I’m sure you all heard the news that Spokane NAACP President Rachel Dolezal has stepped down from her position because a journalist discovered that she has white parents. Dolezal had been portraying herself as black, and even went so far as to post pictures of herself with black people and claiming that they were her family. Probably for most people hearing about this case, the immediately thought is to condemn her as a fraud, but is that really what happened? This is something that I’d like to explore in this blog post: Race, culture, and the way people identify themselves.
Some of you know that I used to be a child therapist. There was one child that I used to work with that I will never forget. She was one of my favorites. She was a white girl that was adopted by a family of a different race. I’m being discreet with details in order to protect the girl’s privacy. Although she was white, she spoke the native language of the adoptive family and also dressed and acted in ways consistent with their race and culture. She was happy and secure in her cultural identity and it was not a focus of her therapy at all. She should be college-aged now and I imagine that she is still identifying as her adopted race and perhaps even part of organizations in college that have to do with that culture as well. Will she eventually be ousted as a “fraud”? Is she the next Rachel Dolezal?
Your first thought may be that my former client is different from Dolezal, because Dolezal was not adopted by a black family so it’s different. But perhaps it’s not so different. Dolezal grew up with three black foster siblings. She was certainly exposed to black culture in the home and apparently identified with it. Is it so wrong to identify with a culture that is not yours by birthright? In fact, if we look closely, we find that people do this all the time. My step father identifies with American culture even though he did not become an American citizen until adulthood. I myself identify as “Italian” even though my ancestry is more Irish than anything else. Are we all frauds too?
One may argue that the examples I used are a non-comparison because I was talking about culture and the issue with Dolezal has to do with race. I think where things get tricky here is that Black can refer to both race and culture. The same can be said about White culture as well. Lines can be blurred even further when we consider that being Jewish can refer to both a religion, culture, nationality, and race. We know that a person who was born into a Catholic family can later identify as Jewish. Can the same be said for other identities?
Race in America is an issue that has long been debated. This is just the most recent debate. What does it mean to be White? What does it mean to be Black? In 19th century America we had the “one-drop rule”. It stated that if a person had just one drop of Black blood then they were legally Black. We think of Winston Churchill as being a White man, but did you know that the Nazis used this one-drop rule to insinuate that he was black? You see one of the Pilgrims at Plymouth Plantation was a man named Abraham Pearce. Plymouth Plantation kept a census just as we do today and it is in that census that Abraham Pearce is designated as a black man. Winston Churchill is a descendant of Abraham Pearce through his mother. And actually my sister, the family genealogist, believes we are as well. According to the one-drop rule, all descendants of Abraham Pearce would legally be considered Black.
The one-drop rule was over turned in 1967. Most people today classify race by how a person looks. If they “look black, then they are black”. In the case of mixed race individuals, people may also go by how the individual identifies themselves and presents themselves. And this is exactly what Dolezal did; she identified as Black, presented herself as being Black, and appeared Black to others.
I can understand why people would be offended by what Dolezal did. I think that the gut reaction for a lot of people is to see it as “black face” or to question if she did what she did in order to exploit the Black community. However, if we look closely, exploitation does not seem to be the motive for why she did what she did. There really isn’t any financial incentive for joining the NAACP. Most people are not paid anything and even the chapter Presidents are given very little if any money. The position requires many years of hard work and many personal sacrifices. The NAACP expects a lot out of their volunteers and the fact that she rose to the position of President says a lot about her character and commitment. She did infact do a lot of good within the NAACP and that shouldn’t be ignored.
So am I defending Rachel Dolezal? Do I think that what she did was okay? Honestly I feel that it is not my place to make a judgment of “right” or “wrong” in this situation. I’m really not qualified to. As a therapist, it is not my job to condemn anyone or pass judgment. It is my job to understand people and to try to see things from a different angle, and that is what I have done here. If I was her therapist at the time would I have advised her to act differently? Absolutely! I think it would have been great for her to be honest from the beginning, that she is biologically White but identifies as Black. I think that it would have created great discussion and helped people to think about race in new ways. The NAACP does welcome white volunteers, so her biological race wouldn’t have prevented her from being in the organization.
At the same time, we know that people don’t always handle things in the best possible ways and that it’s irrational to have that expectation for people all of the time. She made a serious error in judgment and she’s dealing with the consequences of that now. However, as therapists we must still have compassion for people even when they do things that are “wrong”. I can only imagine what it was like for her as things spiraled out of control. There must have been many sleepless nights. It must have been awful for her, and for that she has my sympathy.