Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Hue and Cry

As an extremely white-looking biracial person who was raised by my biological white mother and black father to “think of myself as” Colored, Negro and Black (the words changed over the years but the idea was the same), color me bemused and fascinated by the “racial scandal” surrounding Rachel Dolezal. She’s the woman who until a couple of days ago was a highly effective NAACP chapter president and is now a subject of curiosity and scorn, because she’s white (according to her white biological parents) but self-identifies as black. We might consider her transracial: a black woman who believes she was mistakenly born in a white woman’s body.

Ms. Dolezal is accused of doing some odd, even duplicitous things, including attending then suing Howard University (one of the country’s most famous black colleges) for racial discrimination because she’s white; assuming guardianship of one of several unquestionably black children adopted by her white parents; ticking several racial categories on official documents; marrying a black man (to whom she’s no longer married, but I don’t know why); and giving birth to a biracial child (biracial if indeed she’s white) who apparently looks unquestionably like a person of color.

Ms. Dolezal looks like a white woman with a tan and a ‘fro who says with no clear explanation that she identifies as black. Some black people resent this because they feel she has no personal knowledge/understanding of the black experience. But what is the totality of the black experience? American blacks come in a variety of hues because of the long history of the rape of black women by white men from Slavery until now, because there’s still a racial component to some rape.

Low self esteem still exists within the black community – less now, since some measure of civil rights success. But most people (black, white and “other”) know about the old paper bag test (if you’re darker than a brown paper bag you’re too dark); if you’re very light-skinned you’re “high yaller” (yellow); and there is still a measure of antipathy between dark and light skinned blacks, although with an interesting twist. Up until the 60s, light skinned blacks felt superior to their darker kin. Since civil rights that’s somewhat reversed. And now that there are an increasing number of biracial people there’s just a whole lot of racial confusion.

Race and racism are about color. It’s ironic but true that in many parts of Africa, American blacks aren’t considered black, because our historic coffee has been diluted with so much cream. “Pure” African blacks are black, what’s still called here “he’s so black he’s blue.” Whereas here, the economic construct of Slavery came up with the notion of the One Drop Rule (“one little drop of niggra blood and you’re a niggra too”). This made it easier and cheaper for Slave owners to acquire, even breed, more Slaves, rather than buy them fresh off the boat. It’s also true that there are millions of “white” Americans who have “black blood” in their family histories and don’t even know it!

But to get back to the beleaguered Ms. Dolezal: I personally feel a great sense of sympathy for her, as well as a kind of reverse empathy. Sympathy, because there’s obviously been a considerable amount of racial weirdness and confusion in her life and I think she does have a sense of the black experience. She grew up with a number of adopted black siblings, went to a black college where she majored in black studies, married a black man, has a “colored” child, and apparently did considerably beneficial work for the NAACP. If we accept (even if we don’t quite understand) that people can be transgender, is it really so hard to accept the concept of transracial?

My sense of “reverse empathy” comes from being told to view myself as black but my mirror told me I was not. It seemed insane that I had two parents of different colors and was told to identify with the one I didn’t look like. I had no problem seeing myself as  racially blended, but in my youth we didn’t have the terms “mixed race” or “biracial.” And when I gleefully discovered the word mulatto, which is a Spanish word for exactly what I am, I was told it was a derogatory term. I was basically told that my very being was an insult! I’m 63 goddamn years old and I still haven’t truly come to terms with my racial identity. And I think that says more about American society than it does about me.

The moral of the Rachel Dolezal story – like the moral of the Caitlyn Jenner story – is that identity is a personal and complex thing. Neither science nor sociology have a true, full understanding of human sexuality, or an explanation for the need for strong racial distinctions in a racially mixed society. What we have in both areas is ignorance, fear, polarization, habit, meanness, exploitation, and plain old stupidity. I doubt I’ll live long enough to see this stuff straightened out – and, for the record, it’s made much of my life miserable.

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