For a period of time, when I was a little girl, my mother’s family friend Don Giscombe and his wife Lynn, moved to Calgary to live. As they moved to an apartment block very close to the shopping centre we frequented every Saturday, we would usually stop by their house for a visit. They would let my sister and I eat copious amounts of cookies whilst the adults had cups of tea. I loved going there because they were so friendly and jolly; like an extra set of grandparents. My mother knew Don through her aunt in Chesterfield and later when he was a lodger at their house in Newcastle Upon Tyne, England. Don was from Jamaica and as a young man had joined the RAF to fight for England in the war. After he was demobbed, he ended up in Chesterfield, having secured a job working in the mines. There was only one problem however, he couldn’t get permanent lodgings in the town as no one would rent to him. Do I have to say why that was the case in 1950’s England? Fortunately, my Great Uncle Bob came home one day and told my Great Aunt Peggy about Don’ predicament. Aunty Peggy told her husband to bring him home the next day and that was that – sort of…The villagers were surprised that my Aunt let a black man live in her home. They twittered on about it, some even asking her if he turned her sheets black. Needless to say, Aunty Peggy didn’t care what they had to say, she was her own person (I could write a book about how amazing she was) and recognized Don Giscombe as one of God’s Children just like herself. Her attitude informed her family and extended family, so much so that later when Don needed a place to stay in Newcastle my Grandmother had him lodge with them. Fast forward many years later and I was eating cookies with him and his wife in Canada, not really understanding all that these two people must have endured, witnessed and overcome to finally reach a place where race was not that much of an issue at least certainly not in my generation.
Growing up in Canada, I was surrounding by people of all races, religions and cultures. It was an amazing opportunity to feel part of the wider world and see that although we come from very different places we are all part of the human race. I learnt that all people were equal and this has colored how I have lived my life. I understand that there is racism in the world. I understand that there is something that has recently been termed ‘white privilege’. I realise that institutions such as Banks carry out racial profiling on their customers which in turn informs the services they will offer certain populations. I realise that I will have a different experience going through airport security than say, my husband who is a Muslim man. In short I get it, but I do not chose on a daily basis to see what differentiates us so I am often shocked by what is construed as a racial matter as opposed to a human matter. This perspective is perfectly illustrated in relation to the Rachel Dolezal case that exploded all over social media yesterday. Whereas everyone saw race, I saw mental health. If you have no idea who Rachel Dolezal is and what her story is, then let me let me fill you in.
Rachel Dolezel is Spokane, Washington’s NAACP (National Association for Advancement of Coloured People) Chapter President and a part-time professor of Africana Studies at Eastern Washington University. Additionally, she is also the Chairwoman of the Office of Police Ombudsman Commission. She is also a white woman pretending to be a black women. Ms. Dolezal since 2007 according to her parents, has effectively been living as a person of color, by altering her appearance, behavior and personal history. One could argue that she was not trying to mislead anyone by her choices in hair, makeup and clothing, but she has stated repeatedly that she is of mixed heritage a claim refuted by her parents who say that they are of European descent with a little Native American thrown in. It is her parents who in responding to questions from local media who started this firestorm. As of my writing this, there have been almost a hundred and sixty thousand tweets on #RachelDolezal most of them about the indignity of a white woman pretending to be a black woman. Most of the tweets are comments on race, but I hold that this situation is not about race whatsoever, rather it is about mental illness.
Let’s look at the facts. Firstly, Ms. Dolezal does not speak to her parents. She totally denies her family and in fact has stated that her biological father is actually her step-father. She has also stated that he was violent towards the family. A claim that her parents and at least one of her adopted brother’s rejects as fantasy. Ms. Dolezal does speak to one member of her family: her adopted brother for whom she was made a guardian when he was 16. Her adopted brother is black by the way and she calls him her son. She also calls a black gentleman who she and her son are pictured with on Facebook, her father. Now I get the honorary terms of son and father. I live in Turkey where my daughter has dozens of teyzeler and amcalar (Aunts and Uncles) just like I did as a kid. However Ms. Dolezal’s usage of these terms appears to have been to further her identification as a black woman and thus further her deceit. Why would someone totally reject their family? Why would someone pretend so wholly to be something that they are not? There must be a reason.
I would suggest that this woman’s childhood was not altogether happy and at a young age she chose to strongly identify and then appropriate black culture as an escape from her circumstance to the extent that she became black. I would say that she revolutionised herself because she has a deep seated pain that she is trying to mask and her ‘deceit’ is actually a coping mechanism. Her coping mechanism has become so entrenched in her that she is now an entirely different person. She started her life as a white person and has ended up living it as a black person. To others she looks black. Her professional and academic roles appear like the choices of a black person. The absence of her birth family also compounds the image but she has gone further because in the past she has made fantastical claims that her parents have now refuted.
To various publications, Ms. Dolezal has stated that she was born in a tepee, that as a child she had to use a bow and arrow to hunt for food, and that she once lived in South Africa. Interestingly, her parents did once live in a tepee and they were missionaries in South Africa. Also interesting is her refuted claim that her father was violent combined with the fact that she divorced her ex-husband because he was violent. Notice a trend here? For Rachel Dolezal the truth seems to be subject to a fantastical dressing up. This dressing up seems to serve to prop up her life as a person of colour. She has further tried to prop up her identity by reporting to the police, various hate crimes of a racial motivated nature against herself. The police have investigated these claims and some reports have suggested that they were growing suspicious of Ms. Dolezal’s claims which perhaps led local reporters to her parents door. So how desperate would a person have to be to lie repeatedly in some cases to authorities, in order to convince herself of an alternative truth. Is that not delusional thinking and behaving? Is that not the behavior of someone totally mentally perturbed?
Rachel Dolezal is not a white woman pretending to be a black woman. She is a woman who wanted to rebirth herself from the old Rachel into a new one and just happened to create the new Rachel in a different race. Users of social media have tried to draw a link to the Caitlyn Jenner situation wherein a man completes gender transitioning to a woman and I get that, but transgenderism is hardly the same as, what, transracialism? There are not young people killing themselves because they feel that they were born in the wrong racial group? There are not four-year-old boys begging their parents to let them dress up in lederhosen and be called Hans. There are not teenagers on anti-depressants because they think they are a Chinese person trapped in a Latino family?
This situation is not about race, it is not about transgenderism, and it is not about a con artist trying to get a job in her field. It is about a very mentally disordered but highly intelligent person who by wanting to recreate her history and identity has appropriated that of another peoples and those peoples are not happy about it. Why? Because of the important roles that she managed to get via her deceit? Because a white person represented them publically? Because as a white person she can never truly know the struggles of a black person? I am a white person, but I have lived in a certain country which I will not name and I was subjected daily to racism. I used to walk down the street and people would stare at me, point at me, laugh at me and judge me to be stupid, inferior, and sub-human. So I cannot ever understand the struggles of an African American woman, but I can understand racism and how it renders you powerless, humiliated and depressed. In a way, I think that Rachel Dolezal also understands these feeling and it is this understanding that made her go into her field of study. It is why she pursued the roles she landed and executed. It is why she wanted to achieve a transformation so great that she shed her old white skin and donned her new black one. Sadly, the people with whom she must have felt most identified have now rejected her. The black community’s reaction to her outing by her parents has been largely negative. Encouragingly, however her own employer, the NAACP has released a statement supporting her and dismissing the furore as an issue between her and her family. The NAACP seems to see things like I see things: that the final analysis of this situation has nothing to do with a young woman’s skin colour and everything to do with a young woman’s disordered mind. I hope that with her employer’s support Rachel Dolezal can get the help she needs to truly transform into the person she really was born to be…