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On Rachel Dolezal: Can We Choose a Racial Identity?

Nearly every black person I know or have spoken to about the Rachel Dolezal fiasco is up in arms about her identifying as black. Dolezal recently resigned as head of the Spokane chapter of the NAACP amid allegations that she lied about her race. That is, even though she was born white, the activist and mom identifies as black.

There is nothing new about a person of one race "passing" as someone of another race—certainly many black people have taken the opportunity to "pass" as white. While the distinctions between the experiences of blacks and whites in this country are significant, black culture is inextricably woven into American life. It is nearly impossible to know where black culture begins and American culture ends. In fact, a number of black cultural characteristics have been co-opted by the white culture. Take the recent cornrow hair braids trend "sparked" by Khloe Kardashian (and by Bo Derek before her). Black people have been wearing cornrows since the beginning of time. Jazz and rock 'n roll both blossomed out of the musical stylings of black artists. The hijacking of black traditions and culture is not new or unique to our time in any way.

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Not even Rachel Dolezal and her bizarre behavior are new. Non-black people have long expressed fascination with (and not a little fear about) the black experience. I've personally known a number of white women who have declared secretly to me that they feel connected to black people. Dolezal said in her interview with Matt Lauer that she has identified as black since she was 5 years old. To me, she identifies with being "other"—she feels like an outsider and not at all like a member of the ruling class. The issue most people have with this is that she lied about herself. She stole a place at a historically black university and deceived many people in her life to "pass" as black.

"I felt very isolated with my identity virtually my entire life, that nobody really got it and that I really didn't have the personal agency to express it," she said. "I kind of imagined that maybe at some point (I'd have to) own it publicly and discuss this kind of complexity. (But) I wasn't expecting it to be thrust upon me right now."

To me, race is fluid, it is as much a social construct that we use to create war as it is a matter of DNA.

If we can get past her indiscretions, the Dolezal story is one that gives us much to consider. It raises questions like "What is identity? Are we what we feel we are? Are we what others say we are? Why is it so important to have a racial identity, and how does the identity serve or not serve us?"

Race in our country has always been the basis for privilege and access (or the denial of them). I've watched my white friends enjoy the privilege of walking through a department store without being noticed. I have black friends with near-white skin who are considered beautiful simply because they look somewhat white. I know black people who have chosen to live in a deep spin of victimhood and finger-pointing due to the historical and political experiences of the race in this country. To me, race is fluid, it is as much a social construct that we use to create war as it is a matter of DNA.

And now our culture has spotted someone who seemingly for no reason was hiding behind the black experience, the banner of lack and suffering. Yes it is bizarre, and yes I believe her when she says she identifies as black. In my view that simply means she decided to wear the costume that affirms that "other" experience for herself. She relates to being an outsider. The difference is it seems she has chosen it over the privilege that is inherent with being a white American.

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If there is anything I have often desired from my white women friends, it would be to know they care so deeply about me and my experience as a black woman and a mother that they would forgo their privilege of being "safe" if they could, to stand with me and against the crimes blacks moms endure for the sake of their children. I'm curious to see if in Dolezal's deception she touched a deep humanity in herself that goes beyond construct of race and into humanity. Because if you could walk in the shoes of a black woman, would you?

Image via TODAY News

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