In his book, DNA USA, geneticist Bryan Sykes writes that since it was “in Africa about two hundred thousand years ago that our species Homo Sapiens first emerged,” Africa is the “cradle of humanity and the ancestors of every man, woman and child on the planet began their journey under an African sun.” Just as scientists have concluded we are all African, metaphysicians have concluded we are all one. So when Rachel Dolezal, former president of the Spokane NAACP, said she is African American, the question to her critics is how can she lie about being who she really is?
Whether Rachel lied about who she really is presents an interesting legal issue. If DNA determines who she is, geneticists would likely find that she does have the requisite “drop” of black blood. Rachel alluded to this when she said “We’re all from the African continent.” Her parents disagreed. Her mom and dad from Montana said, no, she’s white like us. Or perhaps they were really saying, no we do not associate with our African roots so we would like our daughter to shut up and stop embarrassing us before people begin to think that we’re black too.
Many believe Rachel is just taking advantage of being black, reaping tons of benefits, while being able to turn white whenever convenient. This refers to her potential to put a check in the box of one extra “protected class” under the law, which black folks know rarely results in any tangible benefits. Perhaps before she chose to be black, Rachel thought black folks got an advantage. She sued Howard University, claiming that the artwork of black students was favored over hers. Her case was dismissed. David Smedley, an associate professor of sculpture and coordinator of Howard’s sculpture program, who was Rachel’s thesis adviser, confirmed that no one questioned whether she was white because she was a blue-eyed, blond woman. But Smedley said he hoped people would judge Rachel on the good she has done and that everyone doesn’t get caught up in vilifying Rachel. Perhaps, he says, Rachel is a catalyst to a conversation that we need to have.
Rachel is credited with breathing new life into the Spokane NAACP chapter, raising its visibility and membership in a white region. The NAACP, a group that is supposed to “ensure the political, educational, social, and economic equality of rights of all persons and to eliminate race-based discrimination,” issued a statement saying, “[o]ne’s racial identity is not a qualifying criteria or disqualifying standard for N.A.A.C.P. leadership.”
Many say that Rachel is in black face – just a superficial expression of being black. But being black is multi-dimensional, multi-layered and multi-faceted. There is no single black experience. Black people are as racially diverse, socially-varied and politically complex as fingerprints. None of us have a monopoly on being black. We each are the pure expression of Spirit being us – in all shades of beige, brown and beautiful – from all traditions, cultures and ethnic backgrounds.
Rachel is not the first beige person, who decided they were black. Mezz Mezzrow, a jazz musician, preferred his African roots, which he gave expression to through the clarinet and saxophone, the folks that he chose to be with, and his determination to immerse himself in the music, life and culture of black musicians. Most African Americans will tell you that they have met some white folks who are blacker than black folks and some black folks who are whiter than white folks. Like Thich Nhat Hanh says, there are some Christians who are more Buddhist than Buddhists, and some Buddhists who are more Christian than Christians.
Some say Rachel is mentally ill or simply hilarious. For those who do, perhaps they simply do not see the value in wanting to be black. No one says that those who pass for white have a disease or are a joke. To take a stand for those who are disenfranchised by not only fighting for them but by embracing every aspect of who they are requires boldness, tenacity, creativity, and courage. To be courageous enough to be who we choose to be out of love, faith and commitment is a powerful statement, especially in a society that forbids it.
Racism is partly the result of economic, cultural and social constructs used to separate, marginalize and denigrate based on superficial differences. Thank you Rachel, for defying society’s racist constructs and for lifting yourself above its barriers, and for stepping out of its confines – boxes that you will not allow to contain you. You are greater than your birth certificate, greater than your biological parents, greater than a world that tells you not to be who you truly are. Thank you for reminding the world that we are all God’s image and likeness. We are one.
Some say if you tell a lie, you are more prone to tell another. But we are all proponents of the biggest lie, which is that we are separate as opposed to being one. I recently had my DNA checked and discovered I am African and East Asian and Middle Eastern and Native American and British. Like Rachel, I know that “one of the reasons I love D.C. the most . . . is because I was at Howard University. As a school that exists to promote Black values … it is definitely an oasis.” I look forward to the day when we can all celebrate those aspects of ourselves to the extent that we want to – without judgment or condemnation. As someone wrote, “maybe it’s time we all thought of ourselves as Black.”
A commentator in the New York Times also sums it up by saying, “I’m in social situations or on the street where I’m the only white person (actually kind of a beigey/pinky color) and the others are black (actually different shades of chocolate color). There’s discomfort in the air. Then I say I’m actually a black lesbian trapped in a white man’s body. That seems to break the ice.” The truth is that we can be whoever we want to be. We are only “passing” to the extent someone else takes issue. But we have the fundamental right and the awesome liberty to surpass the boundaries and limitations set by others: the truth is that when it comes to being who we truly are – the opinions and beliefs of others are none of our business.
We are all part of the infinite spectrum of God’s image and likeness, which is only limited by our reluctance to use the power that God breathes as us. This is our true liberty and justice, for which Rachel should have no regrets.
See Rachel’s powerful artwork at http://racheldolezal.blogspot.com/.