An onslaught of race incidents this past spring has reminded the entire country that our allegedly healing race wounds remain fresh and open. I had spent several days thinking about Rachel Dolezal, aptly described as having “tumbled, fully formed, out of Larry David’s head,” when the most recent news came out. The mass shooting in a historically black church in Charleston left me little emotional room to contemplate the outer boundaries of race identity politics. Everyday reality is brutal enough.
A few days after first reading about Charleston, I nonetheless found myself returning to the case of Rachel Dolezal because her decisions highlight long-held questions about fighting racism. Deciding how to demonstrate a commitment to racial justice can be confusing for people outside the affected community. Activism is supposed to be sexy and passionate, but in reality the first steps—carefully listening to and building honest friendships with people in that community—produce nagging feelings of incompetence and ineffectiveness. As uncomfortable as that is, it is preferable to finding yourself in the ironic position of trying to embody someone else’s story. There is much talk in certain circles of voicelessness, but sometimes the best way forward is not to give someone a voice by telling their story for them but to acknowledge that they already have one and listen up.
Rachel Dolezal’s story also engrosses me because I ran into significant roadblocks in enforcing my own chosen racial identity on the world. I was raised to ignore the question of race altogether, not because my parents naively believed that race did not matter, but because they wanted to personally protect me from the American racial labeling system. The historical legacy of the one-drop rule put a man of my father’s complexion in an awkward position: being biracial was not an option in his time, so he could either eschew both identities or adopt a fully black identity. He chose the former.
For the first 18 years of my life, I self-identified as white simply because I did not know what else I could be. I do not speak African American Vernacular English. I first had soul food in college. So I always checked the “white” box. But society denied me my chosen label. Society told me I was not white enough to claim whiteness.
Society was right. In my mid-twenties I finally held the proof in my hands: genetic testing confirming a substantial percentage of sub-Saharan African ancestry. The moment was strangely anticlimactic. Numbers are less definitive than what a dozen white hair stylists had told me over two decades with their furrowed brows and perplexed comments about my voluminous and suspiciously curly hair. Numbers do not inform a lifetime of strangers asking me, “What are you?”
My first race incident happened on the sidelines of a soccer field when I was in elementary school. A teammate stood up and pointed at me, chanting tauntingly, “You are bla-ack, you are bla-ack.” I did not know what it meant to be black, but it sounded very bad. I adamantly denied the accusation because I did not think anything was wrong with me and ‘black’ was clearly wrong. In junior high, a white hair stylist enthusiastically suggested that I chemically relax my hair, and I followed her advice. My low self-esteem about my hair remained as full-bodied as ever. I decided to stop relaxing my hair six years later in college—if I hated my hair anyway, why spend all this money relaxing it?
Going back to my natural hair turned my life upside down. Black women began initiating conversations with me about natural hair. Black men started hitting on me. I once went into a Greek Orthodox cathedral. All the Greek Americans seemed to assume I was Greek, but the one black man in the room approached me and asked if I was a black American. One time when I was visiting a coastal city in Guatemala, two black local women walked into the restaurant I was eating in and looked around the room. They began having a private conversation, gesturing several times in my direction. The pair then walked up to my table, which included several white people, including another woman. I was singled out and asked if I wanted my hair done. It turns out they were selling on-the-spot braiding services.
All these incidents and a thousand more told me the same thing: I am not white. Over time I learned to love my hair, my complexion, and my roots, and I am indebted to my kind black friends who embraced a confused mixed girl and patiently answered naïve questions.
Two pregnancies have made my hair substantially less curly, something I still grieve. I am now even more of a walking racial Rorschach test. African Americans frequently claim me, but usually with more questions than previously. When I fly to Latin America, I get handed the Spanish entry forms. I have to explain that I am an English speaker, feeling a little sad to have disappointed. I lived in France for a year, and people there often assumed I was from a North African background (or the perennial “maybe Jewish?”). I have caught myself several times on the way to a Muslim-owned family grocery trying to guess what might constitute modest dress in Islam. I worry they might think I am a bad Muslim in my usual clothes. (I am not Muslim at all.) And then I debate with myself whether I am being prejudiced to think that. I find myself hoping I can be excused from prejudice in this instance, but I recognize that even spending my entire life as a mirror for other people’s assumptions about race does not give me license to spew my well-earned paranoia at every perceived threat.
Why a white woman goes mostly unchallenged in adopting a black identity for many years, whereas I could not manage to do the opposite, is an excellent question. The answer goes back to the one-drop rule I referenced earlier. One drop of black blood makes you black: racist thinking at its finest. But when millions of people adhere to the same set of rules for hundreds of years, trying to change those rules involves constructing a fantasy world and playing make-believe that everyone lives there with you. Sometimes the best option is to live in defiant conformity to the old rules, reinterpreting them with your own attitude and imbuing them with new meaning: Black is not wrong. Black is good. Black is beautiful.
Our historical and cultural contexts mold us into the people we are. We are not clay to be formed by our own hands. It never occurred to me to continue to insist that I was white because, frankly, everyone else’s interpretation of my race made more sense of my experience than my own interpretation. People say that race is a social construct, which it is, but that does not make it less real. A woman insists that she is black because she identifies as black. Not so. Nine people in Charleston could not will their way into another race when they discovered they were about to be killed for theirs. As powerful as the will is, it cannot make us unaccountable to our history.
I hear we ought to be reveling in life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. This month, I will not be doing that. Instead, I offer a toast to my dysfunctional relationship with the trio that created and then solved all my identity problems: community, responsibility, and bounded self-determinacy.
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