This week’s post is one which has somehow managed to begrudgingly sustain my attention yet annoy me at the same time. Granted, this doesn’t happen very often, but when it does happen I really do feel it. One on hand, I really didn’t want to write about this because I feel that it has received enough media attention, trivialised serious issues that ethnic communities around the world continue to face and has shifted our focus from more pressing matters. But on the other hand, this case is thought provoking and opens up an avenue of discussion about personal identity which is very rarely discussed.
As many of you know, the former leader of the Spokane, Washington Chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) Rachel Dolezal has resigned. Her resignation came following Dolezal’s parents ‘outing’ her as a Caucasian woman and that she had been pretending to be an African-American woman for nine years. Newspapers and online publications, as well as social media, has been saturated with stories as the world struggles to understand why a Caucasian woman would choose to identify herself as an African-American woman in this day and age. In fact, it’s almost impossible to not go online without being submerged in a sea of stories about her.
It wasn’t long before people began comparing Rachel Dolezal to Caitlyn Jenner (which is a completely different thing), stating that it was acceptable for her to have lied because she had done a good job and that Dolezal probably suffered from a mental illness. The latter has not been confirmed or disproved, but it was disheartening to read and hear such things, because it mocked the nature of mental illness. These comments were often backed up with people stating that Dolezal was trans-racial to remarks about ‘Michael Jackson wanted to be white’ and sweeping generalisations that most people of ethnic origin want to look Caucasian.
“Race is a social construct; those condemning Dolezal are merely poking holes.”
These comments hurt and shocked me at first; it is not wholly true that all people of ethnic origin want to look more Eurocentric. More and more people of colour are unlearning generations of destructive behaviour and are embracing the way that they look. However, when a universal standard of beauty has sought to demonise and ostracise those who do not look European for generations, it come as no surprise that some feel compelled to alter their looks in order to fit in and/or live with an inferiority complex. The end result? These individuals face condemnation from their own ethnic communities and are subject to ridicule from mainstream society. As a result of this, many grow up simply hating themselves, their cultures and denying/fabricating their ethnic heritage. In addition, they very rarely get an opportunity to openly express the relationship that they have with their identity, in the way that Rachel Dolezal currently has.
I am generally a ‘live-and-let-live’ person; if a particular lifestyle makes an individual happy I generally support it (as long as it does not cause harm, impede other people’s lives or breaks the law) because in our modern world to experience happiness is quite rare. However, even after watching Dolezal’s interview with the Today Show, I still feel deeply uncomfortable about her actions. It’s all very well and good to state on national television: ‘I identify as a black woman’ without experiencing the way that our world perceives and treats African-Americans. Even though I am not of African-Caribbean descent, I would be furious if someone pretended to be a South Asian woman, lied about their background to become a self-styled voice for South Asians.
The final point which I want to take to task is one which has been echoed both online and offline – sadly by some people that I know. “Race is a social construct; those condemning Dolezal are merely poking holes.” This has particularly gotten under my skin; yes race is a human and social construct, but race and ethnicity ultimately form an intrinsic part of a person’s identity. For some people, including myself, their ethnic heritage is borderline sacred which is why such cases feel so raw and cause so much pain. It is a very deep part of an individual’s culture, a community’s culture, their experiences and – most importantly – it is how the world perceives them which in turn has a huge influence on the way that we view ourselves, our cultures and the world that we live in.