Tuesday, June 16, 2015

This is Why We Can't Have Nice Things

It seems that with each passing minute we're finding out new information on just how large Rachel Dolezal's web of lies was and we're reminded of easily a web can be unraveled.

All of this "racial talk" has me thinking about an exchange between my husband, a Russian woman, and myself in early May. The Russian woman is a nurse who had visited our home at least once and sometimes twice weekly between December 2014 and May 2015. She was always pleasant and professional and seemed to take a sincere liking to my husband as she often joked and flirted with him while she administered medical care.

During the five months that she attended to TWH (that wonderful husband),three times she was greeted by houseguests who answered the door for me. Twice the guests were introduced as family members and once as a friend.

Now I know that people sometimes have some trouble determining the races of TWH and me. With almond-colored skin, curly dark hair, light brown eyes, and  a thinner nose and lips, often people assume TWH is some sort of Latino/Hispanic specimen. At least they classify him. My milky complexion, green eyes, freckles, and crazy mass of curls are usually met with a  "What are you?" that basically lets me know that to them, my looks don't register as definable. All of the guests were black people, and might I add "obviously black." With the exception of the bald guy, all of them have not olive, not tan, but brown skin and coarser textured hair. None of the guests spoke with foreign accents or anything, and each of them interacted with the Russian woman for a few minutes when she asked how they were enjoying their visit, from whence they came, etc.

After five months and at least twenty visits, TWH felt he had a rapport with the nurse and mentioned that he was excited about an upcoming job interview. Without hesitation the nurse remarked, "Oh you'll definitely get it." TWH replied, "I don't know, it's not exactly my field" and the nurse replied, "But you'll get it because of your race." Both TWH and I were dumbfounded and looked at one another in confusion. Then the nurse clarified, "You know, because you speak Spanish. How old were you when you came here? You don't have much of an accent. Was it difficult for you to learn English like it was for me?"

My husband diplomatically explained that he does not, in fact, speak Spanish and that he was born in New Jersey to two black parents whose ancestors had come to America during slavery. The Russian nurse looked perplexed as she stood silently and I could see the gears turning in her head while equations kept being written and upon and erased from an internal chalkboard because her mind simply couldn't make sense of his features and his blackness.

My husband chuckled and said, "Yeah, people often mistake me for Hispanic" in an attempt to put her at ease and she replied, "But you speak so well... and you live here," referring to our home in a sought-after neighborhood in a zip code with little to no crime, manicured landscaping, quiet cul-de-sacs, etc. Next, she turned to me and asked, "Did you know he black when you were dating him? And you didn't mind?" Before I had a chance to respond, TWH laughed and chimed in, "She's black, too."

Now the nurse's expression teetered between shock and disbelief. She made a beeline over to me, pushed up her sleeve, placed her arm next to mine and exclaimed, "But your skin is lighter than mine!" I flatly replied, "Yes" so she brought out the big guns and said, "But you are so pretty and you speak Russian!!!" Because obviously, beauty and the ability to speak Russian are not allowed in the sphere of blackness. And honestly, what were we doing livinng outside the projects?

TWH laughed while I gave her a serious side eye as I've been down this road too many times to be even slightly amused by her shenanigans. Her questions regarding what social programs we used to obtain a mortgage and attend college were met with silence. I did nothing but stand there in front of her stone-faced as she unloaded every black stereotype on us and tried to understand why they didn't fit us. I watched as her eyes finally noticed the photos of brown people on the wall in our entry way in a collage frame that says "Family is a Blessing" and the African wall hangings, wood carvings, masks, candleholders, etc. that adorn our home.

The nurse didn't say much else as she finished her work and packed up her supplies while the tension hung thick and foreboding in the air. As I retreated to the kitchen and made a cup of coffee I heard her wish my husband good luck in his interview. I felt better, greatly relieved. I hadn't had to go there today. Somehow, she just got it, realized the error of her ways, and silently vowed not to make that same mistake again. Then, unfortunately, she added, "You'll DEFINITELY get the job now if you tell them you're black. You are so lucky, black people get all of the good jobs."

And this, my friends, is why we can't have nice things. Because despite having to earn them, people will automatically assume that we obtained them with our Affirmative Action" cards given out with our larger reparations packet... It's found in the front of the packet — behind the coupons for Kool Aid, but on top of the get out of jail free cards.

Monday, June 15, 2015


This story was enough to make me resurrect the blog...
 The internet is abuzz with the story of Rachel Dolezal, the white woman who has been passing for black for several years in Spokane, Washington. While are shrugging their shoulders and dismissing it as a harmless, peculiar happenstance, others are alarmed, offended, and insulted by the chicanery and dishonesty. While there are still many details to come to light, let’s examine what we know so far:

• Dolezal circulated a photo of a black man and claimed him to be her father, but the parents listed on her birth certificate deny that anyone but them is or has been a parent to her. Dolezal with Albert Wilkerson, a black man she claims to be her father, but whom her biological mother claims to have never met.
• Family photos depict her as a blonde-haired, blue-eyed young woman
• She claimed to have been born in a teepee, lived in South Africa, and been subjected to prejudice and abuse while growing up in Mississippi.
• She marked “white, black, Native American, and other” on official documents used for hiring/appointment to a position.
• Dolezal is the president of a local NAACP chapter, sits on a police oversight committee, and teaches Africana Studies
• She attended Howard University, an HBCU, for graduate school
• She claimed her adopted brother as her son until she was called out on it, and then admitted that he is her brother, but she is now raising him.
• On multiple occasions, when asked about her heritage/ethnicity she has feigned ignorance (“I don’t understand your question.”) or walked away, rather than honestly answering the questions.

Ruthanne and Larry Dolezal; Rachel Dolezal's biological parents
The first three items have been addressed by her parents: • They are her actual, biological parents.
• They are aware of only European ancestry in their lineage and possibly some Native American. They know of no African/African American lineage in either of their families.
• Dolezal’s parents lived in a teepee three years prior to her birth; they contend (and her birth certificate supports) that she was born in a hospital in Lincoln County, Montana.
• Despite her claims of having grown up in Mississippi and lived in South Africa, Dolezal’s parents claim that Rachel attended college in Mississippi after being raised in Montana. As far as living in South Africa, Rachel’s parents and adopted siblings lived there while the parents did missionary work, but Rachel neither lived there nor visited them while they lived there.

Now let’s examine the other items:

She marked “white, black, Native American, and other” on official documents used for hiring/appointment to a position.
Why? What would be the point of claiming ethnicities/cultures that aren’t actually part of her heritage? While it’s not illegal to claim any specific ethnicity on a job application, it is dishonest (and I’ll address the impacts below).

Dolezal is the president of a local NAACP chapter, sits on a police oversight committee, and teaches Africana Studies
For none of the above mentioned positions is blackness a prerequisite. The NAACP was founded by a group that included several white people and historically has been supported by non-black people throughout the years. Many members and people in leadership/administrative positions are not black and it makes no difference. The same applies to her ombudsman position on the police oversight committee and her teaching Africana Studies at a university. While some might expect that those positions would be held by an African American person, in many cases they are not.

She attended Howard University, an HBCU, for graduate school
As of 2012, Howard University reported that 70% of its graduate students self-identified as African American, leaving 30% of the students as something else —be it white, biracial, Asian, Hispanic, Latino, etc. While some might find it odd for non-blacks to attend a historically black college/university (HBCU), it is widely known that many non-black students opt to attend for graduate school as the tuition at HBCUs is generally less expensive and non-black students can qualify for certain scholarships and grants as minorities (get more info here http://time.com/2907332/historically-black-colleges-increasingly-serve-white-students/). Thus, it makes sense to get a graduate degree for substantially less personal cost.

She claimed her adopted brother as her son until she was called out on it, and then admitted that he is her brother, but she is now raising him.
According to records, Dolezal’s adopted brother/oldest son is 21-year-old Izaiah Dolezal. Basic math proves Rachel Dolezal to be only 16 years his senior. More importantly, depending upon how old Izaiah was when he was adopted, Rachel may very well have been attending college in Mississippi and grad school in Washington, DC for most of his youth, and Izaiah is reportedly the eldest of the adopted siblings. Therefore, how much did she really “grow up with” and identify with her black siblings? Also, many older siblings take on a parental role with their younger siblings, but they don’t claim them as their children. Again, it speaks to a lack of transparency on her part.

On multiple occasions, when asked about her heritage/ethnicity she has feigned ignorance (“I don’t understand your question.”) or walked away, rather than honestly answering the questions.

This one is very telling. As a person who has been asked all too often, “What are you?” or “Where are you from? Where is your family from?” as a means to divine my ethnicity, I am quite familiar with this sort of situation. Admittedly, I have at times answered the aforementioned questions with “A person/human being” and “New Jersey” respectively when feeling annoyed and/or frustrated by the questions, but I’ve always understood EXACTLY what the person was asking. In Rachel Dolezal’s case, she was asked outright “Are you African American” and responded with “I don’t understand the question.”

Dolezal with Albert Wilkerson, a man she claimed as her father on an NAACP event flyer

Now, let’s talk about the impact of her passing. While some will say that she ultimately did good work in her positions with the NAACP and the City of Spokane, let’s look a bit deeper. While race was not a prerequisite for any of her positions, she was dishonest in how she presented herself for consideration. Imagine for a moment that there was a city commission for the welfare of women and most of the members were men. Upon adding another position, the committee might not require that it be filled by a woman, but they might prefer it and shortlist female candidates. If after some time it was revealed that the appointed person was not, in fact, a woman, but rather a man dressed in women’s clothing, people might not look too kindly upon the ruse.

But what harm did the man do? Well, some women might take offense to a man pretending to be something he is not and having the opportunity to present his experiences and opinions to represent them. Women might resent the fact that the man did not grow up as a woman and navigate the world as a girl and then a woman, dealing with the intricacies, challenges, and obstacles of womanhood. Isn’t that, in essence, what Rachel Dolezal did?

Dolezal in her youth

Rachel Dolezal did not grow up being identified as a black youth. She didn’t deal with racism and prejudice daily. Her family didn’t know the difficulty and oppression of being black in America. For a moment, we can even imagine that her father was/is black, making her biracial. Many biracial children struggle with seeing their black parent experience racism and discrimination. Dolezal didn’t experience that. She has no stories of her ancestors being cheated out of land, run out of town, threatened, disrespected, or belittled for being black.

Personally, I grew up living between two synagogues and had/have several Jewish friends. I also grew up with brothers and as the only girl on one side of the family. However, I never claimed to be either Jewish or male. Certainly these relationships greatly impacted my life and experiences, but neither I nor the millions of other people who grew up in diverse populations and situations appropriated the culture or identity of those other people.

And as a black woman —one many people feel can pass for white— it is particularly offensive to me that she chose this route. You see, if she really was simply enamored with black culture, she could’ve still married a black man, had biracial children, worn her hair in braids/locs, hung out in black social circles, etc. She could’ve chosen to live a life among the black community and lived that life. But Dolezal chose to take a position of leadership within the black community. She chose to be both visible and vocal and then took it a bit further by penning columns and reviews from the supposed point of view of a black woman.
Rachel Dolezal’s wedding. Back row from left to right, according to Lawrence Dolezal: Ruthanne Dolezal, Kevin Moore, Rachel Dolezal, Lawrence Dolezal, and Lawrence Dolezal’s parents, Peggy and Herman. Front row: The Dolezals’ adopted children — Ezra, Izaiah, Esther and Zach.

As black women in America we are too often vilified, stereotyped, devalued, and marginalized. We are too often judged by a European standard of beauty that tells us we’re not good enough. Ironically, our features are coveted and imitated by other races and hailed as sexy and beautiful on women of other races, but somehow, full lips, darker skin, rounded hips, and full breasts on black women just seem to fall short in America. The feminist movement is always credited to women of lighter hues despite the fact that black women are the majority of single-parent households in America and despite what the media would have you believe, most of those single mothers work.

Rachel Dolezal didn’t grow up feeling less than or questioning her place in femininity. On the contrary, she grew up with long, blonde hair and blue eyes, the apex of white beauty. She wasn’t teased for being different; she didn’t feel the sting of being treated differently because of her skin color. She was never subjected to racist remarks and jokes that hurt her spirit and made her question people’s lack of humanity. Dolezal effectively reduced blackness and black womanhood to a few physical features. Her actions basically say that all a white person needs to do to identify as black is visit a tanning salon and get comfortable with an “ethnic” hairstyle.

The subject of passing has been around for centuries, but usually it has been a minority person passing to enter the more privileged class, rather than Dolezal’s reversal of fortune. But look closer and see the bigger picture here. Most often, black/multiracial people who passed for white did it to circumvent the laws and practices that kept them at a lower station in life. There are claims that Babe Ruth and Herbert Hoover were both of black ancestry. If we assume for a moment that they were and thus, were passing, we can understand that they passed in order to gain access to opportunities and livelihoods not afforded to black people and people of mixed ancestry. Many everyday people of whom you’ve never heard have passed for white and used the assimilated privilege to secure a better job, thus a better life, then funneled money back into black organizations and communities to help improve conditions.

But again, Dolezal didn’t do that. There were/are no laws or policies preventing her from working for civil rights organizations, teaching Black History, or serving on a city committee because of her race. So her passing was for her own benefit/whim and not the benefit of the community at-large. While some will say that she wouldn’t have been able to achieve as much or be taken as seriously in these fields as a white woman, that is simply untrue. Are you familiar with Tim Wise? Google him and read about how this white man has become one of the foremost and most sought after writers and speakers in America regarding racism and discrimination and is hailed as an anti-racism activist. He’s not black, and has never attempted to claim blackness.

To add insult to injury, Dolezal has parsed words by saying that all life began in Africa and hence she is an African American; perhaps technically. But as a black woman in America in 2015 where we are still marginalized in society, I take offense to her actions basically stating that black womanhood is tantamount to hair and complexion and for her, is an accessory to be worn or discarded as she sees fit. Tell that to all of the black people who are regularly stopped and frisked; to the people abused at the hands of law enforcement and the American justice system; to those who have been denied access and resources because of their ethnicity. Tell that to all of the women who have neither the luxury nor the privilege of checking their blackness at the door, and see how they respond.