I am Puerto Rican. At least that is the standing joke I share with close friends and family. The truth is I am black. I lived off of Graham Avenue, (Avenue of Puerto Rico) in Brooklyn and was immersed in Hispanic culture at a young age. My mouth waters at the taste of arroz con pollo y habichuelas. I love to salsa and Danza Kudoro is on repeat on my playlist. My pronunciation of certain Spanish terms and phrases is near perfection and my brother’s nickname is Cardo,short for “Ricardo.” Richard claims to be Dominican. But of course he’s not. The truth is we are, I am, unequivocally, unabashedly, 100% black. Unlike Rachel Dolezal, the tanned white woman, who sports cornrows, is a vocal participant in the Black Lives Matter movement, head honcho of the NAACP chapter in Spokane, Washington and professor of Africana Studies at Eastern Washington University.
There is a distinct difference with identifying with a certain race, culture or ethnicity and pretending you are of that race, culture or ethnicity. In Dolezal’s guise to be “black” she weaved a web of lies that included being a victim of hate crimes and racial discrimination, mother of her black adopted brother, an expert on black hair in public lectures, and abused by her white parents in Montana.
Her passion and commitment to advocate for injustices suffered by people of color is a noble cause. But her contributions are overshadowed by her duplicity. As her mother Ruthanne Dolezal told the Spokesman-Review, “Her effectiveness in the causes of the African-American community would have been so much more viable, and she would have been more effective if she had just been honest with everybody.”
From the Kat’s eye, this is a newfangled example of white privilege, a term used to express the social, economic and political advantages a white person has over a non-white person. She grew up seemingly happy in a two parent home in Montana with devout Christian parents who adopted 4 black children into their picturesque family. All of her earlier photographs depict a smiling, blonde, freckle faced white complexioned child. Can we assume that she was afforded opportunities not easily accessible to people of color as she grew up? Quite likely. But it would seem that at some point to promote her social justice cause it was more advantageous to be black than white. So, she transforms herself into a stereotypical light-skinned African American woman with kinky hair and starts marching on the frontlines for all things black.
How was it so easy for others to fall prey to this façade? As a professor of Africana Studies, I am sure she is all too familiar with the dark-skinned vs light-skinned epidemic within the black community. There is an inherent disbelief that black people with lighter hues are more beautiful and have greater success because they can navigate easier among white society. In essence, they are less of a threat because they aren’t considered black enough. Dolezal embraced that unspoken narrative becoming the leading face of Spokane’s NAACP who states that “… racial identity is not a qualifying criteria or disqualifying standard for NAACP leadership.” In other words, she is getting a pass to mock and diminish the black experience because of her own identity crisis. Old scars become fresh wounds bleeding factions among the black community who are arguing over whether or not her decision to be “black” is right or wrong. The bottom line will be how much persecution will she suffer as a white woman pretending to black compared to a black woman pretending to be white?
What happened to integrity and strong moral character? Is the black community so lacking in leadership that it will settle for a pseudo-black woman of European descent as its spokeperson? If so, let us be reminded of words from a known great emancipator President Abraham Lincoln, “Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character give him power.” When confronted with her true identity, Rachel Dolezal feigned ignorance and fled the scene of her ethical crimes. I prefer a leader who does not wait days to confront issues that adversely impact the black community but instead confronts them head on with courage.
Generally, when I hear or observe situations in which I think black people behaved inappropriately, unintelligibly or irresponsibly, I jest, “I’m so glad, I’m Puerto Rican.” Yet, there is no valor in assuming the identity of another to avoid shame, embarrassment or difficulty within your own race or ethnicity. There is honor in accepting the diversity of others, appreciating those differences, supporting their struggles, and championing their causes. The reality is you don’t have to compromise, reject or deny who you are in order to do so. This is the American way and it transcends race, religion, gender and political affiliation.
I have overcome my identity crisis, I hope Rachel Dolezal does too.