RACHEL DOLEZAL’S RACIAL IDENTITY
When I was 15, I wanted to be black. I was at an all-white boarding school in Arizona, my father had just been elected Governor of California and was angrily criticizing every segment of the 60s revolution — the Black Panthers, the anti-war protestors, the Berkeley students rioting for change. I felt like the whitest person on earth. I wanted to be part of the 60s, I wanted to join the revolution; I wanted to hang out with the cool kids, and from where I sat, black was about as cool as you could be.
My small desert school had, to its credit, some very progressive teachers, so even if we were light years away from the turbulence of our times, we could learn about it. I learned about Malcolm X, I read Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice and John Howard Griffin’s Black Like Me. An English teacher who had poetry seminars in his living room played Nina Simone and I knew all the lyrics to Strange Fruit.
When I met my parents in Phoenix at my grandparents’ house where we spent Easter vacations, I brought my dog-eared copy of Soul On Ice with me. I’d leave it lying around in various rooms, and then say in a loud voice, “Has anyone seen my book Soul On Ice?” No one ever answered me; I think there was a collective agreement to ignore me. When I read Black Like Me I fantasized about not only turning myself black, but my entire family. I sincerely believed that the Reagans would be much more enlightened if we could just be black.
As I said, I was 15, which makes this an amusing story now even though I was quite serious about it at the time. There is nothing amusing about Rachel Dolezal’s attempt to co-opt the black experience and claim it as her own. Her soul doesn’t bear the scars of slavery, oppression, prejudice — scars inherited by each new generation because the wounds of history never heal completely. She darkened her skin and braided her hair as if that was all it takes to be black. Granted she has done some good work for the NAACP, but she could also have done that good work as a white woman.
What jumped out at me in her Today Show interview was her continuing claim that she “identifies” as a black woman. This is how transgender people describe themselves; a woman who feels she was born into the wrong body “identifies” as a man, a man born as one “identifies” as a woman and wants to live as one. They are seeking to live their lives authentically, truthfully. There is nothing authentic about Rachel Dolezal’s charade, and certainly nothing truthful. She’s not only co-opted the black experience (or tried to); she’s also co-opted a term that is appropriate for transgender individuals, but not for her. Transgenders’ identification with the opposite sex is something that lives in their bloodstreams, in the marrow of their bones, in the whispers of their souls. Ms. Dolezal’s racial identification is an intellectual construct, and one that can change when she wants it to. She can easily alter her hair and skin and go back to being white.
Her fantasy may have started out in her younger years, but once she brought it into adulthood and carved it into a deceptive and inauthentic persona, it was no longer innocuous. Adults do adult damage. The “strange and bitter fruit” of being black in America is not Ms. Dolezal’s story. It never was.