Thursday, June 18, 2015

Is Imitation the Sincerest Form of Flattery? The Rachel Dolezal question

In the aftermath of Rachel Dolezal's controversial self-identification as black, the question has arisen of who can and should be called "black." I have been asking this for a long time now because of its relevance to me. I am a real mixed-race person like Ms.Dolezal had claimed to be, but unlike her, I have never been so sure of my racial designation. I am genetically and with documentation (yes, one does have to say that these days) part Native American, (Wampanoag, Cheyenne and more), African, European (French, Spanish, Irish, Scottish, English, German, and a few more) and Jewish. I consider myself tri-racial. In America, I am often considered black by both European and African-Americans without any thought to the rich complexity of American and world history that had to come about to create someone like me.

African, European and Native women who make up me.

Unlike Dolezal, who is, in her mind, black without even a nod to her "fictitious" mixed genetic inheritance (Native American and European), I have not been able to reject the other branches of my family tree so entirely. Maybe it is because she hates her parents and rejects them out of hand, or because she is white and has never known what it is like to be mixed-race or more importantly mixed-cultured, that she feels she can jump on the one-race bus with both feet. Maybe it is because she has never stood in a mirror like I have and wondered where she got those almond eyes or high cheekbones, or wondered who she laughs like or why her hair comes out of her head in s-shaped curls.

Dolezal, as a European American, knows her family history. She probably heard from her parents about her relatives that were Czech and German and why she has that funny nose and freckles.  I had to dig through silence, slavery, shame and to find out why I looked the way I did. I had to take DNA tests to discover what part of Africa my family came from. I had to look through census after census until I found those that proved I had Wamponoag ancestors because supposedly no Native Americans and Africans ever got married and had kids together. I had to go through spitting in vials to find out I was Jewish on both sides of my family. I had to look through historical documents to find out I was part Scottish and German. I had to fight for years and pierce through a tragic family history, lies of my mother, secrets of her mother, and stories of my father's grandmother to find out who I was. So, I am not settling for just black like Ms. Dolezal can because she never had to struggle with identity and racism. She knew she was white and hated it or her parents. I don't have family stories to throw away or a family bible to burn that tells me who I am related to or where I came from. I didn't have the privilege of  turning my back on my past since it was a shut and locked door I had to take a crow-bar to just to open it and peek inside.

Musty old book that holds my rich  history.

Ms. Dolezal has her own psychological problems. She decided to solve them by changing race, becoming the fairest of them all, and ruling in the NAACP. She has said everything the NAACP hierarchy wanted to hear: "Though I am fair, I only identify as black. I don't care about that other parts of me," and she was rewarded with a high position. She told a lie that I as a real mixed-race person will not tell. She told a fairy-tale about race, color, and culture and made a simple and very neat choice. For me, a real person who is mixed-race (and my family has been for hundreds of years), it is not so simple. I do not go one way or another when it comes to race. I can't because all of that is who I am, and I feel lucky to know it. Neither I nor my family members have been rewarded for our differences. My uncle shaved off his straight hair and kept it short all his life so not to get his ass kicked for looking too white.  My father had to fight white and black boys who wanted to beat him up because he looked too much and too little like each race.  I have been called the "N" word by whites. I have experienced reverse racism from black people because they think since I am lighter-skinned,  I get more privileges, and they want to make sure I suffer like them (for all you who think that way, be contented, I have suffered, but thanks, it's made me stronger.)

The choice to accept all our colors and refuse to deny the truth about ourselves and history has led to us being ostracized, called liars, laughed at and ridiculed for not stating "I am black " but stating  "I am a person of many colors and cultures."  To be multi-racial is for me to be an outsider, always trying to find where I fit. In my life, I find at times I fit everywhere and nowhere. I am a cultural chimera.

My Chimera-self. Scared yet?

I would not be anything else. In fact, I refuse to be less than what I am to make anyone happy or make my life easier and more successful like Ms. Dolezal. If she wants to be mixed-race,  wants to be Native, African and European like me and wants to imitate me, then I will tell her what my history has taught me, grow a pair, and accept who she is really and be proud of that. I know I am.

Me and my German Valkyrie ancestresses!

Candice Raquel Lee
Author of  The Innocent: A Love Story  

and Effed Up: An Abnormal Romance