I was watching Newsnight last night and one of the stories really gripped, shocked and dumfounded me. There was a woman named Rachel Dolezal who has been a black rights movement activist and campaigner and an Africana Studies teacher and has self-identified as black. June 2015 sparked outrage for Rachel when she was interviewed as asked a question about her race, her response was ‘I don’t understand the question’. Later an image emerged and circulated that depicted her and her white father.
As a result, Rachel now claims that this interview ruined her working life in that the white community do not want her to be part of them and she has endured hate crime from the black community as a result. A couple of points jumped out to me during the interview, the first being that you should be able to self-identify as any race, with a clumsy link to trans* identities in that they identify as a gender contrary to their biology. The second was the idea of transracialism in that race is just as fluid as gender and sexuality.
The interview continued with the discussion of Rachel’s own personal childhood and the abuse that she suffered as a white, forcing her to associate hatred with the white community. When old enough she went to university and moved away from home. She acknowledge that she actively changed her appearance to appear more African American by wearing braids and false tan. Due to her work within the black community and activism she said that everyone assumed her heritage was black. she also acknowledge that she did not correct people and allowed people to make the assumption that she was black.
This really shocked me because appearing as a black woman when you are from a white background is completely disrespectful to the black community. I am very aware of the fluidity of gender identity and the freedom of sexual expression, I acknowledge that people can convert to a variety of different religions and adopt different cultures – myself included. However, surely appropriating race is just a step too far across the disrespectful line?
Guilaine Kinouani an ‘Analytically Minded Critical Psychologist’ as her Twitter handle suggests, was available to make responses to the interview. Guilaine honed in on the fact that Rachel’s white skin automatically gave her authority and privilege in the world, even if she did not recognise it herself. Rachel being part of the white community automatically qualified her to a better education, a better social status, respect in the community and larger world, access to better health care amongst other things. Whether or not she chose to utilise the privilege was irrelevant to Guilaine, it was the fact that they were accessible to her being a white woman.
The idea that race is a social and political construct is interesting to consider. Drawing on Elaine Ginsburg’s work on passing, there is evidence to suggest that some African-American individuals actively tried to pass as white men and women to elevate their own social status. Largely this was more successful to light skinned people in that they manipulated their appearance to appear white for better employment opportunities, healthcare and housing. You may be thinking, ‘well isn’t that was Rachel was doing?’ On the face of things yes, but these people were doing it to better themselves and trying to obtain a better quality and standard of life, Rachel has automatic qualification to these due to her skin colour. Nonetheless, I do empathise with Rachel in that she feels at home within the black community and has always been happier within that community due to her ill-upbringing. But surely it is the black culture that makes her at home and not deceiving people in her pretending to be a woman of colour?
This idea was also prevalent surrounding the publicity and the reality show of Caitlynn Jenner – I am Cait. The women who she was confiding in and her community of friends had struggled their whole lives to be accepted as women in society. Some had been forced into prostitution, suffered transphobic attacks and lived without medical (surgery or medication) due to their lack of income. Yet Caitlynn’s first appearance was on the cover of Vanity Fair, her transition was decidedly smoother than some as she had money to transform her outward appearance and have access to things other women had struggled their whole life for.
In this way, I can see the problems with Rachel’s identity in that she could have been honest and open about her background and she may have received a better response. The active concealment made people think she was mocking.
At the moment I am absolutely loving a programme called This is Us. It explores the lives of an American family in the 1980s (possibly late 70s) and their own struggles. Milo Ventimiglia plat the dad Jack and Mandy Moore plays Rebecca the mum. The couple are due to have triplets but one dies during birth, on the same day there is a baby abandoned at the hospital. Jack and Rebecca decide they will take the child and raise him as the third child that they lost. Kate (Chrissey Metz), Kevin (Justin Hartley) and Randall (Stirling K. Brown) are the children and each episode goes back and forth with flashbacks from childhood to adulthood and identifies how they become the persona they are. One episode looks at Randall and how he is bullied at school and claims that he doesn’t fit in, not necessarily because of his skin colour but it is his intelligence that is making him stand out. Similarly, Kate struggles with confidence and self-esteem due to her weight for the whole of her life. Although Randall has not had a traditionally black upbringing with how his parents provide and support him in his studies and university, he is still their child and sibling to Kate and Kevin. Therefore, there is the idea of nature VS nurture in how you are brought up in life sets you up for you future. Randall lives in a middle class white background but belongs there just as much as anyone else. There is a familiarity for Randall in that his parents are white and his association with the white community.
We have to move beyond the skin colour argument and consider culture, religion, heritage, ancestral history and how we identify and sympathise but not do so through a mocking tone or being purposefully deceitful as Rachel did.