The Blog

Walk in My Shoes But don't Commandeer My Struggles

Rachel Dolezal, a public figure who prompted a major global debate on racial heritage, has re-emerged in the media hemisphere. Ms. Dolezal's interview with The Guardian this weekend on why she still believes she is a Black woman, despite being born white biologically, was at times quite touching and yet still troublingly misguided.

Initially, I was not impressed with the revelation of her true background. This year, Ms. Dolezal's parents publicly confessed that she was not an African-American woman but a white woman 'passing' as a black; thus discrediting her position as a N.A.A.C.P leader and prominent civil rights activist in Washington State. The backlash immediately followed.

It's sad that a legacy of civil and social good initiated by Ms. Dolezal for the African-American community became over-shadowed by her personal life. However, when that life is based on a fabrication or 'hidden truth', you will feel the wrath of the community you purport to service.

With that being said, you have to have a heart of stone not to feel some level of sympathy for the fallout Ms. Dolezal has endured since her "racial outing". A former lecturer of Africana Studies at Eastern Washington University and head of the Spokane chapter of the N.A.A.C.P, she is now unemployed and feeding her family using government benefits. Such is the impact of society's refusal to forgive this case of 'ethnic deception'.

After reading her interview, I decided to ask myself the very same question I wanted to pose to her. Is it possible for a person to relate to the experiences of another race - to the extent that they consider themselves part of that lineage?

A study by Behrman and Davey 14 years ago discovered that people had much more experience distinguishing and identifying faces from the their own racial group than cross-cultures. This is known as the Cross-Race Effect.

Now it would seem that people are able to identify and relate to another race by spending significant time in their company and being exposed to their daily social struggles.

Let's review the case of Buffalo Child Long Lance, an advocate for Native-American rights in the 1920s who spoke of his pride being the son of a chief from the Blackfoot tribe. After he served in the army, he spent time on Canadian Plans to follow the ways of his ancestors; regularly criticizing the government for its treatment of Indian tribes and the ongoing "cultural castration" of the younger generation through restrictions on education and ritual traditions. Then the truth came out. Buffalo Child Long was in fact Sylvester Long, an African-American male from Winston-Salem, North Carolina whose father was a janitor. Sylvester had adopted the culture of another race and used his self-imposed exile to become a voice for a different ethnic group.

Are Rachel and Sylvester not cut from the same cloth?

I would agree that they are both bound by honorable motivations. Ms. Dolezal's work to improve rights for African-Americans cannot be denied and Native-Americans and African-Americans do share a paralleled history of oppression and enslavement; so there is an argument for transferable empathy in Sylvester's case.

The difficulty is to make a case for a Caucasian woman who believes she truly identifies with the black experience of today.

Without sugar coating the reality; it's being tired of the constant violence and racial injustice towards the African-American community, leading Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi to found Black Lives Matter. It's getting arrested for a minor traffic violation and then being found lifeless in a jail cell three days later in the case of Sandra Bland. It's being told your looks are not good enough society and then being vilified by media personalities when you speak out, in the case of Amandla Stenberg. It's being told your net worth as a single Black woman is $100 according to a recent analysis of data from the Federal Survey of Consumer Finances.

Racial identification maybe interchangeable. But woes? Not so much. An imitation of life is not the same, or exhausting, as living the experience in the skin you were born with.