For the last week, I’ve been unwillingly fixated on the Rachel Dolezal story. More people than normal have been asking my opinion and struggling with confusion. I’ve been struggling myself with writing this piece for days.
Why? It’s personal. I could have been Rachel Dolezal. I am transcultural.
Like Dolezal, my story begins early in life. Born white and named Susan, my journey of confusion and discovery began in kindergarten in Altadena, California, near Los Angeles. Raised in a household of five people — three brown-skinned — I attended public schools where I was the racial minority, and weathered multiple bad interactions with other white kids. I didn’t experience anything like the abuse Dolezal and her black siblings suffered at the hands of her white parents — an angle tragically lost in the public outcry that largely ignores their motives in outing their daughter. But like Dolezal, I was part of an unhappy and unhealthy family, I felt like an oddball most of the time, and I felt angry about the injustices around me.
These experiences, plus my innate sensitivity and inability to comprehend my people’s enslavement of Africans, set the stage for my lifelong curiosity about race and racism, and where I fit in. Despite intriguing stories about the possible origins of my mother’s dark skin and black hair, I identified as white, even as I became a fluent Spanish speaker and moved to Mexico City as an undergraduate student at age 20.
Like Dolezal, I found a place where I finally felt I belonged. This is a powerful drive for humans. We are the most genetically similar species on earth; all of us descended from a rather small band of homo sapiens. Belonging to a group has been essential to our individual and collective survival for tens of thousands of years. Our need to be in relationship is so strong that if, as newborns, our physical needs are met but we’re not held by other humans, we die. When we get older, feeling like an “outsider” to a group triggers our brains the same way physical pain does. Finding a place to belong is calming to our nervous systems and deeply rooting to our psyches.
I found home not in California, not in my birth family, but in Mexico. I had fun there – more than ever before. I worked hard – harder than ever before. I sometimes tell people I came of age in Mexico, and it’s true. I learned how to “be a woman” – to cook, wash clothes by hand, and handle “misbehaving” men. I fell in love with art there. My political views did a 180-degree turn there. My culture shock upon returning to the US was much worse than when I’d left and I struggled to integrate the new me with the old. I graduated from UCLA, moved to a mostly Latino neighborhood, and took a job as a bilingual social services coordinator in South Central and East L.A., one month after the L.A. Riots.
The rest, as they say, is history. Like Dolezal, I started passing for Latina in my twenties without even trying – with colleagues, acquaintances, strangers, even police. I’ve been involved in Latino political issues, marches, and boycotts for 24 years. My voicemail has been bilingual for just as long. Twice, I’ve been hired into full time jobs over Latino candidates because I speak better Spanish. I’ve passed for Mexican in western Mexico, sometimes even after I speak. Mexico, and Mexicans, exercise ongoing influence in my growth. When I moved back in the late 1990s, I felt beautiful as a female for the first time, and learned how to be simultaneously feminine and strong. It was in Mexico that I started learning how to wield power and command respect. My profile on cultural inventories aligned more with Latino or Mexican culture than US culture – and when I worked in high tech in Guadalajara, sometimes even showed up more Mexican those that of my coworkers. I’ve published academic articles on Latino/Hispanic identity labels, one co-authored with a light-skinned, blue-eyed Hispanic colleague.
I don’t just pass as Latina/Hispanic, I’ve also been validated as such. One lady I served at the housing projects in East L.A. laughed her head off when I told her I was White, and still thinks I was joking. Chicanos who know I’m White have told me they consider me a Chicana. An African American colleague once told me I should just tell people I’m Latina, and just last week yet another Mexican friend said I’m more Mexican than she is. Almost all of my romantic partners have been Latinos or Latin Americans. I feel more comfortable in a room with a good proportion of brown faces, which is one of many reasons why I live in New Mexico. Every so often, a colleague or acquaintance of many years is surprised to learn I’m White when I publish an article or make a comment referring to my Whiteness (surely more will surface after this piece). In the last year alone I’ve turned down two exciting business opportunities because the inquirer sought a Hispanic or a person of color and mistakenly thought I fit the bill.
While I don’t agree with Dolezal’s explicit and implicit deception, perhaps like her, I’ve found it exhausting to constantly explain my identity when people are looking for quick, easy answers and the truth is complicated. It’s awkward to say “you know I’m White, right?” or “I’m White, and….”. There’s always vulnerability and fear of loss in that conversation. It can be uncomfortable to never know what people assume or see in me, and to wonder when, if, or how to bring it up: (“Hey, just want to let you all know…I’m White!”). While I don’t agree with Dolezal’s solution to this dilemma (identifying only as Black) I understand the temptation. I’ve lied about my identity maybe five times – to see if I could get away with it, or to simplify a conversation with a stranger I didn’t care about. And there have been many times I’ve been deliberately vague to be provocative or avoid triggering others’ biases.
My name adds to the ambiguity. It was during a graduate school orientation meeting when (as per usual) I introduced myself by inviting everyone to call me “Susan” or “Susana”, and a colleague pushed back: “Well, which one is it?” Feeling forced to choose, and having just returned from a month in Mexico, I chose Susana. It seemed fitting since I’d long preferred my “Susana” self to my “Susan” self, and at the time I’d not only just gone back to school, I’d left a bad marriage and moved to a new state. It was a time of (re)invention and getting clearer about who I am and what I want. So after having been Susana part time for 15 years, I became Susana full time, and made it legal 10 years ago.
Yet still, Susana is White. And also…? It’s difficult getting a grasp on one’s identity when there’s no language for it (hence my fascination with Hispanic/Latino identity labels). I explored the term “transcultural” as early as 2003, even presenting an academic paper on the topic at a conference, and I wrote a blog post on this just last year. I’ve played with identifying as “biologically White/Anglo, and culturally White and Latina/Hispanic”. The evidence pointed towards Native American heritage in our not-too-distant DNA, so for a while I tried on the label “multiracial”, even attending the multiracial caucus at the White Privilege Conference in 2012. I was fully honest about my story there, and surprised by how welcomed and at home I felt. But once I had my DNA analyzed, my ability to claim multi-raciality or origins outside Europe was all but destroyed.
Because of my story, I have compassion for Dolezal’s. I hurt for her awful childhood and family of origin, and how her co-opting a Black identity might have been her way of healing her personal and familial trauma by rejecting the White oppressors in her own family, and going off to right racial wrongs in the world at large. I celebrate her resourcefulness and adaptability, and appreciate things could have turned out much worse. She could have become a raving bigot, a member of a hate group, a substance addict or a murderer instead.
And, I do not support her choices, conscious or unconscious. Much damage has been done. Her decision to identify exclusively as Black, when that is neither her biological inheritance, her historical inheritance nor the entire truth, diminishes her own wholeness and insults the community she loves. Others have already published eloquent, thoughtful pieces on why her behavior is unacceptable in the context of racism and white privilege, the inequitable construction of race, the unfair comparison with transgender individuals’ lives and the negative impact on biracial and light-skinned people of color. I offer some thoughts about the pitfalls and promise Dolezal’s story presents, in the context of diversity and inclusion.
These are the pitfalls:
- Ignoring impact. In D&I one of the most basic concepts is that intent does not equal impact. Identity is a personal choice, but with social consequences. I may identify as culturally Latina in some ways, I may be perceived as Hispanic, I may speak better Spanish than most Latinos, I may even be more educated about Latino culture and committed to Latino causes than most Latinos and I may even be darker (hair, skin, eyes) than many Hispanics. But that doesn’t make me Latino or Mexican, and it doesn’t give me the right to claim that identity. To do so is to take what isn’t mine, without permission. To do so is to insult or ignore the millions of people whose claim to New World ancestry is unambiguous, whose ancestors crossed borders, and whose grandmothers made tortillas by hand and sang them to sleep in Spanish. I doubt most Latinos who knew the entirety of my truth, would accept me claiming I’m one of them – even if I could get away with it. Dolezal demonstrated she knew something wasn’t quite right with what she was doing. And regardless of her intent, the public outcry makes it clear her impact on communities of color is overwhelmingly negative. That is reason enough to deem her behavior unacceptable. Dolezal’s “right” to claim Blackness if she so desires is not more important than how Black people feel about her doing so.
- Comparing apples to oranges. A White woman pretending to be Black, however well-intended, unconscious, or truly transcultural is not the same as a transgender person transitioning. I get the superficial logic that Dolezal’s “transition” from White to Black is comparable to Bruce Jenner’s “celebrated” transition to Caitlyn. Both individuals weren’t at home in their birth bodies. Both identified places that felt more like home. Both transitioned from a socially powerful position (White, male) to a less socially powerful position (Black, female). Both seem sincere, and appear to have no intention of ever “going back”. But these two situations exist in different social, historical, and material contexts. Besides, Jenner’s transition has not been broadly celebrated – in fact, many nasty labels and characterizations have been levelled at her. Also, transwomen without her status are often murdered just for being transwomen, and especially when discovered as transgender. Dolezal, on the other hand, is very much alive, and will likely profit from her masquerade for years to come.
- Essentializing group cultures. While there are group tendencies and identifiable differences between cultures that allow them to be identified as such, trying to define what Black culture “is” or what White culture “is” limits, constricts and stereotypes not just those groups, but individuals within them.
- Not asking curious questions and having full, honest dialogue. Some folks in the NAACP wondered about Dolezal’s identity, but apparently no one said anything. Howard University assumed Dolezal was Black due to her artwork, but never asked. In the last week, it seems no one asked Dolezal “why?” with curious openness. These were all missed opportunities to prevent future problems, learn something valuable, and honor everyone’s full humanity.
- Getting distracted and triggered. Dolezal’s story has taken up a disproportionate amount of our time and energy. Her situation is worthy of news coverage and discussion, yet there are other perhaps more important things going on – police violence in McKinney, Black people murdered in Charleston, xenophobic bigots running for president, and the Dominican Republic getting ready to “purge” Haitians. Or how about some hoopla over Loretta Lynch’s swearing in on Monday? How about going big and loud about Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi, who started the Black Lives Matter campaign? It would better serve us to stay clear headed, be more mindful of the big picture, and bring more appreciation to our successes.
- Thinking in destructive binary, “either-or” thinking. People’s identities are complex, and will continue to be. White-skinned people of color can enjoy white privilege and dark-skinned White people like my siblings can face racial discrimination. People and their motivations are complex. Dolezal is a liar who’s done serious damage, and she’s also a resilient survivor who’s probably meant well and also done lots of good. This is not a 1970’s superhero movie. The truth is complex, and partial truths obscure people’s full humanity. Supporting people’s full humanity to our collective benefit is what D&I is about.
Here’s what’s promising:
- Wide acknowledgement that Dolezal gained – politically and materially – from her masquerade. This is new. I can’t think of a single incident of a White woman wanting, or trying, to pass as Black 300 years ago or 100 years ago. What could she have possibly gained in the face of all she’d lose, even as a worker or peasant? Even 50 years ago, there wouldn’t have been any meaningful benefit for a White woman to pass as Black. That Dolezal did gain may be a sign of an early, gradual (yet incomplete) shift in power.
- Increasing diversity and inclusion means exposing everyone to more possibilities. We are now presented with more options than ever in our species’ history: places to go, experiences to have, ways to behave and identities to try on. Transculturalism is real and will likely increase as more and more people find a home in a “place” they weren’t born into. This has the potential to build empathy, bridges, creativity and innovation – if done with integrity and responsibility.
- A call to true dialogue. Part of our painful, deep, unfinished business around race in the US is our unwillingness or inability to have complete, authentic, complex conversations about our different truths. Dolezal has given us the opportunity to get clearer, messier, and more open about personal matters of race and identity. This is necessary and healthy. We must make it easier and safer to ask – and answer – questions about race and identity with the requisite frankness and complexity. Beyond understanding each other better, we might tackle ethical questions like: Who gets to decide who identifies as what? How do we determine who is a “real” [fill in the blank]? Should transcultural people always out themselves? How would cisgender women feel if a transgender woman gained a leadership position in a national women’s organization?
- The opportunity to expand definitions of Whiteness. As Ali Michael points out, the limited and flavorless options for White identity presented to White people can push us into rejecting our Whiteness or even appropriating others’ identities. Michael Jeffries writes that “it was more appealing to Dolezal to completely reinvent herself and erase her history than to live in margins of whiteness”. Charles Ellison asks “Why not simply embrace your humanity and show that you can totally embrace the humanity of others, despite your whiteness and the institutional barriers that separate us? Her inability to do just that … basically says that white people have to culturally butcher themselves or genetically alter appearances in any effort to truly understand their black counterparts.” Multi-and bi-racial people are constantly pressured to choose, and light-skinned people of color constantly pressured to justify their identities. These are all serious problems inherent to our limited notions of what it means to be White. We must expand Whiteness beyond its old, tired boundaries of Aryan looks, corporate CEOs, Baywatch, the Cleavers, and the KKK.
- An invitation to redirect destructive binary, “either-or” thinking to inclusive “both-and” thinking. Let’s make it OK to be “both-and”: both a person of color AND White, both White AND not feeling entirely at home in “White culture”. Let’s make it OK to be a white-skinned person of color or a dark-skinned White person. Let’s make it OK for multiracial (and transcultural) people to not have to constantly choose one identity or justify themselves. Let’s make it OK for multiracial people to claim their White identities as often as their person-of-color identities. And let’s move towards the future and embody Dolezal’s idea that “challenging the construct of race is at the core of evolving human consciousness”, while ALSO attending wisely and diligently to current realities of race, racism and power inequities in the US and beyond.
I for one am “both-and”: both White and transcultural. And what I’ve learned from Rachel Dolezal is that from now on, I will be clearer, prouder and more vocal about my Whiteness.