By Uche Onyebadi
Acting White is a derogatory verbal weapon in the African American community. The term is used against African Americans who, by their demeanour and actions, tend to mimic white modes of behaviour. It is used to remind them of their black origin, as well as the fact that no matter how much they pretend to be white, nature has put them in the black community and that is where they would remain for life. This reminder is usually accompanied by some form of ostracism. To be accused of acting white is therefore a social stigma.
Remember the African philosopher, Frantz Fanon? He wrote about something similar to acting white in his book, Black Skin, White Masks. His thoughts were based on the devastating outcome of colonialism on the colonized. Fanon argued that in colonial times, some colonized people underwent such psychological trauma that although they were black people they acted and believed that to ape the white man or woman was the correct and authentic way of life.
If Fanon were alive today, how might he have reacted to the issue that gripped America last week as there emerged a situation that appeared to reverse his contention? It was a case of a naturally born white woman acting black. And her story grabbed media headlines because she was not a white never-do-well who just decided to re-do her identity for frivolous reasons or even for calculated material benefits. Her name is Rachel Dolezal.
Basic facts about white or black lady
Here are basic facts about this white or black lady, however you choose to believe her racial identity. She is 37 years old, an MA degree holder from the historically and predominantly black Howard University, and an adjunct professor of Africana Studies at Eastern Washington University. Rachel is the Spokane (Washington State) branch president of the nation’s most prominent and oldest civil rights organization, the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) founded in 1909.
In addition, she is the chair of Spokane city’s police oversight commission. On a number of occasions she made claims about treats to her life and hate crimes against her because she is black. The police are yet to apprehend anyone on these allegations which are becoming suspect. She often writes about her black son Izaiah, but it has since been revealed that Izaiah is indeed her adopted brother who has been living with her for several years.
She often poses with a black man she calls her father. But the truth is that the man isn’t her biological father. Indeed her real parents are white who have some German, Swedish and Czech roots.
Her father, Larry Dolezal, told the BuzzFeed news last week that both he and his wife are white, and that Rachel is “our birth daughter and we’re both of European descent, we’re puzzled and it’s very sad.” So, if the family is of white origin, why would Rachel act black? Larry provided an answer in the same interview. According to him, “She has over the past 20 years assimilated herself into the African-American community through her various advocacy and social justice work, and so that may be part of the answer.” He added that Rachel has been incommunicado with her parents over the years and “doesn’t want us visible in the Spokane area in her circle because we’re Caucasian.”
Larry’s reasoning is buttressed by what Rachel has in her official biography at Eastern Washington University. Part of her biography reads that “Her passion for civil rights is influenced by her years in Mississippi, where she advocated for equal rights and participated in community development.”
Rachel defends herself
After her outing last week, Rachel defended herself in an interview where she said that “Actually, I don’t like the term African-American; I prefer black. So, if asked, I would say, yes, I consider myself to be black.” The NACCP also came out with this statement: “NAACP Spokane Washington Branch President Rachel Dolezal is enduring a legal issue with her family, and we respect her privacy in this matter. One’s racial identity is not a qualifying criteria or disqualifying standard for NAACP leadership. The NAACP Alaska-Oregon-Washington State Conference stands behind Ms. Dolezal’s advocacy record.”
It is somewhat ironic that as her claim to being black was igniting controversy, the fate of Mr. Bruce Jenna, now Ms. Caitlyn Jenna, was garnering applause all over. Sixty-five years old Bruce is an Olympic decathlon champion and an American sports icon and more recently a television personality. This June, she showed up on the cover of Vanity Fair magazine as a woman with the name Caitlyn, having undergone a sex change. No one is crucifying her for her transgender status even in the knowledge that for several years he had masked her real personality as a man acting woman.
Rachel is not alone in this cobweb of racial inanity. When Obama declared his intention to run for the U.S. presidency in 2007, some people in the African American community dismissed him as acting white and not black enough to represent them. Ariana Miyamoto is a bi-racial lady (black father and Japanese mother) who won the Miss Japan pageant. She is being scurried in the Japanese press as a hafu (half) Japanese. In some countries, people like her are derided as point five as in decimal calculations. Remember apartheid South Africa? Then, people were classified as white, coloured or black.
Two issues are clear: Rachel is Caucasian by birth and has patently lied about it for several years; she is passionate about her civil rights activities. Question is: what is more important, her commitment to championing the civil liberties of coloured people in the United States or the fact of her faked racial background?
I agree with NAACP’s support for her work. Her university’s president, Mary Cullinan, has also come out in Rachel’s support. Is it a criminal act for Rachel to commit herself to uplifting the downtrodden, her own racial background notwithstanding? If by claiming to be black she has in any way exploited the situation for private gains, then that is another matter. But, if all she has done is to advocate for respect for the rights of all people, what is the big deal about her race?
I came across this article by Sean Davis (June 12, 2015) with the interesting caption: If Rachel Dolezal Isn’t Black, How Is Caitlyn Jenner A Woman? In other words, what is all the fuss about? The brouhaha about Rachel sounds so much like Macbeth’s (Shakespeare) soliloquy about a “tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”