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Blind to Everything but Color: A Kind Word for Ms. Dolezal

Everyone knows now that Rachel Dolezal is descended from Northern and Eastern European ancestors, rather than African ones (I should say descended directly from, given that most humans of all skin colors have some African DNA in their systems). What news I 've read or heard, and the countless sarcastic jokes, leave me deeply puzzled by the widespread response of outrage and outsized disdain over this one woman's life choices. 

Substantial progress is being made in accepting transgender persons (and as is our national tradition, money is being made on the progress). Bruce Jenner's transformation into Caitlyn did not come cheap. The media have been profiting and will continue to with her story, and she did not appear on the cover of Vanity Fair as an act of charity.  I watched multiple news stories where men made remarks about the new, "hot" Caitlyn.  They appeared not to care that the parts of her they admire are neither original or inherited. Caitlyn has now received the Arthur Ashe Courage award for changing gender--surely the most massive change a human being can make.

What is Belonging? Where is it Found?

Ysabel de la Rosa
I remember flying into Spain for the first time and feeling that the very landscape filled a hole in my soul. I walked through Austrian streets during a study-abroad program, immersing myself in European space and time. Something deep in me breathed a sigh of relief. Relief from what? How to describe it? I simply knew deep inside that I had found a place into which I "fit" in a way I had never fit in the US. This feeling was accompanied by gripping homesickness and difficult experiences, but it filled something that had previously been empty, and filled it in a meaningful way, if not an easy one.

In the 1970s, a fellow social worker and I assisted with some elder programs at a Jewish Community Center. Neither of us was Jewish. The older adults said "hello" to her and "Shalom" to me. Why? Something deep in us recognized each other. What was it? It's not meant for words. Several of my friends have converted from Christianity to Judaism; one found a profoundly meaningful practice in her conversion. Another friend converted from Judaism to Christianity, yet another to a Buddhist spiritual practice, also finding a new sense of connection and meaning. Are these changes not at least as change-full as changing skin color?

Our souls are complex. Many people have soul urges that take them into places and activities or traditions that are not part and parcel of their geography, culture, language, religion---or even their own body. People change religions, cultures, home towns and all their roots, even trade in their native languages. And some change gender.

An Earlier Dye Job

John Howard Griffin became famous for his book, Black Like Me. The white Dallas native dyed his skin (with the help and supervision of a physician) and traveled for six weeks through Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia to experience "colored" life. He did not go undercover, did not change his name or personal history. He changed ONLY the color of his skin. After the book's publication, he and his family lived outside the United States for a time because they received so many serious threats to their welfare. John Howard Griffin did what Rachel Dolezal did as an experiment, and had his life threatened. But, he was also admired widely for what he did. His book was a best-seller. Granted, he returned to his white-skinned self. But he did not plan or desire to be a part of black culture.

Rachel Dolezal did. It appears that that is where she feels she belongs... perhaps in the way they I felt I belonged in Spain and my Jewish friend belongs in Buddhism and Bruce Jenner belongs in a female body.  It would be logical to think, "Sure, you can participate in African American culture, but don't change your skin color to do it, because that's not honest."

Would that have worked? I've been in numerous situations in public where I've been  with an African American friend. He or she will be greeted by other African Americans passing by--even when they don't know each other--but I will be ignored. If they knew each other, this would make more sense. It has been clear, however, that frequently they didn't, and that my skin color led them to decide not to say hello to me, as well. 

Sometimes I think we humans are not sophisticated enough even to be racist. We still lean toward being colorist, tribal and territorial. Minorities lament that majorities (all of which are changing in terms of the numbers) don't respect or appreciate their cultures, but there are many instances when these same minorities consider their culture private territory. 
"Appreciate us from a distance, even if you care, even if your soul feels like it belongs close to us. This experience / territory / culture is ours, and we're not sharing." 

I understand this and even, in some sense, can relate to it. It speaks to the need for authenticity combined with sincerity and recognizes the power of shared experience. There's no substitute for shared experience and the connections it forges. It's likely that people consider Ms. Dolezal's entrance into the African American world inauthentic, and that's fair. I do believe, however, that it was sincere

Meanwhile, a white woman on The Nightly Show bragged about her 6% African DNA in the same breath that she--and all the other panelists--belittled Ms. Dolezal.  The black and white audience members applauded the white Nightly Show guest and cheered for her 6-percent-black content. In the midst of the monolithic disdain for Ms. Dolezal, I want to put in a kind word for her and say that her "mistake" can be seen as more from the head than the heart. Frankly, after watching her stiff, lily-white parents on television, I can sympathize with her feeling that she did not belong in her own family. John Howard Griffin wrote a follow-up book to Black Like Me, titled The Prison of Culture. I think the public treatment of Rachel Dolezal speaks to Griffin's title and the prisons we create for ourselves.

Why is it acceptable to change our religion, country, culture, language, and even gender  (a body and soul change),  and yet see changing skin-deep color as an unforgivable cultural sin? Unless, of course, it's a fashionable, bronze tan.
Illustrations: Dover Clip Art


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