Is My Black Beautiful? How Rachel Dolezal Started a National Conversation on Mixed-Race Issues

Offended. 

Appalled. 

Hurt.

I’m not talking about how I felt upon reading article after article regarding Rachel Dolezal, the former president of the Spokane, WA chapter of the NAACP, although yes, I was shocked and personally offended by her actions.

No, what I’m referring to is the response to her “scandal,” which says more about what America–and quite possibly the world–thinks about racial identity and mixed-race peoples.

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COLIN MULVANY / AP

Dolezal pretended for decades to be a mixed-race woman, telling stories of personal, race-related struggles and advocating for minorities’ rights. In the time that she served as chapter president, she did a lot of good. It’s unfortunate that her good deeds will now forever stand secondary to the lies she told about her racial identity.

I believe there are three main elements to identity: what people categorize you as, how you identify yourself, and what you are genetically.

For some lucky people, these three things align perfectly, causing little to no internal struggle when it comes to the question, “What are you?” For others, these three things can be difficult to answer. They were, at least, for me.

As a mixed-race woman, people ask me all the time what I am. Sometimes I joke with them. Sometimes I’m short with them. It all depends on the day, to be honest. I strongly emphasize the second prong, how you identify yourself, as being the most strong of the three, because as an individual, it’s important we take ownership of our labels, crafting the right ones that we think best fit us instead of allowing the world to put us in a box we don’t want to be in.

But the third prong is something that can’t be ignored: what we are genetically. And most times, how we identify ourselves is rooted in our genetics, what our parents or grandparents are, and, most times, the cultures in which we were raised.

Ingrid and Albert Conerly

Ingrid and Albert Conerly, my parents.

I’m the daughter of a German woman and an African-American man. I identify as mixed or mixed-race. If you ask me, “What are you?” you’ll get a variation of that thought, with maybe a short explanation thrown in there just to make things extra clear. (“No, not like German ancestry. Like she’s European, like from Europe. Like she’s not from the U.S.”)

Rachel Dolezal, despite having an affinity to black culture and a heart for the black community, will never be black. She can advocate for us, something I think we need more of, but she can never be black.

Now some people say, “Michelle, she’s been treated as a black woman by society for decades. I think she’s lived the black woman’s experience, don’t you?”

No.

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Photo provided to media by Dolezal’s family.

Blackness is not a costume. I read somewhere that “Blackness is not just ‘skin or weave-deep’.” It’s much more than that. I had a really hard time coming to terms with being mixed-race to the point where I wanted to stop talking to my dad because he was the one that “made me black.” So when I see someone who pretends to be what I am and claims similarity to me and has no idea and can never actually understand me and what I went through–and still go through at times– it’s so hurtful.

Ultimately, she has a “get out of jail free card” if you will. At any point in time, she knows in the back of her head that if she wants to stop pretending to be a disenfranchised minority, she can just go back to being white, unlike actual minorities who she claims brother and sisterhood with who can’t just one day decide to be privileged again. If being mixed ever becomes too overwhelming for me, I can’t just become something else. I have to learn to deal with the struggles that can come with it, and that makes me a better person down the line.

Another well-worded explanation as to why she’ll never truly experience being black was written by Alicia Walters and published in The Guardian, which you can read here.

So in the aftermath of her “scandal” breaking, I read some very disturbing responses to her lies.

People from all sides of the color wheel said despite having lied and casted doubt on her word and character, Dolezal did good for the black community, therefore black people should just be thankful, get over it and move on.

She could have done good as an advocate too and could have continued to do good for the rest of her life had she not lied. Now when she says anything about racism, identity, colorism–heavy topics that need to be addressed in America–who is willing to take her seriously? This woman has the degrees and experience to prove she deserves a seat at the table to speak up about these and other issues surrounding race. But who will listen now?

Another response to the entire ordeal was the #askrachel hashtag on Twitter and Instagram. Josh and I sat for over an hour trying to answer questions such as, “How much sugar goes into Koolaid? #AskRachel.” Between the two of us, we’re as black as they come. And it was nice looking back on my childhood knowing many people had those shared experiences.

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But I also found one meme that wasn’t so funny, and the more I looked at it, the angrier I became.

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You see, colorism is a huge problem in the African-American community. Dark skins vs. light skins–ask anyone, and they’ll tell you how darker skinned peoples are treated as inferior to light skins in many different situations, not just ones regarding beauty standards.

But this meme reflected the opposite opinion. It called into question my blackness by trying to exclude me until “they” can prove I’m black enough to be in the club.

My mixed-raceness is being used a joke, something Dolezal couldn’t have expected, yet something she, as a white woman, will not have to deal with once the world moves on to the next “scandal.” As a mixed-race person, I’ll forever fight the colorism battle because somewhere along the line, someone decided that being light skinned or being mixed-race meant I only deserved a temporary membership, contingent upon me proving my blackness until the day I die. Because honestly, at any point, it seems that same “they” can strip me of my membership, and relabel me as “white” or “new black,” two terms meant to insult and demean African Americans who don’t fit an unwritten description of what it means to be “actually black.”

The good that came out of Dolezal’s lies? The fact that mixed-race issues were pushed to the forefront of America’s television screens and on page one of newspapers around the country. I’m just hoping now that the conversation has been started at a national level, we can continue it and move forward.

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One thought on “Is My Black Beautiful? How Rachel Dolezal Started a National Conversation on Mixed-Race Issues

  1. Thanks so much, Michelle. You write from the heart with a wonderful intellect. It delivers insight to someone like me who wants so much to understand, to be sensitive, to stay on course with what is right. I am fortunate to have three friends who I can ask about these issues, three very important friends, and you are one.

    I believe this young woman delivered so much to the black community, and could have delivered so much more simply by her belief in the rights of all people to be people: people who strive, people who struggle, people who achieve, people who fall between the cracks – people who happen to be black or mixed race, but who are exactly the same as any one else. As a white man I feel I have no right to talk about all of this. But, hold on, I love people, and I can’t reach out if I am going to be blocked because I am white – just as a person of mixed race is blocked and has to “prove membership in the club”, as you so clearly stated.

    You mention that Rachel Dolezal has become a national subject. She has been in the international headlines – big in Australia. I pray that what she has done can be somehow turned into a positive for all of us. I hope others respond and enter into your discussion, and I hope it is a fruitful discussion. I hope i can gain important insight and understanding – something I am not sure I have. If I have any, it is not enough.

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