In order to talk about the Rachel Dolezal story, I’m going to put a few things aside right at the beginning. I’m not going to make this an article about being “transracial” (whatever that is) or make any comparisons to Caitlin Jenner’s situation. I’m just going to get to the bottom of why this is such a big issue in the first place. because, in reality, despite expert analysis and feedback, it’s all very simple.
Let’s pretend that you formed a group with friends at school. The group started because you have this similarity: you each have heterochromia in your eyes, meaning that none of you have the same eye color for both eyes. For example, Jill has a blue eye and brown eye, and your friend James Bond (the name is quite common) has a green eye and a hazel eye. Not everyone with heterochromia sits with your group at lunch every day, but a lot of them stick together. You like a lot of the same movies, a lot of the same artists and hang out in a lot of the similar place. One day, one member of your group, who we will call, “Rach” is eating her pudding when something flies out of her eye.
This entire time she was eating with your group and advocating for its awareness, she was lying-both her eyes are baby blue. They are quite nice eyes now that you see them…but that’s beyond the point. Rach has been lying to you for months. She pretended to be something she wasn’t. Now we wonder, what else was “Rach” lying about?
Trust is what this whole national issue is about. That’s what we should be upset about most in this story. So why do most arguments center around Rachel’s “pretending to be black”? It comes down to appropriation vs. assimilation.
When you arrive in a new environment, work environment, school environment, etc., you are likely to pick up certain work habits. For example, if everyone starts using the word “ZANTHEPE” to refer to an unruly customer, you’ll probably start saying it or at least start thinking about it. As time goes on, you may consciously pick up certain work habits while consciously rejecting all others. This is the process of assimilation into the new culture. You do it actively and passively so that you can survive and thrive in the company. By contrast, let’s say your roommate that works at Burger King starts using your work lingo and slang. One day, they come to the company Kwanzaa party and talk and act as if they worked there and had their experiences. This is seen as appropriation, because this person is pretending to be a part of the culture without having a direct connection.
This is an important distinction that is often missed. Any person of color in America that has been accused of “acting/talking white” knows this. Because they have chosen to take aspects of other cultures in the diverse American melting pot into themselves, they are seen as outsiders in their own respective cultures. Yes, there are some people who take it a bit too far but the large majority are just living the way they want to. There is nothing wrong for a person who does not identify as black to wait for the newest Kendrick Lamar mixtape to drop. In fact, they just have a great taste in music.
Crossing cultural lines and divides is a beautiful thing that we get to do in America. Unfortunately, that decision is not always supported by culture you were born into. That’s why some people are willing to go to extremes to avoid the transition. If you just take on the new culture wholesale by putting in those contacts or changing your skin color, you get to skip all those questioning looks from your culture that say, “Why are going over to that lunch table? You already have us.” It doesn’t make it right. You should be who you want to be despite judgments and criticism. But we all know that the world is not that kind and accepting…yet.
Rachel, you went about this the wrong way. Instead of embracing your identity and black culture simultaneously, you sacrificed one for the other. That lie you held for so long is going to take a while for us to get over. You’re not a bad person…we think. You did all of this because of your love of black culture…we think. You didn’t mean to make light of the culture by appropriating a false identity…we think.
You know…it’s hard to say.
We’ve never met you, Rachel.