Holy shit, Rachel Dolezal. Rachel, Rachel, Rachel. I’ve been fascinated by this story for the past week. She is the living embodiment of WTF?. In case you missed it, Rachel Dolezal was the head of the Spokane chapter of the NAACP. While interviewing her for a local tv news piece a reporter, seemingly out of the blue and unrelated to the topic at hand, asked her if she is black. Confused, I assume, about the relevance, she responded, “I don’t understand the question,” bumbled and spluttered when asked again, and then walked away. Now, that would have been fine, and excellent news blooper fodder. Except Rachel Dolezal isn’t black. She’s been posing as a black woman for almost a decade. Which would also have been fine, if she hadn’t accepted a college scholarship for black students, filed several police reports saying that harassment incidents were racial hate crimes, and told her adopted son not to blow her cover. That’s where this gets a little fraud-y and gross.
Legitimate fraud aside, why does this story seem so batshit crazy? Is it because her white birth parents (from whom she is estranged) outed her suddenly after all this time? That definitely makes me think there’s some weird backstory we’re not being made aware of. Or is it because we’re hearing about it in the aftermath of all the recent stories about systemic racism and police brutality against people of color? And all that very real, very nasty shit makes Dolezal seem silly? Is she actually mentally ill or delusional? Is she conducting a social experiment? Is she taking advantage of and defrauding social programs like Affirmative Action for her own financial or career gains? Again I say, WTF?
Because white people appropriate black culture all the time without running around in blackface. Furthermore, white people get jobs with the NAACP. White people teach African American studies. White people have black spouses and adopt black kids. You do not have to be a thing or pretend to be a thing to love and protect and fight for it. Somehow her charade feels really icky and insulting. But I’m white. I don’t necessarily know how sure my footing is in my arguments against her actions. I do know that I’m a hopeless Anglophile, but I haven’t cultivated a fake accent or lied about where I grew up. That’s a really weak analogy, but you see what I’m saying. She may feel a deep and abiding affinity for black or African culture, but she damn sure hasn’t had the black American experience.
But then that raises even more questions. What is the black American experience? Can one even say “the” rather than “a”? Why does it seem so weird that she would choose to go from white to black, given that black is, ostensibly, “harder”? What does that even mean? What does it say about our country that we can label one racial identity “harder” than another out of hand, without even thinking about it? And on a similar note, black people straighten their hair and lighten their skin all the time. Why isn’t that weird? Does it insult and offend and appall people like this story seems to have? I honestly don’t know.
Not to change the subject too drastically, but I wonder if Dolezal’s story would have had a different impact if she had been a man. So often we talk about body image and beauty standards as a distraction from bigger, more important issues. Oddly, in this case, it really does seem to be at the heart of the matter. Having said that, I find the many comparisons of Dolezal to Caitlyn Jenner really annoying. “Transracial” is not a thing. Transgender definitely is. Transgender people legitimately feel that there is something physically wrong with their actual body, and they make the decision to transition after years of struggle and pain, knowing that their path is not going to get any easier. Jenner didn’t just slap on a new vagina and a new name like someone getting a tattoo or a haircut or some overzealous bronzing. The comparisons between these two women are absurd. Jenner was seeking truth and authenticity. Dolezal is a liar. Although I can see the logic in saying that while Jenner always felt she was a woman, she also didn’t have to go through life having the experiences common to women in America – misogyny, harassment, unequal pay, job loss due to maternity leave, the costs of child care or the controversy of contraception, sexual violence or threats of sexual violence, body shaming. But she will now. Welcome to our wonderful sisterhood, Caitlyn.
Our bodies and our identities are inextricably linked, obviously, and we’re advanced enough to change one to suit the other by both small and large degrees. And that’s fine. That seems healthy and like a step in the right direction. Why, then, do I support Caitlyn Jenner but think that Rachel Dolezal is a raving banana sandwich (actual prosecute-able fraud aside)? Where’s the line? When is a body just a body? Are medicine and psychology ahead of or behind our culture? I mean, homosexuality was listed as a mental disorder in the DSM until 1986, for fuck’s sake. We’re still fighting to keep people out of those evil sexuality conversion places, but at the same time require sex offenders of all stripes, no matter the severity of their crimes, to pay enormous amounts of money out of pocket for court-appointed therapy, basically trying to change their sexual proclivities in exactly the same way. There’s a particular body dysmorphic disorder where people feel like a part of their body (usually a limb) is not theirs, an alien, intrusive thing. They, too, are routinely sent to therapy and heavily medicated in order to be “normal,” and often resort to crudely removing the offending appendage themselves. We still have puritanical prejudices against the heavily tattooed or body modified. We fat shame and skinny shame, making some arbitrary average number the demarcation of “health,” but only if it looks a certain way. While we simultaneously pump our food market full of poison, fat, sugar, and salt, we fill our media exclusively with airbrushed ectomorphs. We sweat the hot ladies in skimpy outfits and overtly sexualized scenarios on every billboard, magazine, and commercial, but are deeply unsettled by public breastfeeding. We rejoice at the sudden acceptance of the “dad bod,” but put only fit young hipsters and ripped silver foxes in Father’s Day ads for beer and burgers. We extoll the virtues of diet after diet after diet so we can show off the sexiest body possible to whomever will look, but cry foul on a rape victim’s allegations when her skirt was too short for our outdated sense of sexual modesty.
Why do we have to have all this running commentary on other people’s lives? The real problem, I think, is that so many folks see those lifestyle choices as an affront to their own. The word “tolerance” has been thrown around so much lately as to make it meaningless. As in: “Why do I have to tolerate you but you get to be intolerant of my opinion? Who are you to judge?” Well, who the hell am I to judge? Who am I at all? Is there a Venn diagram that perfectly lays out the topography of my personality? I mean, I guess so. But I’ve never really had to defend any of the ways that I identify from outright attack. I’m white, but I have had people be shitty to me several times when I had a deep tan because they thought I was Hispanic (and once, Asian – weirdly, this usually happens in grocery stores, maybe it’s the lighting). I’m from a lower-to-middle middle class family, which has only ever been a problem when I’ve told people that my dad worked for the most evil corporation to ever evil, but clearly that wasn’t my decision. I’m bisexual but nobody cares – except maybe that one girlfriend I was an asshole to in high school because she wanted to hold my hand in the hallway and I didn’t want to put up with any redneck bully bullshit (I’m sorry about that, Mel, I truly am). I’m an atheist, and I guess that’s the one where I have to pick my battles the most. But I’m not evangelical about it, like a lot of atheists I know who start fights just so they get to tell religious people they think they’re stupid. That shit is mean and unnecessary. And, by the way, just as ignorant and judgy as they think religious people are.
But these are all words. Words that we hear and assume we understand. A word or a label is never the whole story, the big picture. We use so few words but we need so many to really explain ourselves, and then we let a disturbing number of them go in one ear and out the other. There are very few words people use as identifiers that I immediately react negatively to (pedophile, for example, or Neo-Nazi). So long as you’re a nice person and you tell me which pronouns and adjectives you prefer, we can probably be friends. Why can’t we all just be a meaningless jumble? Why don’t we realize that we already are? There’s this saying about religion that I often regurgitate. It varies, but it’s usually something like: “Religion is like a penis – it’s fine to have one and love it, but don’t wave it around, show it to my kids, or try to stick it down my throat.” Truth is, lots of words can be substituted in that analogy. Race, religion, sexual preference, gender identity, politics, wealth – anything can be a penis. Just don’t be a dick about it.