwise judging one’s quality based on race, class gender or religion is illegal. That goes BOTH ways. Discrimination is illegal. Anyway you slice it. That said, did she misrepresent herself as a black woman? Well, according to her application with the city of Spokane, it isn’t that simple. Take a look:
Apparently, she did admit to being white. That wasn’t an omission. However, she did also check black, American Indian and Two or More Races. While I can’t qualify this for every single time she’s been formally asked the question, it goes to show her motives, just as much as her experiences at Howard. To better qualify this, you would best look at her history, education and worldview. While her parents clearly identify themselves as white, growing up with Rachel as their biological daughter, the Dolezal’s adopted African-American children and according to Ruthanne Dolezal, that was the genesis of Rachel’s racial identification. Some want to claim Rachel to be “fake” or “acting black”, but if she grew up with her actual brothers and sisters who identify themselves as black, how do we not know that her identity is shared with her family? Moreover, she has an extensive history of work and education in African AND African American studies and Cultural studies on top of that. Additionally, if you’re familiar with me, you know there’s a piece recited by the great Smokey Robinson I’m often found quoting about being a Black America and what that means. He talks about the perceptions of what makes someone black and what is believed to be black. In it he explains: “So if we’re going to go back, let’s go all the way back, and if Adam was black and Eve was black, then that kind of makes it a natural fact that everybody in America is a African American.” He goes on to say “And if one drop of black blood makes you black like they say, then everybody’s black anyway.” We know that such strata was used to judge who is or who is not black in American history. If you were half black or a quarter black or such, you were black. Whether by choice or by actual genetics, society judged you as black. At this point and reading her background and experiences, agree or disagree, I’m pretty sure Rachel Dolezal adheres to that belief. As familiar as she is with African culture and history and how much it has influenced American culture and history, I think she really believe her race is at best cannot be singularly confined to just being white.
So did she lie about being black? Maybe. According to your or I she might have. According to her own belief, I’m not so sure. Racial identities are not always as they are. I hear a lot of people always question President Obama’s racial identity, why would he consider himself to be black when his mother is white? Well, if we saw some random light-skinned skinny harvard professor walking down the streets of Chicago in the early 1990s, would anyone identify him as white? No. Just the same, if we saw that lady from the pic above walking down the streets of Spokane would anyone see her as white? Doubtful. Even if they did, that would still be our society’s labeling of what race she is, not hers. If that makes her a liar, then so be it. But to be honest, I’ll freely admit that more times can I count have I wished to change the name on my resume from “Jamal D. Gunn” to “J. Derrick Gunn”. I’m sure others have felt similarly. Is that a lie? Would I be doing that to gain some sort of personal advantage? Is it possible that her experiences extending from her youth growing up in a household that was at least 50% black to her negative experiences of discrimination at Howard colored(no pun intended) her perceptions and made her feel the best way she can contribute to the education and progression of the black Community is by BEING in the black Community and living that way. While we all would like to pretend that the Black Community itself is the beacon of racial progression and acceptance, I know better than most that white allies and progressives can be overlooked, looked at pejoratively and their efforts marginalized when helping advance our experiences and story. I can’t even count how many times I’ve had black friends tell my white friends “What can that white girl/man tell me about being black” and they’re easily and often dismissed. Scratch that. I can actually, but I’m not about to pretend like it doesn’t happen. Even on a more personal level, those of us who have dated outside of our race will find a trepidly icy reception from our family of those we want to be with. Why is this? Because there is still the fear that those outside of our race cannot understand, accept or otherwise relate to our lives and our story. Maybe Rachel Dolezal lives with that fear as well. That she won’t be accepted because she can’t possibly understand our experience or adequately relate it to others just because she’s white. It happens.
Ultimately, the life of Rachel Dolezal is her own. What she does to live it is her decision and her’s alone. Not any of ours. Can we be offended? I suppose so. Don’t count me among those that are. I thought if anything we’ve learned over the last few weeks through social media, when dealing with someone’s own personal identity is to not judged who they are. I’m not going to judge, nor can I be offended by something that doesn’t affect my life one bit. What does offend me is the lack of attention paid and given to what many Black men and women experience day after day, life after life. That’s real. If Rachel Dolezal wants to share in this experience that, is quite literally, HER problem. Her problem too maybe? What we cannot overlook is all she has done to not just help black folks understand and accept black culture, but also a mainstream(yes, white) community that has largely paid little attention to us. And as much as we decry and complain all the time about the ignorance of white folks, oblvious to the black experience, Rachel Dolezal is going beyond the pale(pun intended this time) to call attention to it… and I’m supposed to shame her for this? No. I’m sorry, I can’t do that. She is doing something that I actually wished MORE people did, white or black. This is a case of someone who not only is well aware of the black experience and agenda, but has supported it, taught it and has gone far(probably too far) out her way to progress it. I’m sorry, I’m not about to shame her for it. To be perfectly honest, there are those more likely to thank her for helping, among which you could include…
You’re Friendly Neighborhood Black Man.