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I am the mother of three African-American, biracial children. And I am grateful to Rachel Dolezal.
My mixed-race son’s light skin and blue eyes prompt people of all races to tell him he isn’t “really black.” And that bothers him. Because he thinks that he is. He has an African-American father, African-American grandparents, uncles, aunts, and cousins and, because I was born in the former Soviet Union, his only true “American” identity is the one that has “African” in front of it. I have been trying to tell him for years that “African-American” is a culture, not a color. His dad has repeatedly told him that black people can look all sorts of different ways.
The rest of the world doesn’t seem to agree.
I am not here to either decry or defend Rachel Dolezal, the now-former NAACP official who is at the center of a controversy about lying about her race. I don’t know enough about her story, her motives, or her state of mind to judge one way or the other (and, despite the current social media climate, don’t really think it’s any of my business). But I am grateful to her. For two reasons, one personal, one general.
On the personal front, I promptly showed her photo to my son, telling him, “Look, she has much more European features than you do, and yet testimonies are coming in from all over, swearing they never had any doubt she was exactly who she presented herself to be. Doesn’t this prove that other people’s perceptions are as situational as they are anything else?”
My son currently goes to a school that has mostly Asian kids, with only a few white kids and even fewer African-American ones. So people assume he is white. And because of the neighborhood we live in, people assume he’s Hispanic. When we’re at temple, no one doubts he’s Jewish. So I told my son: “Maybe it’s less about what you look like, and more about where you are and what you do?”
My son’s response was to shrug and point out, “Eh, but she worked for the NAACP. The NAACP always hires practically white people.” (This was an observation he first made at the ripe old age of 10, looking at a book about Ruby Bridges. He asked me, “Why are all the NAACP people so much lighter-skinned than Ruby and her family?” As I said, this is an issue that’s preoccupied him for a long time.)
While he was blasé about the whole thing (he’s a high-school sophomore, so is blasé about everything) I have to hope that my point sunk in.
My second reason for being grateful to Rachel Dolezal is that, regardless of how you feel about what she did, she has triggered a nationwide conversation about race and what it means to be “really” anything.
My son’s questions are now the same ones everyone else is asking. And that’s a good thing.
Can you “feel” as if you were born into another ethnicity? As someone who knows several “Jews by choice,” -- people who weren’t born Jewish but felt, somehow, that that’s what they were meant to be (and no, not all of them did it for a spouse) -- I can’t just offer a definitive “no, that’s impossible.” Not that it’s my place to do so.
For years, we’ve been told that race is a social construct, no more, no less. For instance, due to the way laws were written, for centuries, it was possible in America for a white mother to give birth to a black child, but not for a black mother to give birth to a white one. Booker T. Washington was multiracial, and so was Malcolm X. Does the “one-drop” rule only flow in a single direction? Aren’t we all made up of a whole lot of drops? Who gets to decide which ones speak to you best, if not the person actually deciding what sort of life they want to live?
I don’t know what’s next for Rachel Dolezal. But I do know that her actions have been good for my son, and for America — in the long, if not the short run. (In the short run, it’s going to be very unpleasant and painful, especially as everyone just kind of yells their opinions and bludgeons anyone who dares disagree.)
But now that my son is not the only one asking questions, maybe we’ll have a better chance of finding the answers that will allow him to lead his life any way he chooses. And of having people accept him on his own terms.
Alina Adams is the NYT best-selling author of soap-opera tie-ins, figure-skating mysteries, romance novels, and the brand new guide, “Getting Into NYC Kindergarten,” the book that makes it easier for all parents, regardless of race, ethnicity or socio-economic status, to get their child into the best school possible. Read more at AlinaAdams.com.