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.