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Rachel Dolezal, My Mother and Raising a Child of Color

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I have often thought that my story could only exist in America. I have a German Catholic birth mother, a birth father who is the descendent of African slaves, and I was raised by Jews with Eastern European ancestry. As a person of color, a biracial woman, and a transracial adoptee, it is a particularly painful and confusing time to be black in America. And so I need to talk about it.

But, of course, we all do. Recent events continue to illustrate that race remains a complex personal issue in this country and that it continues to be a source of violence and division in society. Charleston renders us utterly speechless in the face of such senseless tragedy. Or angry. Or both. Although completely warranted, neither emotion gets us further ahead in addressing how to constructively move forward in dealing with race in America. Surprisingly, Rachel Dolezal’s farce may actually be helpful in this regard. Even though each revelation was more comical and absurd than the next, talking about race is a good thing.

And she gave us plenty to talk about. At one point in her Today Show interview, Dolezal attempted to explain away her masquerade by stating that to “plausibly” be the mother of her black adopted son, she could not “be seen as white.” I was impressed that she could say this with a straight face, given there are a great many white mothers raising children of color. I found it particularly egregious given that one of those white women, who was quite successful at it, happens to be my own mother.

That being said, Rachel Dolezal may have actually had good intentions. Perhaps she was so affected by the experience of having siblings, and later children, of color, that she found the rigid structures of established racial definitions wholly inadequate to contain her identity or allow her to express how she saw herself. This is actually a common experience. Adoption scholar describes a situation where a person of one race can become so immersed in social networks populated by racial “others,” that they develop a more sophisticated appreciation for difference and a deeper understanding of the role of race and discrimination.

This is a good thing. But a “deeper understanding” is much, much different than lying. No matter how well-intentioned, pretending to be somebody you are not is hard to justify. In supporting my experience as a woman of color, my two white parents and white sister would not presume to know what my experience is, even though they’ve lived it along side me.  

Identities within families intersect along various lines, not just race. This is illustrated by the many non-Jewish women raising Jewish children, or straight parents raising gay children, or able-bodied parents raising children with disabilities, and vice versa. Identity is complicated for everyone. Everyone has a stake in the game.

Given the history of the Jewish community, we should be ahead of the curve in talking about race. Jews have always been a racially diverse people, and with demographic trends like adoption, intermarriage and conversion, we are increasingly so. Jews are also very familiar with navigating intersectional identity. As an historically persecuted minority, identity shape-shifting has been the key to Jewish survival over the millennia. At the same time we erected boundaries and confronted the question of how to define ourselves as a coherent group.

In the end, it’s important to feel good about who you are. That is the key to understanding others. The most glaring issue in the Rachel Dolezal story is her dishonesty and secrecy. But when you really think about it, it’s not that surprising given this country’s general reluctance to honestly confront our racialized past and present. And there are constant reminders of this, from the seemingly trivial, like Ben Affleck’s request to omit slave-owning ancestors from an episode of the PBS genealogy show “Finding Your Roots,” to the devastating deaths of so many young black men and women, such as Rekia Boyd, Michael Brown and Freddie Gray.

As the law scholar and thinker john a. powell writes, “There is a need for an alternative vision, a beloved community where being connected to the other is seen as the foundation of a healthy self, not its destruction, and where the racial other is seen not as the infinite other, but rather as the other that is always and already a part of us.”  At what time did Rachel Dolezal’s story diverge from this optimistic vision and become destructive? To engage others in the conversation, we need to give everybody more opportunities to be honest about these questions and have the courage to engage in the often times messy and uncomfortable truths.

Lindsey Newman is the Project Coordinator at Be’chol Lashon, an organization that advocates for racial diversity and inclusiveness in the Jewish community.

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