Rachel Dolezal went on the Today Show last week to talk about the controversy surrounding her apparent deception regarding her race. In the interview she spoke of how she identifies as black, regardless of her Caucasian biology.
I cannot stop consuming information about the Dolezal controversy. I am a white mother to black children, and I am trying to sort through my thoughts and feelings on this story. There seems to be a lot of complexity in the situation, but after watching the Today Show interview, I do have three main issues with Dolezal’s comments.
In the interview, Dolezal said that “it’s a little more complex than … answering a question of, are you black or white?” She spoke of how she “identified” as black from a young age, using a brown crayon instead of a peach crayon to draw self-portraits. The issue here is that while Dolezal may love the black culture, she does not own a black experience. She grew up with black siblings and, no doubt, loves them deeply, but she has not walked in their shoes. I love my children with everything I am, and loving them opens my eyes to their experience, and I appreciate that I am afforded the opportunity to get a glimpse into it, but I cannot claim that experience as my own.
When asked about her change in appearance over the years, Dolezal said her change was more than just “mockery blackface,” and that she “had to go there with the experience.” She also cited getting full custody of her adopted brother as a reason for the change, “He said, ‘You’re my real mom.’ And he’s in high school, and for that to be something that is plausible, I certainly can’t be seen as white and be Izaiah’s mom,”
Here, it seems that she is saying that she cannot possibly be her son’s “real” mother if she is white and he is black, an idea which adoptive parents fight against constantly.
Transracial adoptee Angela Tucker responded to this statement in her interview with Anderson Cooper saying, “It’s hurtful because certainly my parents are white, and they raised me, and raised me well. I am an African American woman and I don’t have any qualms about that. I know … other transracial adoptive parents who have brought the culture of their child into their home in many ways and diversified their friends so that the child sees mirrors of their identity in other people, while not choosing to become that race. I think that would be really confusing … and would feel completely disingenuous and deceitful.”
This response perfectly sums up many adoptive families’ feelings on the subject. Racial identity is important, and we do strive to bring that into our families, for our children and ourselves, but a differing racial identity doesn’t make a parent “real” or fake.
The word “transracial” has been used in these conversations and interviews frequently. Dolezal is described, by herself and by others, as a transracial women; however, as Cooper points out, this term is actually used to describe adoptive families where the parents are from a different ethnic background than their child.
Tucker explains why it is difficult for her to see the term misused for someone “trying to pass” as black, “There’s so much integrity in [the term] and it unites so many of us transracial adoptees who’ve grown up in communities that look different than our physical bodies.”
Transracial adoptees are children of one culture raised in another. Transracial parents are those who love and live for children who do not look like them, in the same way they would or do love children who share their DNA. Transracial families are made up of people whose love and bonds celebrate and transcend race, not ignore or suppress it.
This controversy comes at an interesting time, when Americans are forced to face racial issues some would prefer not to think about. My fear is that these ideas from Dolezal will move us back at a time when we desperately need to move forward. We should not look to a white person to hear about the black experience, we need to value the authentic stories of our African American brothers and sisters. We should not belittle families who are made of diversity, we need to value and affirm each other’s experiences.
I’d like to think that Dolezal had pure motives in her actions, considering her work for racial equality, but the tone of her comments doesn’t feel encouraging. Pretending to be black is not the best course of action for white individuals who desire to support and uplift the black community. Maybe we’re not always sure what to do, but I know we can start by asking the question.