Avoiding the Dolezal story

Sam Smith – Until I realized it would be a major topic for my weekly guest appearance on the Mark Thompson show, I had been trying to avoid the Dolezal story for a number of reasons.

First, the more I read about Rachel Dolezal’s background, the more it seemed that we were dealing with a psychological rather than a political or media issue. And one of the hazards of our time is that the mass media swoops down on stories like this because they are not only strange but really easy to cover, unlike finding out, say, what TPP and NSA are truly up to. So you have one woman who heads one town branch of the NAACP becoming an international topic of analysis, criticism and controversy. For someone who has already demonstrated some serious problems in dealing with her life, such a media storm could be psychologically disastrous.

Consider, for example, the largely unreported story that her parents are avid creationists  and that her father once worked for Creation Ministries, run by Ken Ham who developed the Creation Museum. Most of us haven’t been raised in that sort of environment and it may make it a little more understandable that Rachel claimed to have been raised in a teepee in Montana and that her family hunted food with bows and arrows.

Or consider this photo at her wedding to her ex-husband with her parents, grandparents and adopted siblings. How does a daughter of a creationist discuss this family? In short, things were a bit more complicated in her life than it was for most and while she may have fouled up the story badly, this does not justify national excoriation.

Rachel Dolezal's wedding photo as a white woman marrying a black man.

The second problem is that we are meant to be moving towards a non-racist society yet this is somewhat difficult to do if everyone becomes obsessed with judging the ethnic identity of one person they never even heard a month ago.

Further, we still haven’t generally accepted the fact that race is, in fact, a racist term. I found it sadly fascinating that so much media attention was given to Rachel’s skin color, a standard that has been used throughout history to judge and misjudge others. In fact, DNA has revealed less difference between the average “white” and “black” than between the variety of those around the globe we have learned to identify as “black.”

Which is why I try to use the term “ethnic” rather than “race” wherever possible, as the former is a cultural rather than a biological description.

We won’t find the happy multicultural society we say we want if we spend too much time defining everyone’s cultural identity. Remember that as recently 1924 in Virginia, if you had “one drop” of black “blood” you were black. If Alexander Hamilton, J Edgar Hoover, Saint Augustine, Jackie Kennedy or Humphrey Bogart had been in Virginia then, they would have been legally “black.”

Part of the secret of working multicultural society is describing it but not over defining it. Oddly, the south has a model for this.While some like to obsess over family relations – i.e. second cousins once removed – one southern tradition is to describe such a person simply as “kin.”

Perhaps if the rest of America wasn’t so obsessed with precise ethnic identity, Rachel Dolezal might have learned to describe herself as white with a number of black kin. And we would never have heard of her.


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