Saturday, June 13, 2015

On "Passing"

By now most everyone has heard of Rachel Dolezal, the president of the Spokane Chapter of the NAACP who was "outed" by her parents as being white and not of mixed race, as she had apparently claimed from college and beyond, well into her adult life.  While Ms. Dolezal is being skewered by media outlets everywhere, I actually have a lot of sympathy for her.  Because in our family, you see, we also have a Rachel Dolezal.

Without giving away too much personal information, I will tell you that our own "Rachel" is a great-grandmother, no longer alive, and were she still alive she'd be an in-law of mine, rather than a blood relative.  Our experience goes something like this:  When Big Ag and I decided to get our DNA tested, one of his biggest questions was how much Native American he had in his ancestry, since he had a great-grandmother who was, he was always told, a "full-blooded Apache."  Curious about our backgrounds, we took two separate DNA tests from two different companies.  Bottom line, we are both Euro-mutts, with a lot of English, French and German in our ancestry, but in a HUGE surprise, Big Ag had absolutely NO Native American DNA.  Not one drop.  How could this be? How had this Apache legend crept into his family history?

The answer to that question is that it came from one woman, back in his family history,  raised in an abusive, cultic home, forced to marry against her will at age 12, who divorced and at some point decided she enjoyed hanging out with her Indian friends in town more than her own people. Who could blame her? Blessed with black hair and dark eyes, she began wearing long braids and moccasins.  She eventually remarried, moved, and told everyone she was a Native American who was given to an adoptive white couple at birth as a trade by some traveling Apaches -- a baby the Apaches didn't want for a saddle blanket and some other gear they did.  If it sounds like it was a plot from a John Wayne movie, it should -- it was, in fact a story made up by a woman who needed to get away from who she was and become someone new. Who among us hasn't ever wished for a change in identity and a new start? If you haven't, you've had a blessed (and rare) positive, happy life.

Many, many of us try and "pass" for things we can't entirely lay claim to.  I consider myself ethnically Jewish, but in biological reality have probably less than 50 percent of my ancestry that can be traced directly back to Jews. Many black and mixed-race people pass for white, Mexicans can sometimes pass for Italians or Asians, and in Hawaii if you are Japanese or Chinese you can often pass for a local Hawaiian (if you know enough of the dialect), which has its advantages among the locals. Not everyone in line for communion at church belongs to that denomination, and not all northern Europeans can claim Scottish descent, but certainly make a gallant effort to at local Celtic festivals or Highland Games. And, heaven knows for a long time gay people attempted to look straight in an effort to blend in and stay safe. Everyone has their reasons.

My point is that Rachel Dolezal is not someone we should be skewering. If anyone deserves that, it's her parents, for "outing" her in such a public and humiliating manner. As for her actual ancestry, it's honestly none of my business -- it's between her and her DNA test. If she accepted scholarship money or something else dishonestly, then that is a matter for the courts. But if that's not the case, then I wish her well, and I hope the culture and people she has embraced as her own do not turn her out, because she clearly needs them, and needs the cultural identity she's forged. 

And let's face it, it takes a lot of courage to go out and declare yourself part of a minority that's often the subject of harassment and prejudice. Like Big Ag's ancestral grandmother, sometimes it is easier to become someone else than to be with the people who claim you as their own. I respect that.

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