Skip to main content

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


Popular posts from this blog

Life without Television, Part 2

I began life without television with relief, which was consistent Monday through Friday. The first few weekends, though, felt awkward, anxious, lonely. When PBS has good programming on Saturday nights, it is extraordinarily good. Father Brown, Phryne Fisher, New Tricks... Extraordinary acting, high production values, and I fantasize about the pudgy, brilliant priest just perhaps having an innocent crush on one of his special parishioners, which would be moi. 

I called a friend one Sunday. "Maybe television helped with my anxiety more than I realized," I said. She told me about her aunt who, after her husband's death, kept the television on in his "man cave" 24/7. He has been gone years now. The television goes on, everlasting, in his absence. I don't blame her. Much of my frequent and prolonged television viewing began with grief.

After my sister died, I would watch almost anything, especially late at night when sleep eluded me. I even watched Convoy with …

Glad to Hear It

This past week, Larry Wilmore and company mentioned Rachel Dolezol again on The Nightly Show. I don't remember who made the comment, but either Wilmore or one of the panelists said, "Did Rachel Dolezol do anything bad? No, she really didn't. Why did we get so uptight about that?" I was glad to hear it. Three cheers for being human.

I looked briefly at what's on Google currently about her and the now much-discussed Shaun White. I intend not to enter any of that fray mentally or verbally. I still maintain that humanity trumps color. We have a long way to go until we can leave our "paint by numbers" mentality behind, but we've made progress. Good changes can come, even in the midst of chaos and controversy. Maybe White and Dolezal will help us see that eventually.

As long as I'm here and continuing on the subject of color, I think I'm not alone in the fact that I don't like being called "white." As for my background, it includes …

Whose day?

Years ago, I made some collages using pages from a desk calendar from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The image that leads this post is one. Inside the hearts and flowers is a picture from the MMA collection of  a Japanese screen made in the 16th century. It is titled Tagasode, which means Whose sleeves?  The title comes from a 10th-century poem:

The fragrance seems even more alluring than the hue, Whose sleeves have brushed past? Or would it be this plum tree blossoming here at home?
Iro yori mo ka koso awaredo omohoyure tagasode fureshi ado no ume zo mo
The word haunts: tagasode. Whose sleeves? The question floats in my mind like a cloud on a still day. The sleeves materialize in my mind's eye. I hear them move through hushed air. I can imagine, though not name, the scent of the person to whom those sleeves belong. It's not unlike smelling the scent of your infant's clothes, or holding the perfume bottle that belonged to your don't need to open it... you know tha…