I am a huge Armistead Maupin fan and have read his “Tales of the City” series—set in 1970s San Francisco—numerous times. I enjoy his humor, quirky sensibility, and deep love of a city I also adore. But there is one part of the series that I always found decidedly over-the-top—just too farfetched to suspend my disbelief; a white character pretends to be black to further her modeling career. But then along came Rachel Dolezal. Turns out, where people are concerned, nothing is too bizarre.
Dolezal, the Montana-raised woman accused by her biological Caucasian parents of lying about her race, has resigned her position as chapter president of the NAACP in Spokane, WA, but continues to “identify as black.”
Despite her recent interviews, so many questions persist: Why would someone very publicly appropriate another’s culture and experiences? How could someone so passionate about issues of equality and justice not see the offensiveness of a white person donning black face? How did she imagine that the truth of her heritage would not eventually come out?
And why are we still so obsessed with the concept of race when it is not based in science but instead is a social construct?
If the social construction argument has been difficult to wrap your head around, take the case of twin sisters Lucy and Maria Aylmer from Gloucester, England. You can see pictures of these lovely 18-year-olds and their family on the web. They were born from the same mother, on the same day. But, Lucy explains, “No one ever believes we are twins because I am white and Maria is black.” Their father has white skin; their part-Jamaican mother has dark skin. They have the same genetic makeup, and yet we perceive racial differences when we should only see a difference in skin color.
When I lived in Casper, WY I had my race questioned constantly. Despite dark hair, dark eyes and olive skin, no one in the Northeast has ever asked me about my race. I suppose I never stood out. But when I lived among a sea of pale-skinned, blonde folks, and developed a deep tan from Wyoming’s scorching sun, I apparently became exotic. People often asked, “What are you? Mexican? Native American?” Or: “You’re not from here, are you? Are you from Italy?”
The strangest incident of all occurred when I worked as a substitute teacher for a week in the same school. About the middle of the week, a teacher approached me in the hall and said, “We’ve been discussing you in the teacher’s room.” (It is always a great introduction when you learn you’ve been the topic of conversation!) She continued, “And we’re trying to figure out something. Are you from that Iranian family that lives down the street? You look just like them, but your English is better.” I do not recall my response.
We are innately curious.. We search for human connection. This is decidedly a good thing. But there is also sometimes that disturbing undertone: I need to know your race (or heritage) so I know how to make sense of you and how to interact with you.
Being asked repeatedly about my race and cultural heritage for a year did not give me the experience of what it feels like to like to be a person of color in America. It did, however, make me much more conscious of the extent to which we fixate on race and skin color. And it gave me moments of insight into the ease with which we paint individuals as “the other”.
The church shooting this week in Charleston, reminds us again that this “othering” has deadly consequences.