As a teenager, my father gave me a serious lecture about the fluidity of tribal identity.
“You can change your name,” he stated. “You can also change your job, your religion, your mates, your nationality and even – these days – your sex. But you can never – ever – change your football team.”
Yes, another relegation-threatened season was challenging my allegiance to the Hammers, which – to my father – was a tribal crime beyond contemplation. He was half-joking, of course, yet there was serious intent behind the flippancy: that identity matters. You can alter everything about yourself, it seems. But there’s no denying where you come from – your “tribe”: the badge of which – for post-industrial “working-class” men in Britain – was the football club you supported on Saturday afternoon.
So what would my unreconstructed father have made of this week’s hoo-ha about Rachel Dolezal’s identity “confusion”? To those who’ve spend the week on Mars, Rachel Dolezal has won an extraordinary level of media attention for being outed as a white woman while pretending to be black. No big deal, you might say – people can surely claim what they like? Yet Rachel was a regional president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), America’s most-influential African-American lobby group (going right back to the civil rights era), as well as an African-studies professor at her local university in Spokane (a rather pleasant-looking town in the north-western US state of Washington).
She wore her colour on her sleeve, so to speak, though it turned out her skin tone was out of a bottle and her tight perm the result of curling tongs. As for the family lineage – it was a lie, eventually revealed by a video in which her apple-pie parents (of Caucasian Czech-German American stock) offered-up photos of a blond, green-eyed young Rachel (see above compared to the later images of the new Rachel sporting her “natural look”).
For America’s outrage industry, Rachel’s crime has been her attempt to carry herself as someone she wasn’t: a black woman representing her minority in professional circles. Yet opinion divides regarding whether this was due to some form of personality disorder (“histrionic” being the most cited), or whether she was “gaming the system” to use the euphemistic phrase of Gary Younge’s in The Guardian (i.e. she was committing a form of identity fraud for personal advancement).
“Rachel has wanted to be somebody she’s not,” said her mother Ruthanne on the show-and-tell video – leading the advocacy of the “nutjob” defence. “She’s chosen not to just be herself, but to represent herself as an African American woman or a bi-racial person and that’s simply not true.”
Unsurprisingly, the “she’s a fraud” prosecutors are even less sympathetic. Here’s Alicia Walters, a “race expert” actually from Spokane (though now living in California) on Rachel’s subterfuge:
“Dolezal managed to put on an identity – that of a black woman – in a way that renders invisible the experiences that actually forged for us our identities as black women. She presented to the world the trappings of black womanhood without the burden of having to have lived them for most of her life. She represented us and gained status in both black and white communities as one of us, even though she could have worn her whiteness and talked to white people about their racism – something sorely needed in a town like Spokane.”
Indeed, the notion she could have “worn her whiteness” and still campaigned for the NAACP is a common refrain from those angered by Rachel’s deceit. But could she have become the regional president, or a professor in African studies (though admittedly one confessing to have never been to Africa)? We’ll never know.
But I don’t think Rachel a nutjob or a fraud. What I think is that she developed “role confusion” in adolescence, resulting in an identity crisis, which settled into a desire for a new identity (Erik Erikson’s the shrink on this one, in case you wondered). Psychologically, this is similar to the day I almost became a Chelsea supporter, or maybe the times I over-egged my Cockney credentials at college, or even like the day some of my heavy-metalist school-acquaintances turned up at the town disco in full mod regalia (Weller-cuts and parkas) and started picking fights with their former associates.
But, of course, we’re talking about race, which cuts through identity like a knife. The racial divide is America’s “original sin” (Obama’s phrase) – a cleavage cut so deep and so early into the country’s psyche that it permeates everything and everyone (something that truly shocked me while living in the US in the late 1990s). It’s an emphatic – genetic – divide: you’re either black or you ain’t – there’s no getting the right gear and haircut and simply joining in. And Dolezal most definitely ain’t.
That said, her role confusion is not all her doing. Her parents raised Rachel in a predominantly black area in the racially-charged Deep South state of Mississippi. Here: blond, pale, green-eyed Rachel was the misfit, trying to fit in. Her parents even adopted two sons, both black. So the white Rachel lived in a black neighbourhood with black friends and siblings, which means – just maybe – she does have some insight into what it feels like to be a minority.
Soon she had a black husband too, although it was the failure of this marriage in 2004 that started Rachel’s slide in self-identity – something that accelerated after a start-over migration west. Here she could reinvent herself, a very typical move from an outsider seeking meaning: one giving her life a new purpose through the pursuit of what really motivated her – the struggles, identity and politics of African Americans, as experienced by those closest to her at various points in her life.
Of course, as many people have claimed, Dolezal could have done the same while remaining officially white. After all, there are many white campaigners in the NAACP (as there were in the original civil rights campaigns of the 1960s). Yet these are mostly middle class liberals, condemned – both by white conservatives and black purists – as “bleeding hearts”. For her, the affinity with black identity went far deeper than white “guilt”. It defined who she was – in thought and (to an extent) in background, if not in actual genes.
So we should cut her some slack, in my view. After all, wasn’t it Dr. Martin Luther King who wanted Americans judged by the content of their character rather than the colour of their skin?
That said – and given the deception – many would say it’s her character that’s being questioned. In her desire for authenticity, she took that fateful step. She lied that her white father was her step-father and her biological father was in fact black (even producing pictures of an unrelated black man from Idaho to prove it). Sure, it was a falsehood. Yes – given the quota applications of many university teaching posts – she may have technically denied a black person employment. But, for Rachel, it confirmed her intense affinity with the black community and, more importantly, her estrangement with the white tribe to which she was genetically – and arbitrarily – ascribed.
A new life, new ambitions and a new identity: using what’s useful from her past while ditching unhelpful complications. She’s hardly the first to do it and she most certainly shouldn’t be the last. Indeed, it’s something I advocate in The Outside Edge. For outsiders, seeking new identities as part of our quest for meaning is a very necessary part of the process. Rachel’s problem was that part of her lost baggage was her biological inheritance, which is a pretty unforgiving concern in American society. Yet that’s America’s problem. It isn’t Rachel’s.