My feelings concerning the Rachel Dolezal scandal are as complex as they are personal; not personal in the sense of being acquainted with Ms. Dolezal, but personal in that I see a lot of similarities in our experiences and can therefore empathize with her.
For starters, I know what it feels like to be demonized by a large group of people who don't know me, but who are nevertheless determined to hate me. Mob mentality rules over intelligent discourse as everything you do, say, and write gets picked apart, analyzed in a negative light, sliced, diced, and skewed so people feel comfortable and righteous in their decision to mock, devalue, and despise you. You become an object—a thing—instead of a human being; your feelings don't matter and you don't matter. Your entire existence, in their eyes at least, is reduced to being nothing more than a one-dimensional caricature of a Disney villainess.
That isn't an experience I'd wish on anyone... not even the people responsible for putting me through it. Does this halo/horns effect make me more sympathetic toward Rachel than most people? Probably so.
Secondly, and as an extension of the mob mentality, I also understand how deeply hurtful it is to watch people I don't know intimately, but who I've nonetheless had fond acquaintanceships for years with, all of a sudden jump on the "I Hate Jaid/Tina" bandwagon and make stuff up about me. Sometimes their motive is attention, sometimes it's born of a desire to feel accepted by their peers, and sometimes it's purely a result of battle fatigue, meaning it's easier to be on the side of what feels like the majority (even if they aren't) than what feels like the minority (even if they aren't.) Whatever the reason, whatever the motivation, the end result is the same for the person the bandwagon was created to hate on: emotional devastation followed by emotional numbness. Once the numbness sets in it becomes difficult at best and impossible at worst to let new people into your life.
Does this shared experience cause me to feel more sympathy for Rachel than others do? Definitely.
The intermingling and contentious subjects of race, ethnicity, culture, and identity is something I too have been struggling with my entire cognizant life. I've long identified as "other" for a couple of reasons:
- Like any other person whose grown up with physical characteristics similar to more than a single ethnicity, and who like an adopted child didn't know her father's full racial makeup, there were always lingering questions. The questions may never rear their head if you look distinctly black, white, etc., but if as a child or teen you're repeatedly mistaken for belonging to a racial group your parents don't identify themselves as being a part of... you're going to start questioning what your reality is.
My dad never asked his mother who his biological father was because he didn't want to upset her or feel disloyal to his stepdad (RIP grandma and grandpa.) He didn't even ask grandma what his birth father's name was until he needed to know it for the purpose of a marriage certificate when he and my mom married in 1971. My dad didn't ask his mom, but I did. It took repeated inquiries and the persistence of a child, but grandma eventually answered my question.
I'm not revealing that answer here because this isn't my story alone to tell; I have a father, a sister, a brother, a niece, and a nephew who I have no right to speak for. Their lives, genetically tied to mine, are still their lives and I respect their right to privacy.
- I grew up believing my mother's ethnicity was white and Native American Blackfoot. We never identified as Native American Blackfoot because none of us spoke her granny's native tongue, belonged to her tribe, or any of the other things Native American nations demand for inclusion. (Never tell a Native American activist you have indigenous blood in you unless you can speak an indigenous language... whoa! It's not pretty. But I digress...)
Years into my adulthood my mother began researching her roots as a hobby. She found that not only were we direct descendants of some pretty impressive people, but not all of those people were white. An Ethiopian princess given in marriage to a Viking jarl? I didn't even know Vikings and Africans had made contact so I did some inquiring; turns out they did.
In all actuality there are more than two reasons why I identify as "other," but for the sake of semi-brevity I'll stop there. The major point I'm trying to make is that genetics, culture, and appearance can't be neatly tied up and packaged into one box. By most modern day people's standards, I'm a white person who can pass for biracial. By the standards of older generations, racists, and Jim Crow Southerners (there are wayyyyy more of them than the media gives credence to,) I'm black. The one-drop rule makes me technically black in their eyes, but my appearance doesn't lend itself to credibility in the eyes of most others, namely black activists. What does this make me besides confused and over it? It makes me choose to be "other."
I don't know if Rachel Dolezal meets the one-drop criteria or not, but I also don't care. An internal struggle is an internal struggle and on that level I can identify with her. Does that make me more sympathetic to the vilification she's enduring from the media and society than the average person? Abso-fucking-lutely.
The final reason (or at least the last reason I'll get into) that I empathize with Rachel is because we both have multiracial families, which no ethnicity is quick to claim let alone care about. My oldest daughter's father is black (by every standard) and my youngest daughter's father is a Russian Jew. I can't say I've ever felt discriminated against by Jewish people for this reason, but the fact that my youngest daughter's bloodline isn't recognized by other Jews because her non-Jewish parent is female is in and of itself inherently discriminatory against my daughter. A close friend of mine had two kids with her Gentile ex-husband and her kids are de facto Jewish; my daughter has a Jewish father and a Gentile mother and isn't Jewish under Jewish law. (This also lends itself to the culture/genetics/identification debate though I won't go there.)
My oldest daughter's father and I were together for seven years. We had our child in the south, which is a saga unto itself. Suffice it to say with the exception of our families and a couple of friends, we weren't welcomed with open arms by blacks, whites, Hispanics, or anyone else. Every encounter with a white police officer was hostile; every encounter with a black police officer resulted in me being treated like a whore and my ex being challenged (read: emasculated) to do anything about it. Eating out brought us stares and sometimes outright contempt. We were even refused service in one restaurant (good riddance Silver Ring Cafe in Y-bor City; I'm so glad you can't afford the rent there anymore.)
As difficult and scary as things were when we went out together as a family, the level of danger skyrocketed when I took my daughter places without him. (Bare in mind I was a beauty back then - see photo; my daughter brightened my eyes while playing with Photoshop lol.) The encounters invariably started off the same: redneck looks at me lustfully, redneck looks down and sees my brown child, redneck's smile fades, redneck looks me over trying to decide what I am, redneck's gaze lingers on my wild, kinky hair overly long, redneck then either feels embarrassed he came onto a black woman or infuriated that a white woman (and I quote the words I've heard soooo many times before) "spread her legs for a n*****."
In these situations, it's better for an "other" to be viewed as black. If Bubba Doe decides you're white, be prepared to be assaulted verbally, physically, or both. A particularly painful memory, which makes me tear up even now as I write about it, happened when my dear friend Holly ("Aunt Holly" to my kids) and I stopped at the grocery store before taking my daughter to Busch Gardens for the day. The redneck in question decided I was white and... wow this memory is still hard 22 years later... this grown man looked down at my daughter's innocent, smiling, three-year-old face, called her a nigger monkey, and hocked on her. Not spit, as if that wouldn't have been bad enough, but a hocked up ball of green phlegm. My immediate reaction was shock, quickly followed by fury, which later dissipated into a tearful puddle on my pillow that night. Call me a name and it may or may not hurt; drag my child into your sickness and the pain is unbearable. (That's probably why the "unchilled" haters started talking smack about my kids who have nothing to do with anything, but that's why I quit following the bs and again I'm digressing...)
How could anyone do that to my child? How could anyone do that to any child? All these years laters and I still have no answer for it.
It was around this time that I became a hardcore, in-your-face, civil rights activist. And it was when I became a civil rights activist that I discovered how unapologetically segregated the various movements were and continue to be. Men aggressively pushing the feminist agenda were ridiculed as trying to speak for and over women—never mind that they had daughters whose futures and persons they worried over. Whites who demanded an end to Jim Crow customs and institutionalized racism were held up as having "white savior complexes" and treated with more blatant hostility by black leaders than they reserved for Klan members. As to being an "other" with a brown child? My opinions and experiences weren't valid unless they fit neatly into the agenda of whichever camp wanted to use them at the time.
Do I understand why Rachel Dolezal preferred to identify as black when her entire existence revolved around human rights and her children? Unequivocally YES. Never mind that an "other" or a "white" might have as much at stake when they've given birth to a visibly black child... your voice does NOT, I repeat does NOT, matter. How any mother can look at another mother and invalidate her experiences as less than is beyond me. Especially considering the fact that we're not talking about a situation wherein two white people adopted a black child (those whites live under the privileged halo effect,) but where an "other" or a white woman had sex with a black man, gave birth to a brown child, and are thereafter viewed as whores, traitors, thieves, and a myriad of other negative nouns depending on whose doing the viewing.
Rachel Dolezal made some wrong decisions, but who hasn't? I don't know the full story and probably never will. What I do know is that having been the subject of three witch-hunts, having had journalists put quotes around words I never uttered, having been insulted numerous times with accusations of cultural appropriation for braiding my wildly curly hair (a practice dating back to 25,000 years ago in what is currently France!) and having spent my entire life feeling like an outsider looking in... I'm staying off the bandwagon. If this decision costs me some friends, we probably weren't really friends to begin with.