Who is to Define Who is Black?

Forgive me, but I am still struggling to find fault with Rachel Dolezal. If you’re still not in-the-know, Rachel Dolezal’s name is now ‘synonymous’ with “Identity [re]formulation”; not the Caitlyn Jenner way. By the way, unlike Caitlyn Jenner who become an instant global phenomenon, especially among the people she re-invented to identify with, Rachel Dolezal has not been much embraced. I doubt she’s gonna sign a “Cover Girl” deal soon, like Caitlyn.

Rachel Dolezal’s crime, guilty as already charged by a large section of the ‘moralizing’ public, is “masquerading” as a Black person. She is identifying as an African American, a ‘coveted’ identity supposedly for only those who know suffering, blanket assumption is all Black people. Plenty of America’s Black women are up in arms that Dolezal “is demeaning and devaluing the suffering of Black women, who by no choice of their own are labeled black with insurmountable burdens and negative connotations. “Black womanhood is an identity forged in the lived experiences of black children,” writes Alicia Walters, who, like Rachel grew up in Spokane, WA, but allegedly without the ‘choice’ of ‘performing’ blackness.

Plenty are up in arms, charging Rachel with ‘performing blackness’, and ‘wearing’ an identity that is not her own, so they say. Her parents, as well, are ‘distraught’ that Rachel is misrepresenting her true identity, disagree with her blackness, and concerned that she is estranged from them. They say, she began ‘acting black’ after she went to college in Mississippi, and after the death of her husband, an African American.

I am concerned about the public ‘stoning’ of R. Dolezal’s African American identity as deception, fraud and performing blackness. Call her out for suing Howard for discrimination, or allegedly calling out another Latino for not being “Hispanic enough”. Don’t call her a fraud, because she self-identifies as “Black”!

Who is to say that Rachel Dolezal is not Black, if indeed she identifies as Black? Can we claim that Rachel is not black, by merely looking at her portraits from childhood to present? Don’t looks lie? Especially in our America, where the label is attributed to anybody with just a drop of black blood in their DNA? Can we rely solely on parental visual appearance and self-identity to tell us the racial make-up of their offsprings?

When I saw Rachel’s adult portrait, my first instinct was a recollection of “Skin”, a 2009 movie based on Judith Stone’s book When She Was White: The True Story of a Family Divided by Race. It is about a South African girl born to white Afrikaner parents but officially classified as “Colored” by the apartheid government. Taken prima facie, her facial appearance could have justify the classification as “Colored”, presumably a result of a genetic case of atavism, a reappearance of genes from previous ancestors, who could have been black, in the case of Sandra Laing (Skin).

A similar case is Little White Lie, a book and film based on the life of Lacey Schwatz, who grew up white, raised by two white Jewish parents she was made believe  both were her biological parents. Her mother hid a secret affair with her biological father, an African American man. Well then, maybe parents as well, misrepresent the truth, sometimes?

  1. Who is to say that Rachel Dolezal is performing “Blackness” and “Black Womanhood”?

  2. Why can’t we let Rachel define her identity to us, on her own terms?

  3. Do blacks [in America] have a monopoly over Black identity? And is it true that black womanhood is formed as black children?

  4. Do all black children, really grow up as Black? Or is Blackness attained as a Black child progresses in age, and within specific societies with overt racial categorizations?

  5. Is it not true that, perhaps some black children are ‘shielded’ from growing up with all the encumbrances associated with “blackness’ in America, such as, societal discrimination, underprivileged, physical threat, prescribed acceptable public behavior and actions, pre-defined identity, even if not their entire lifetime?

It is a wide generalization that “Black womanhood is formed as black children. Some black children, including my own, enjoy the ‘privilege’ of not knowing they are black, until later in life or until their parents open the subject of ‘coloring’ and ‘racism’ to them, or until they encounter a racialized experience during their young lives.

Here, I am thinking of Black children growing up in predominantly white suburbs, where they are the lone or one of the very few black family. Many of these children do not, by own confession self-identity with blacks from inner cities and metropolitan settings. Some, again by own confession, are afraid and ashamed of fellow blacks, and see their culture as ‘uncouth’ and incompatible with their lived cultural experience. Their main cultural experience is similar to the predominant white culture where they are growing up and exposed to, in their daily interactions.

For instance, my six-year old, growing up in a predominantly white community and culture, until very recently, identified as white. Until his classroom discussion about Martin Luther King during “Black History Month”, he did not have a clue about racial identity [in America]; he did not think of himself as black, and considered me chocolate not black. Still, I doubt the lesson in his classroom and our conversation at home on racial identity have altered his cultural learnings, experiences, and radicalized identity.

Then, what makes it wrong to accept someone, who personally identifies as African American? Who is to say, Rachel has not experienced or internalized blackness, or does not carry personal struggles identified with black people and black women? Who is to say that Rachel is wearing blackness as ‘a pair of shoes’, according to Alicia Walters? After all, she has been the target of the racist Aryan Nation in her Spokane, WA neighborhood, she found a noose on her porch, and probably a recipient of spite in her community, for marrying a Black man, her late husband.

Has she obtained privilege because of assuming an African American identity? Maybe. But so have plenty of Blacks that take on “Caucasian’-sounding names, and perhaps escape the [not so subtle] profiling in job application screening, or mortgage applications, where candidates with “African American sounding names” are not given the same or any consideration.

Or should we concern ourselves more about how Rachel has used her privilege as an “African American” for the betterment of African American peoples and cultures? In all of the history of African American struggles, white people have used their ‘white privilege’ to work  for the emancipation of colored peoples, forged alliances and immersed themselves into the black struggle, strategically or genuinely. I have white friends, who are as afraid as I am about raising black children in America, either because they are married to Black men or their hearts and life trajectories are intertwined with the struggle for equal humane treatment of all persons. White friends, who are married to black men, not as ‘voyagers’ but because that is “where the heart is”. I have white friends who have spent the greatest part of their lives advocating and fighting for the survival and lives of black people, putting themselves on the frontline to rescue refugees.

There are plenty of Black folks, for whom the “Black struggle” is not in their immediate preoccupation or concern, as much as their personal advancement and status in society. Some have publicly disowned “Blackness”, speak ill of Black culture, or wholly and conveniently embraced ‘white culture’ to their benefit, without seeing themselves as ‘fraudulent’ or misplaced, away from ‘Blackness’.

How can we claim to know what drove Rachel Dolezal to assume an identity so cumbersome in the world, especially in our America? An identity that is abhorred, denigrated and rejected even by the very people who are colored “Black”? Why should we label Dolezal a “fraud”, “deceitful” and “opportunistic”, for identifying with a people, a cause and a human race, within a society where due to her re-formulated identity, she possibly experienced being unwanted, and possibly exterminated by racist and hate groups? After all, she never claimed to be “Black” to obtain admission into Howard! Apparently, the school awarded her admission and a Fulbright scholarship, without the requiring her to disclose her ethnicity, most probably on merit. Assuming Howard awarded her admission based on her picture portrait, doesn’t that speak to the larger complicatedness of ‘Blackness” or Black womanhood in America, which the disgruntled Alicia Walters seems to agree is diverse/varied lived experiences?

If indeed Rachel Dolezal is misrepresenting the truth [I still give her the benefit of doubt, until DNA proves otherwise], so did plenty of folks involved in the Underground Railroad, or Henry “Box” Brown, holocaust survivors, international migrants and refugees or armed combatants. What all these people have in common, is the struggle for freedom and self-determination. The struggle to be set free from the bondages of being defined by others, and strive to create one’s own destiny and identity for the betterment of “the self” and/or the larger society. Don’t we all [re]invent ourselves, at different stages of our human existence?

No doubt, we should be much concerned about honesty, as well as letting others be! We do not know, if the experience of living with adopted African American siblings, and later marrying an African American husband gave Rachel an avenue to ‘find herself’ and find solace among a people with whom she felt comfortable and accepted? Perhaps that gave her the impetus to immerse herself in the lives and daily struggles of African Americans, by recreating her identity as an African American. In my experience, white folks who genuinely wish to be a part of the ‘black struggle’, while welcome and utilized by the [black] communities, are often still viewed and treated as ‘outsiders’. To avoid the baggage of being seen as a “token white woman”, perhaps R. Dolezal figured it would be easier to identify as African American. Perhaps? Well then, what is wrong with that picture?

IT is [NOT] “Know Thy Neigbor[hood]!

ImageYeah! I know this is a loaded title. I bet you are wondering whether I mean “Know Thy Neighbor” or “Know Thy Neighborhood”. Sounds strange, huh! 

Strangely that occurred to me on my run last Sunday, and again this Friday morning, in two different neighborhoods. And it took me back to the Trayvon Martin murder trial, where Zimmerman got acquitted for murder and manslaughter. I am sure it aint politically incorrect to bring up the Zimmerman case again. Everybody has and still is expressing their views loudly on this one. And we are lucky enough to know that in the 21st century -2013, America is still NOT beyond the color line. So, we are gonna suck it up and keep finding a piece of this place we call home….beyond or before the color-line. 

Ok, back to my central topic on “My Neighborhood and me”. Last Sunday, I went out jogging from Camp Creek in West Atlanta to Union City in South Fulton. It was not an easy run, with steep climbs under the scorching sun, with a few areas of concrete, but mostly no footpaths or running trails. I had to brave it, and compete with incoming traffic. Luckily in America, at least for the most past, most motorists will respect a runner or pedestrian and share space, unlike in Kampala where you would most likely get run over by stray drivers as happened to me back in 2011. Story for another day. So, it was very daring and rewarding. I ended up doing 13 miles, touch down! Been a while since I was able to go that far due to change of geographical location. 

Same story this past Friday, while running in Norcross, GA, North of Metro-Atlanta. I got into places without footpaths or running trails.  At some point I lost track of where I was, made a u-turn in some places, while in others I needed human help with directions. I could have done better, like in the first case on Sunday, with running off-roads through the woods, but that was not feasible.

It struck me that, while in most of America we do not “Know Thy Neighbor”, we better be smart enough to “Know Thy Neighborhood”! See, Trayvon got accosted, shot at and killed because he did not “Know Thy Neighborhood”, by a stranger -Zimmerman who did not care to “Know Thy Neighbor”. See, for a teenage black male living in America, society puts a VERY high responsibility on them to “Know Thy Neighborhood”. I guess I will have to tell this to my Black African American son (recently turned 5-years), when he becomes a teenager. I hate to think that I might have to do this too early, for instance, which one of his K-class friends he can go to play with, living in a pre-dominantly white neighborhood uhm!

In my case, I am a Uganda American [yes I claim that] and mother of a child with an African American man. The many years of living in America have allowed me to learn and appreciate the history and historical struggles of African Americans to belong to this space: “currency of race”, the writings, the education and miseducation of African Americans”, and their journey to self-liberation. In many ways, this experience have provided me a deeper insight and understanding of the “Miseducation of the Negro Race” worldwide, including those who escaped, survived or were unfortunate to miss the slaveship (trust me, some continental Africa confess to that feel), and remained back in Africa. And I use the “Negro Race” in honor and respect of those who came before me, and conquered the word “Negro”, in the pre-1960s, and appropriated it to build intellectual histographies about us in art, music, poetry, civil rights struggles, spiritual healing, sports, education and economic empowerment. Notably I acknowledge Dr. Martin Luther King, Malcom X, Bob Marley, and many more. It is also true that the word “Negro” is still used in contemporary America in reference to the United Negro College Fund and the Negro league in sports, which have their historical significance. As well, while its usage is falling out of favor around the world, it is still a neutral word in the Scandinavians, for instance, and in Russia. I should CATEGORICALLY state that I neither endorse nor condone its usage NOR in any way suggest or find any semblance with the use of the word “NIGGER”, which I detest.

In many ways the use of the word “Negro” is as fluid as “Know Thy Neighborhood”. In my experience, it depends both on who you are, and where you are. As a black person jogging around a seemingly predominantly black neighborhood of Camp Creek and Union City in Atlanta, I still could not dare jog out in the woods in the backyards. I feared that I could be shot at for “trespassing”, including by a black person. Yes! it is the nature of America, the “fear of thy neighbor” is colorless in many places. Black can negatively profile black as much as white profiles black. Although, black may not profile white the same. 

The ABC video of a white male, black teenage male and white female, all trying to “steal a bike” seems to qualify this statement. When the white male got asked by passerby if the bike was his, and said, no, but it would become his when he took the chain off, nobody offered him a hand but nor did they confront him harshly or call the police. When the black male teen tried the same thing, several white folks were seen confronting him harshly, and some went ahead to call the police on him. For the white female, same story, confessed theft –but one male went ahead to offer her a hand to break the bike free so she could take it. Interesting, two female black women, when asked why they went past the white male breaking a bike chain, the responded that they did not think he would take property that was not his. 

What does this tell us? That either black people have a high level of trust in white people, and would not consider them thieves. Or it is far-fetched to assume that black women would confront a white male in a predominantly white neighborhood – his comfort zone. I say, it is both. Yet, again, as a black woman, I cannot assume that a black person living in America would not shoot me if I went running in the woods in their backyard. And I bet a white person would either immediately call the police, confront me or try to shoot at me.

ImageInterestingly, when I did the Hash [my international running group] with one of the metro Altanta Hashes, I went through backyards, front-yards and woods in a pre-dominantly white neighborhood with ease. Perhaps because I was with a predominantly white group, and the only black person running, in addition to the Grenadian couple [one looking more Hispanic] who walked it. But I could not replicate that comfort zone, when I ran all by myself this past Friday, in a predominantly white neighborhood, to follow off-road trails and into the woods. For once, all the other runners I saw were white, yet only one said hello. The other did not care, although runners, like smokers tend to pride themselves in acknowledging each other with a “hi”. When I lost track of how to get back home and had no one on the road to ask for directions, I could have branched off and knocked at one of the doors in the neighborhood or asked a motorist. But I could not dare, afraid they would consider me a threat and call the PoPo. 

So, either way, black like me cannot win in a white or black neighborhood. It is different in most of the Africa I have lived, I can run anywhere with no fear of the neighborhood, unless of course the State House. I know that many folks who have never lived the “American Experience” within geographical America wonder why, “we are SOO obsessed with race and racism”. I say, until you get that opportunity and allow yourself to internalize “the American Experience with Black America”, you better be sure you, “Know Thy Neighborhood”. Image