Black Like Rachel Dolezal

12 Jun

I heard about Rachel Dolezal this morning via Facebook and all I could muster was, “Wow.”

I scrolled down my Newsfeed and of course all the media outlets are featuring the story about a white woman supposedly disguising herself as a black woman for about a decade, spending her time teaching Africana Studies, and leading the Spokane, Washington NAACP chapter.  Her parents are the ones who outed her as a white woman.  Of course, friends on Facebook are posting their opinions on the matter as well–some with humor, some with outrage, some just plain confounded as to what is behind this woman’s behavior and actions.

As a person who has always been attracted to black people and black popular culture ever since I fell in love with Michael Jackson when I was eight, and who still as a young girl, paid extra close attention to the civil rights movement, who yearned for black people to not be treated so horribly, and who still holds a place in her heart for Martin Luther King, Jr. and all that he stands for, I have to pause for a moment and consider Dolezal, because like her I have to admit, and I know I will get backlash on this, I have on several occasions wondered what it would be like if I was black, and even at least once, wished I was.

“Blasphemy!” is what I hear some black, and white people saying.  I recall the blog post I wrote which was featured last year on The Root, I Was On Black Twitter and U. O.E.N.I. where as a Twitter newbie I stumbled upon “Black Twitter.”  The responses I got were mostly supportive, but of course I remember the few that stung.  Regarding a comment I made about being named an “honorary black person” by some of my black co-workers, one black woman said, “Blackness isn’t something you get to try on…and take off at your convenience…easy for someone with white privilege to say this…”  I hear her, though I hadn’t even copped to wanting to be black in the post.

It was when I re-read Black Like Me by John Howard Griffin last year, that I again became fascinated with the social experiment that Griffin undertook in the late 1950’s to pose as a black man, disguise himself like Rachel Dolezal did, and travel the South for six weeks to experience what it was like to live life as a black man.  As an eighth grader when I first read the book, I remember how courageous I thought Griffin was, and how glad I was that he cared enough to tell the story of how black people were either not seen, or regarded and treated most times as less than human during the Jim Crow civil rights era.

As I read it as an adult so many years later, I see places where Griffin’s own view of black people was at times patronizing and misguided, but still I was fascinated that he had the experience of passing as a black person in service of finding out whether the mistreatment of black people was as bad as black people said it was.  Of course he found it to be true, and worse than he ever could have imagined.

I told my daughters about the book, and said, “what if I tried that now?  To pass as a black woman…I wonder what that would be like..”  The girls, twelve and fourteen then, gave me one of those eye-rolling “oh Mom…” kind of looks, but came to attention when I said, “I’d walk around in department stores and see if people followed me around while I was out “shopping while black” and naturally a shoplifting suspect…”  I didn’t tell them that their white mom did used to steal candy from the local 7-11 as a kid, and once got caught stealing make-up from a local department store when I was fourteen.

In my mind, I silently expanded upon the vision of what else it would feel like to “try on blackness” if only for a short period of time.  How would people “see” me?  Would they see me for the person that I was?  The personality, the creativity and sweet, kind, calm demeanor my current friends tell me I possess?  Would I be different because of the way others saw me because of the color of my skin? I already care as a white person way too much what people think of me, and have bent and swayed to please others.

As a black woman, would I have absorbed all the microaggressions over the decades of my life, the comments about my hair, the patronizing words of my self-proclaimed “not racist” co-workers? The words not spoken by teachers, prospective employers, and retail clerks that told me I was inferior or not to be trusted?  Would I survive being called the “N” word? Or, on the days, or moments where I wasn’t on the receiving end of all of this, or at least could let it roll off my back for a bit, would I find joy in living the beauty of a being a black woman?

My whole life I think I’ve always wanted to be cool.  The Director of the girls sleepover camp I attended for years in the Berkshires (western Massachusetts) told me as much when she refused to let me back into camp at age fifteen because I got caught smoking. Well, she said it wasn’t that, but that I got caught and lied about it.  She told me, “You’re more concerned about being cool, Wendy, than being a model camper.”  She was right.

I’ve always thought black people were cool.  I’ve admired black style, and from a young age I’ve listened primarily to soul, funk, R & B and hip-hop music. I connect with the sound, and I love to dance.  I can’t dance to rock and roll.   I’ve been told I dance with soul, and that I dress with soul.  Connecting across colorlines–growing up with, spending time with, working alongside black people–has enriched my life, and is a part of my life I don’t want to be without. Still, should this make me want to “be” black? How about the affinity as a Jewish woman in knowing what oppression feels like? Though not equal to the oppression and racism experienced by black people, there is a history of Blacks and Jews (I know not always) working together for equal rights for black people.

On Facebook one white woman exclaimed disbelief of the seeming acceptance of Dolezal, in a thread on the subject, noting the question of her existence as a lie, an appropriation of another’s race and culture.  She added that if Dolezal indeed desired so strongly to be black or believed that she was, that there is most likely a pathological root to her actions.

This is not lost on me.  I work in a psychiatric hospital.  At times my own, what others call passion, and what I sometimes feel is an obsession, with black culture, race relations and connecting with black people has left me questioning myself.  I once imagined myself asking a psychiatrist at the hospital I work with what it means that I think and feel the way I do.

Yet, I know that I don’t align myself with another white woman’s post this morning that seemed to be saying that we each are on our own journey to be whoever we want or are meant to be, and forgive me if I’ve misread hers and the woman’s above comments incorrectly, but the latter made me think this:  If Bruce Jenner wants to be a woman, then that’s his journey.  If Rachel Dolezal wants to be black, then so be it.

I don’t think it’s that simple. And, as I was reminded on my post on Black Twitter, blackness is not something that is lightly “tried on.” I can’t form an opinion yet on what I think about Rachel and this story because I don’t have enough information, and I haven’t heard from her yet what she has to say about all this.   I am fascinated, and very curious.  But, what matters more than what I make of all this, is what black people think about a white person “passing” as black.

However, I hope sharing here will provoke more of a dialogue, rather than going in for the “social media kill.”  One black woman on this same FB thread said on the matter that after thinking Rachel “was pulling a fast one,” that she was flattered and honored that Rachel Dolezal “had such a passion for our people and was fighting for our causes.”

It’s complicated for sure.  I’m looking forward to hearing from Dolezal to get a better understanding of why she chose to live her life as a black woman, and what that has meant for her.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

12 Responses to “Black Like Rachel Dolezal”

  1. Karen June 12, 2015 at 7:16 pm #

    Oh,wow. This is complicated, and I’m on my phone, with a crying baby girl at my feet.
    I will make this short and sweet. I think that she’s troubled. Not deeply rroubled, but troubled non the less.
    Anyone whom pretends to be another race, for as long as she has, definitely has issues. Idk enough about her story to really analyze her. Maybe we never will. I think what her parents have done to her is repulsive. No matter what, you don’t sic the world on your child. Idk If they anticipated this media frenzy, but this is spiraling out of control.
    As long as she hasn’t hurt anyone with her lies, about her race, then we should leave her be. The poor lady is most likely going to lose a lot-in the near future.

    • Wendy Jane June 12, 2015 at 8:51 pm #

      Hi Karen,

      Hope that baby girl has stopped crying. I am very curious to hear from her on the what and the why of this. I agree with you about her being troubled in some way. I hadn’t thought aloud about what you said so well here about her parents. I think it was stuck in my subconscious, but yes, it’s like they’re throwing her into the fire for sure.

      Thanks as always for taking the time to read WJSS and leave your thoughtful comments.

      Wendy

  2. Sherry Gordon June 13, 2015 at 8:50 am #

    Dear Wendy Jane,

    Hi, there, my so, so very dearly special and precious white sisterfriend who you are For Always so, so very much, Wendy Jane!!!!! I love this great and insightful blog post article of yours so, so very much!!!!! Sister, I am still percolating on what I think about this news story and about our Rachel Dolezal. Sisterfriend, I think very kindly towards her in my very heart, soul, and spirit. I know that it is vitally important and necessary to avoid appropriating the black experiences and to avoid minimizing what black persons endure and experience, Wendy Jane. However, I don’t want to think harshly about this dear woman. On the one hand I think that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery and I think that deep down inside even with her deception that she does very much indeed somehow love us as black persons and does very much indeed sincerely love black culture in its very many multi-faceted variety and aspects. I don’t want to be unkind or mean in my thoughts on this dear woman, and I don’t want to be and in fact I won’t, sister, be harsh or do any of these other mean thoughts towards her. I just think that maybe she went about this in the wrong way but my heart is still there for her and I won’t think ill of her, sister!!!!! Wendy Jane, I love how you have often imagined what it would be like to experiment being like a black woman just like how the white author of Black Like Me experimented being a black man. I think this is absolutely wonderful that you have very often imagined doing so, my sweet white sister, Wendy Jane!!!!! I am not at all in the least offended, my sweet white sisterfriend, Wendy Jane!!!!! I think that your love for all of us as black persons, and your very obsession, is very much indeed a very positive and a great thing, sister, and I love so and cherish you and all of this, Wendy Jane, with your love for black culture in all of its beautiful aspects!!!!! I love this so about you, my dearly special and precious white sister, and I love you so, my white sisterfriend!!!!! Also, you are my dearest and darling Jewish sisterfriend, Wendy Jane, and you, too, also know oppression very, very well because of the vicious and vile nature of pernicious and pervasive antisemitism, and also back in ancient times the wondrously wonderful Jewish people were also slaves just like black persons were slaves, and I think of that evil Holocaust against beautiful Jewish persons and what that nasty and evil Adolph Hitler did, my sweet white and Jewish sisterfriend, Wendy Jane!!!!! You, too, my sweet white and Jewish sister also do know oppression and you have and continue to endure and experience oppression, sister!!!!!!! And you as a white woman are also oppressed by the viciously vile nature of sexism, misogyny, and patriarchy, my dearest and darling white sisterfriend, Wendy Jane!!!!!

    Wendy Jane, I so love this grandly great blog post article of yours!!!!!! Sister, I have to percolate more on this news story and about our Rachel Dolezal. I don’t feel harsh towards her or angry and I think in the deepest depths of her very heart, and her very heart, soul, and spirit that she does very much indeed have a great love in her very heart for black persons and for black culture but that maybe she went about this in the wrong way, and that she shouldn’t have been deceptive for so long. Yet I need to percolate more on this, Wendy Jane, I am sort of perplexed by this news story somehow, my special and precious white and Jewish sisterfriend who you are For Always so, so very much, Wendy Jane!!!!!!! Sister, please have a superbly super Saturday, and a wondrously wonderful weekend to you and to you, sisterfriend!!!!!!! Thank-you so for this great gift and a great blessing of this cool and astounding blog post article, Wendy Jane!!!!!!

    Very Warmly and Sincerely For Always, my special white and Jewish sisterfriend, with Peace and Love To You For Always, my dearest and precious white and Jewish sister, and Blessings and Even More Blessings To You For Always, Wendy Jane,

    Your lesbian black sisterfriend For Always in solidarity, Sherry Gordon

    • Wendy Jane June 13, 2015 at 3:53 pm #

      Hi Sherry,

      Thanks so much for your insightful thoughts here. I appreciate how you want to consider the many layers of what is going on with Rachel Dolezal and what she has done. I also appreciate your honesty in saying that while you are flattered by her love of black people, history and culture that you feel she went about showing it in perhaps not the best way, and that being deceptive about it was also not a good thing. I am, like you percolating on this some more, too, since when I wrote it I hadn’t read too much about it, and hadn’t heard about any of her comments about her choices now that the story is out. Thanks for always sharing your thoughts here with me and all the WJSS readers, and I thank you for your ongoing support that keeps me going!

      Thanks my sisterfriend!

      Wendy Jane

      • Sherry Gordon June 14, 2015 at 8:27 am #

        Dear Wendy Jane,

        Hello, there, my dearly special and so, so very dearly precious white and Jewish sisterfriend who you are For Always so, so very much, Wendy Jane!!!!! I am just bursting with eager anticipation to tell you this good news about something I did last night. Last night I went to the synagogue for the retirement party for the Iowa City/Coralville Rabbi who is one of my dear friends!!!!!! His dear wife is also my dear friend!!!!! I had such an absolutely fantabulous and fantastic time, sister!!!!!! The synagogue used to be in Iowa City but they bought a brand new just built building in neighboring Coralville. At the old location the synagogue had flooding issues because a creek ran along the side of the building. I love how beautiful this new synagogue is (the old location was very nice also). It is just so very beautiful in the synagogue and I felt our Good God’s Holy Spirit in the synagogue and from the very, very many (400 or so) who came to celebrate!!!!!! I am so thrilled and pleased that there was such a great turnout, sisterfriend!!!!! I think that you have our Good God’s Holy Spirit as well and that you are a good woman of our Good God, Wendy Jane!!!!!! The food was absolutely yummy, delicious, and delectable!!!!! I For Always love the food at the synagogue, sister!!!!!!

        The music as so cool and uplifting, sister, you would have loved it!!!!!! There was something fun when many people put my Rabbi friend in a chair and kept lifting him up in the air in the chair several times. This looked so fun-I loved this! Someone at the synagogue said that something is occurring now that only happens every 7 years called smittah-I hoped that I spelled this word correctly, sister! I loved hearing about the story and history of smittah, sisterfriend!!!! A cool and superbly super band performed called the Java Jews-wow did they put out some great and cool music for all of us!!!!!! In this band there was one woman and four men. The men played the clarinet, the trumpet, the accordion, and the tuba, and the woman played the flute. I thanked them so, so very profusely for the marvelous and soulful, very Spirit-filled music. The woman I had a wonderful talk with and she is a friend of my Rabbi friend who is a woman Rabbi herself from out of town!!!!!! I loved this so, Wendy Jane, a woman Rabbi!!!!!! Yay!!!!!! Women should be Rabbis as well, my friend!!!!! I heard from my Rabbi friend that there had been another friend of his at the party who was a woman Rabbi also-I wish that I had met her as well!!!!!!!! There were so, so very many people dancing in a big group and with two or three people together to the sweet sounds of the Java Jews!!!!!! I watched them dance and wished that I could have danced as well but with my physical disabilities I wasn’t able to dance. I for sure clapped very vigorously and stomped my feet, and cheered on the band and the wonderful people dancing!!!!! The singing was so, so very lovely and touched and moved my very heart, and my very heart, soul, and spirit, sister!!!!! Sisterfriend, I wish that I knew the language of the songs and prayers we sang and prayed so that I could have followed more closely. With the songs I hummed along to the melody!!!!! After we all had our wonderful meal, we sang a song that my tablemate who was sitting next to me said is an after meal blessing! She seemed like such a nice woman who was there with her elderly mother and some other people!!!!! I met many fun people to talk to, Wendy Jane!!!!!

        My sweet white and Jewish sister, I just was so bursting with anticipation to tell you about my great night last night at the synagogue!!!!! Wow, my sweet white and Jewish sisterfriend, I had a grand time!!!!! I love so the rich Jewish culture, music, heritage, and food, and just everything!!!!! Jewish culture is just so vastly beautiful and spiritual with such a storied history, heritage, and fine and excellent music and food, and just everything, sister!!!!!! Wow, wow, wow and a zillion wows, and wow and wow, Wendy Jane!!!!! I had such a cool and a fun-filled time!!!!!!

        Sister, please have a superbly super Sunday, and may your week coming up ahead be wondrously wonderful, sisterfriend!!!!!!

        Very Warmly and Sincerely For Always my dearly special and precious white and Jewish sisterfriend, Wendy Jane, with Peace and Love To You For Always, my preciously sweet white and Jewish sister, with Blessings and Even More Blessings To You For Always,

        Your lesbian black sisterfriend For Always in solidarity, Sherry Gordon

        • Wendy Jane June 14, 2015 at 4:24 pm #

          Hi Sherry,

          You are amazing! Thank you so, so much for sharing your experience of going to the new synagogue with me. That is a big Jewish community with 400 people there. It sounded like it was really festive, and now I have to go look up what smittah is because I am not up on all the holidays and traditions myself. You taught me something new today sisterfriend. And you described everything in such detail–hey, Sherry Gordon–are you a writer?

          Thank you again for sharing this with me–so, so thoughtful of you. I hope you have enjoyed your Sunday, and have a beautiful evening.

          Wendy Jane

  3. Vickie June 13, 2015 at 4:21 pm #

    Hi Wendy, I hadn’t hear about this and I really don’t know what to say. I don’t know if there are some issues or if she really just wanted to be black. You raise many good points, though. I am going to have to read up on this if I can. (and we’re are all guilty of stealing from that local 7-11 at least once, so give yourself a break :))

    • Wendy Jane June 13, 2015 at 5:04 pm #

      Hi Vickie,

      Thanks so much for reading and commenting! I’m still processing this, and want to read more about it, especially to hear more about what she has to say, and to hear the varying opinions of others, especially people of color. Oh, and I give myself a break on that 7-11 biz–all our experiences make us who we are:)

      Thanks again,
      Wendy

  4. Richard Alan Scott June 14, 2015 at 7:38 pm #

    Like what you were saying early on in this post, I can sympathize with her, and your analogy to wanting to be cool is an appropriate one. Perhaps I’m too altruistic, but I look on the bright side of her deception, that if she’s doing good works what difference does it make? I should like to move closer to the notion that we are all the same anyway. I would not purport to take away anyone’s level of negritude, or diminish that. But I would think she has already lived a point African Americans would like us all to move toward. Tricky.

    • Wendy Jane June 14, 2015 at 7:54 pm #

      Hi Dick,

      Thanks so much for reading, and responding to the post here. I am paying attention to all the comments being made from friends, and more so, on social media, and it is truly a mixed bag of reactions. There are many people, black and white, and other races and ethnicities who share your feeling that if she is doing good with her work, then it is okay, but there are also many, seems to be more black than white people, though there are definitely white people who feel this way–that it is wrong for her to do this–that it was very twisted for her to live this lie, to get the free ride at Howard, to take a job meant for a black person, to wear the “costume” she has chosen to wear which she feels signifies blackness, etc. I must say I have not heard the word negritude in recent times.

      All of this sure is tricky.

      Thanks again,

      Wendy

  5. Ellen June 17, 2015 at 8:42 pm #

    Wendy, I don’t know how I feel about the whole thing either. Yet. It’s still percolating inside me. But the one thing that comes through really clearly, now that I’ve had time to digest the stories and hear some of Rachel’s own words in her “defense,” is this: she lied. She was deceptive, for ten years or more. She was pretending to be something she’s not, and she lied to people. So, it’s the deception that really gets to me. That’s not right.

    The comparisons to Bruce Jenner, and transgenders/transsexuals in general, seem like a no-brainer at first — he’s a man passing himself off as a woman, just as Rachel is a white woman passing herself off as a black woman. But go down one more layer, and it’s not that simple. Because Bruce Jenner isn’t lying. He’s not deceiving anyone. He is coming out and straight-up saying “Yes, I was a man, but now I’m going to live my life as a woman. Look at me now.” It is what it is, take it or leave it — he lets you decide. Whereas with Rachel, she was never straight with people. She simply “pretended” to be black, when she knew she wasn’t. She tricked people, made fools of them (they probably feel pretty foolish now), without ever saying “I was white, but really I’m a black woman trapped in a white woman’s body, so I’m going to come out as a black. Take it or leave it.” She never did that; she never gave people the choice. There’s a huge difference.

    I hope I’m making sense. It’s hard to articulate. It’s just the deception, that’s all. That’s what really bugs me about what she did. I heard a story on NPR the other morning on the way to work. They were interviewing people about their opinions on it, and one woman said that by pretending to be black, Rachel is “betraying the very community she wants to be a part of.” Exactly. See the irony?

    Thanks for posting your piece — you always know how to start a dialogue. 🙂

    Ellen

    • Wendy Jane June 17, 2015 at 9:27 pm #

      Hi Ellen,

      Thanks for reading and for your thoughtful statement here. It sure is complex, and now we are hearing from her, and many, many varying opinions on this since the news first broke. It’s true that the gender/race switch are not equal, not the same thing, and that Rachel’s deception is very different from someone changing their gender. I still find it bizarre, still find it fascinating, and just think of all the layers still to uncover of her inner life growing up and once she began “passing” as a black woman.

      You did a great job of articulating your thoughts, and I thank you lots for sharing them here with me and WJSS readers.

      Wendy

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