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Black like her

 Rachel Dolezal at The Today Show. Photo credit to  The New York Times .

Rachel Dolezal at The Today Show. Photo credit to The New York Times.

There’s more than meets the eye in the Rachel Dolezal story – no pun intended.

Dolezal resigned from her job as president of the Spokane, Wash. chapter of the NAACP upon the discovery that she is actually a white woman who passed herself off as black.

Dolezal – who was married to a black man, had a child with him and has four adopted black siblings, one of whom is under her legal guardianship – says she identifies as black.

Which is not the same as saying she has been truthful with others.  Indeed it is perfectly reasonable to hold that Dolezal is being truthful to herself but deceptive to others, for at the heart of this complex story is the nature of identity itself. Is identity a subject, individual experience to be judged from the inside looking out, or is it an objective, social experience to be judged from the outside looking in? Or is it both?

If race is not genetic – and apparently it is not biological but a social construct – then does it matter how a person identifies himself? Why is this different from Caitlyn Jenner or any transgendered person? What if Rachel Dolezal were an actual black woman posing as a white one? And what role if any did her troubled relationship with her parents, who adopted four black children when she was a teenager, play in her identification with blackness? Is it possible that she learned from this experience that blackness equals good and whiteness equals bad?

And should it come as a surprise to anyone that Dolezal identifies as bisexual as well? She seems to be a woman caught between two worlds, and, as Quinn Novak – the gay, biracial quarterback of my upcoming novel “The Penalty for Holding” – observes, when you belong to two worlds you sometimes wind up belonging to neither.

Race has had a long, tortured, tortuous journey in this country. Black people have borne the brunt of racism. They were forced here, tortured and terrified into submission and then freed only to encounter obstacle after obstacle. The native peoples were herded onto reservations, where poverty and alcoholism are chronic. Asian peoples, too, have met with prejudice. Ethnic whites have known hardships as well. But there’s no question that to be white is still to be privileged in this world.

And that, critics say, is what makes Dolezal’s identifying as black intolerable – because she hasn’t lived the historic prejudices that are heir to race and racism.  

Critics also state that she should’ve been upfront like Caitlyn Jenner. But didn’t Jenner hide her true gender identity for years?

The question remains: Who owns an identity? What about actors who cross racial, ethnic and gender boundaries? What about writers such as myself, a straight woman, who create characters that are the opposite of their own experience – gay men? Should artists stay within their own realms of experience?

I like to say that my characters and I meet on the bridge of the imagination.

In Dolezal’s case, that may be a bridge too far.