Friday, June 12, 2015

The "Passing" of Rachel Dolezal

OK, so this Rachel Dolezal story today has me fascinated.  This woman who claims to have some African-American heritage, is a Professor of African Studies and the President of the Spokane, WA NAACP.  Her mother reports that her heritage is instead Czech, German and possibly some Native American.  Looking at her pictures, it seems that it is possible that she is has some multi-racial background, and it's possible that she doesn't.  (Because race is a false construct that we have plunked down upon ourselves, but that's a different blog post.) So who is "passing" here, Rachel or her mother or father?  That part remains a mystery. (As is why her mother would go to the press, but again, a different blog post.)

I'm not entirely sure why I'm reacting so strongly to this story, except that it hits me as an adopted child.  A light-haired, green-eyed, Jewish, adopted child.  The ethnic narrative in my head was always Jewish, plus some other stuff, probably, but I primarily identify as a Jewish person.  In my search for my bio-heritage I found out that my biological mother was Jewish (phew), but as I suspected, my paternal heritage was not.  I expected the usual American white ethnic muttdom, which to a certain extent I got, but I did not expect to find two early relatives on the Mayflower (Small and White, apt, no?)  and ancestors that fought in the Revolution and on both sides of the Civil War.  In some ways it was very disconcerting, I was a JAP not DAR.  Not that any of it matters, but it was weird.  

It struck me as weird for they first time, when I took the boy child to visit Gettysburg College.  I went into my usual "Daddy had ancestors that fought on both sides..." spiel, when I had to stop and say "Oh wait, so did I...."  And for a moment it was like a brain hitting a brick wall.  A different view of who I was.  Which was very disconcerting.  I knew who I was.  A change in that at 45?  Weird.

Disconcerting, but ultimately not very meaningful because who we are is in what we do, not in who our ancestors were.  So my inclination with this whole crazy story is to give this woman a break, if she feels black, identifies herself as black, let her be black.  Maybe she is "passing."  Maybe her parents are.  Why does it matter?  It isn't like there are any human without some African DNA, so if she feels hers more accurately represents who she truly is, why not let her claim it?  No matter how much or little she has.  I know that had I found myself to have no biological Jewish heritage, I would have felt bereft of my identity.  (And that with religion rather than race there would have been a process by which I could have switched.) So why should I tell anyone else who they get to be?